‘Top Chef’ Host Kristen Kish Breaks Down Her First Season Finale

David Moir/Bravo
David Moir/Bravo

Last spring, when I spoke to Kristen Kish about a new travel show she was promoting, she let it slip that she had turned down an opportunity to compete on the 20th World All-Stars season of Top Chef. Less than four months later, Bravo announced she would be replacing Padma Lakshmi as host for Season 21.

So naturally, when I got Kish on the phone this week to talk about the cooking competition show’s season finale, I asked if the possibility of taking over hosting duties played into her decision not to compete.

“No, no, no, no!” Kish replies, laughing. “Completely, completely unrelated. I turned down All-Stars because I simply did not want to cook.”

And indeed, Kish got to do very little cooking and a whole lot of eating as host of this latest season, which wrapped up Wednesday night with a cruise ship-set finale that found—spoiler alert—Brooklyn-based chef Danny Garcia beating out Wisconsin native Dan Jacobs and North Carolina’s Savannah Miller to take home the big prize.

In our conversation below, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, Kish talks about what went into that “unanimous” decision, shares just how nervous she was to follow in Lakshmi’s footsteps and reveals that she was “totally fine” eating every dish that was served over the course of the season.

Let’s talk about the finale. Were you surprised by the final three chefs going into the finale?

Definitely not surprised. Nothing surprises me, because I go in with zero expectation on who will make it to the end. But all three of them had a story to tell. They all have personal stories. And on Top Chef, we get to dive real deep in a really, really quick way, and try to learn as much as we can about all the chefs. And to be able to watch it from a viewer standpoint of watching the show play, I was learning about everyone as we went along as well.

There were some moments throughout the season where Tom Colicchio in particular seemed a little frustrated that the chefs maybe weren’t living up to the standards that past seasons had set. Did you feel that at all? And do you think that these three chefs really did step it up the way that they needed to for the finale?

I don’t know. I’d kind of argue against the idea of holding them up to past contestants. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. I think every season there’s a moment where nerves or excitement, or something gets the better of you. And as a competitor, it takes a minute to click into this new alternate reality of cooking on television. It is new for so many of them. And who’s to say that any one season is better qualified or talented than any other season? I don’t find that to be true at all. I actually find it just to be different chefs, different skill sets, and different ways of settling into the competition.

With that in mind, for the most part it seems pretty close between these three chefs in the end. Can you give us a little bit of insight into what the final deliberation was like? Because I remember talking to Gail Simmons about discussions that went all night and into the next morning.

Obviously, this is my first time sitting on that side of the table being part of it, but I didn’t find it to be long or drawn out. We were all unanimously in agreement on our winner. I don’t remember having any major points of contention, or disagreements, or different points of views of who we thought was better or not. Ultimately, at the end of the day, Danny just out-cooked his competitors, and he did so in such a way that told a story and technique and balance and a true progression of a beautiful, beautiful meal. That’s not to say there aren’t high points and low points, we’re very honest. You know, Savannah’s pasta dish was technically flawed.

When we see you finally say the words, “You are Top Chef,’ we once again see you get a little choked up announcing Danny as the winner. And I was thinking about how Padma would sometimes get emotional towards the end of the season, but you looked to be on the verge of tears pretty early on. I think it was Episode 4 when you had to tell the two chefs to pack their knives and go in the double elimination. Can you talk about what was going through your head that time and in other instances where you really felt the emotion of the moment when you had to tell chefs their time was up?

I remember Episode 4 where I did get choked up. When you see someone else cry, it’s a human response, perhaps. I remember the Frank Lloyd Wright episode when Kaleena and Alisha were both eliminated, and Kaleena was already crying when she was standing up there, she was fighting the tears back. And that’s really hard, because I can feel where they’re coming from right. It’s like, dammit! I don’t know exactly what Kaleena was feeling, but certainly she was disappointed, hence, the tears. So when someone else cries, forget about it, I’m reduced to a puddle on the floor.

Towards the end, there are a lot of different emotions, because you know how hard all three chefs—Danny, Dan, and Savannah—worked all season long. There’s a level of empathy that I completely understand. You get this close, and you’re so happy for one of them to be the winner, but you can’t help but feel for the two other chefs that were so dang close too, that were also very well deserving of the title as well. So it’s high emotion from all different points of views, as a competitor, and also as being the one to have to deliver the news.

Top Chef. Pictured: (l-r) Justin Pichetrungsi, Emeril Lagasse, Kristen Kish, Daniel Jacobs, Savannah Miller, Danny Garcia, Tom Colicchio, Carrie Nahabedian.

Pictured: (l-r) Justin Pichetrungsi, Emeril Lagasse, Kristen Kish, Daniel Jacobs, Savannah Miller, Danny Garcia, Tom Colicchio, Carrie Nahabedian.

