As the hit cooking competition series Top Chef heads into its 21st season, the venerable show is finally serving up something new. Longtime host Padma Lakshmi has departed, and she will be replaced by season 10 winner and out-queer chef Kristen Kish.
Even outside of Top Chef, Kish is no stranger to reality television. She followed up her 2012 victory by co-hosting the Travel Channel series 36 Hours in 2015. Later in 2021, she hosted the drive-through-inspired competition series Fast Foodies on TruTV. Through these and other hosting gigs, she’s become a regular face in the celebrity chef milieu, but that’s not to say returning to the show where it all began will be easy.
For the Top Chef producers, putting Kish in the host’s seat was a no-brainer. For Kish, it was a complete surprise. “I was shocked,” she recalled in an interview with The New York Times. “I really wasn’t pushing for this because I never thought it was actually a possibility.”
In addition to shock, Kish has had to reconcile her mental health with the change. “I have severe social anxiety and I’m on television, which is wild,” she said. “I know I’m a walking contradiction.”
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“I know my job is to simply be me, but I feel like I am not going to be impressive enough to hold my own space and follow in Padma’s footsteps,” she added.
Lakshmi is among many Top Chef producers and alums who have supported Kish through the transition. “I hope I’ve been a sounding board for her over the last decade,” she said. “I’ve made it my mission to mentor young women like her because I didn’t have that coming up.”
But what Kish describes sounds like the all-too-common imposter syndrome, and it may have its origins in Kish’s background. She was abandoned as a baby outside a hospital in Seoul and was adopted by a family in Michigan. How exactly to own her heritage has been a source of pressure throughout her life. “I put it aside because I was scared that I was going to find out something that I didn’t want to find out about where I actually came from,” she recalled.
Kish has since made an effort to incorporate Korean-American influences into her cuisine. “I’m trying to own that side of me so it doesn’t feel like I’m appropriating a culture that doesn’t belong to me,” she said. “I clearly can have a point of view about Korean American food. There is a connection. I’m allowed to explore it. But for a long time, I felt guilty about it.”
Kish’s wife, therapist Bianca Dusic, plays a big role in keeping her grounded. When not filming episodes of Top Chef, the couple indulge in simple domestic pleasures—gardening and drinking tea. “This was never the plan,” Kish explained. “The plan would have been for me to just work in a little restaurant, making ends meet, doing my life and just keep trucking along.”
Season 21 of Top Chef is expected to air on Bravo and Peacock in 2024.