David Moir/Bravo

When it was first announced that Padma was stepping down, your name came up—including in an article that I wrote—as a sort of obvious successor. And at the time I was sort of thinking about more in terms of the TV experience you had and just being one of the the most successful contestants on the show. But watching the season, it really came into focus how much you were able to empathize with these chefs on all sides, because you had been told to “pack your knives and go,” then came back from Last Chance Kitchen. You really ran the gamut of experience as a contestant even just in that one season. Compared to the other hosts and judges who don’t have that experience, what has it been like for you to be on the other side? Do you feel more empathy towards the chefs? Or do you ever think, “I could have done that better?”

I mean, certainly not “I could do it better.” I never thought that, no way. I’m so out of practice, there’s no way I could ever do that better. I think by nature I’m a relatively empathetic human being, so there’s that part. Of course there’s a layer of having gone through it myself, and understanding what it feels like and what it will feel like after. It’s not just what happens during six-to-eight weeks on the show filming it. You think about the long game of what’s happening afterwards, how lives are going to change. And so with that, you don’t take decision making lightly, whatsoever. These are people’s lives. They are people’s real lives. And although it is viewed by millions for entertainment, once the camera stops rolling, everyone goes back to their life. And this opportunity will show itself to be really great for so many people afterwards. And so I think there’s a lot of good pressure when I think about this, where you actually think about what these people are going through and what they’re going to go through afterwards. And with that comes a lot of emotion and natural empathy that you can have for someone.

‘Top Chef’ Is ‘Always Changing’—But Never Like This

Yeah, I love that moment in the finale, at the very end where you say something like, welcome to the family, it’s a good place to be.’ Because it really does feel like if you make it far enough you become part of this world and you get invited back, and you are part of the Top Chef family—whether or not you win.

Yeah, just because you don’t win, or just because you do win, isn’t the major deciding factor in what the future is going to look like for you afterwards. It’s up to you how you want to use the opportunity and the visibility that you have gained.

Stepping back a little bit, I remember you talked about how anxious competing on the show made you, and that went into your decision not to do it again as a contestant. How did that manifest on the other side of things?

I would be lying if I said I did not feel anxious or nervous whatsoever to come into the role. I think that I think anybody stepping into that role would feel that. One because it means that you care. Two, people have got to understand that change is an interesting thing. It’s either embraced or not. Also, I understand the responsibility that I had to respect and also carry on a role and a path that Padma had built. Of course, I had to go in there and be me, and come with my own thoughts, my own opinions. But it doesn’t ever go away, certainly not on my first season, understanding that this is a longstanding, long-running, successful culinary television program across the board. And to want to help uphold that. There’s natural pressure that one puts on themselves. Over the first couple of episodes I started to let go of this idea that I had to be any one way, that I don’t have to be anybody else. I will be me, and what will come will come.

Kristen Kish on Facing Her Fears and Turning Down ‘Top Chef: World All-Stars’

One moment that felt very you was when you joked about unbuttoning your pants before sitting down for the finale meal.

Listen, if it were up to me I would have been in stretchy sweatpants for that finale meal. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be in some stretchy pants eating that much food?

I remember when Padma stepped down, one of the main reasons she cited was the amount of food that she had to eat every season was just getting to be too much for her. She didn’t want to do it anymore. How did you experience that volume of eating over so many episodes?

I didn’t find an issue with it. I don’t eat everything on the plate. You don’t have to eat everything on the plate.

Unless it’s really good and then we see you sopping it up with some bread.

Correct, right. [At the end of the finale meal], I was full, sure, but I wasn’t like, “Oh my god, that was too much for me.” I was totally fine.

Is there something that you feel like you learned or took away from this season that you would bring to the next one from the start, maybe that you didn’t know when you started?

I hope that my nerves will be slightly more at ease going into the second one. But I will say, even during filming I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t wait to do this again.” It is absolutely phenomenal. I get to live for two months eating food from talented chefs from across the country. And spend my days with Tom and Gail. But yes, I will go into this next season a little less nervous, because, of course, I got my feet wet, and I feel a little bit more familiar and comfortable with all of it now.

At the very end of the episode of the finale, we get one more sort of emotional moment from you, thanking everybody and just expressing how much this is meant to you. How are you feeling now that this first season is officially behind you?

First of all, I didn’t know that little thing that I was saying was being taped. I should always know, cameras are always rolling. I wanted to say something, it was my first season. That was a moment that I felt an immense amount of gratitude for the kindness and the open embrace. A lot of those chefs started signing on and applying for that season thinking that it was as it has always been. Naturally, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself, like, “God, I hope I don’t disappoint them.” I was just overwhelmed with the amount of support and gratitude, and like I said on the show, to have my first season with those chefs is the only first time that I will have, and that is really special.

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