'Top Chef' judges dish on the Midwest, Chicago restaurants and much more

Tom, Kristen and Gail spill the tea on their Wisconsin adventures this season.

Jeffy Mai
Written by
Jeffy Mai
Editor, Time Out Chicago
tom colicchio, kristen kish and gail simmons
Photograph: David Moir/Bravo

The 21st season of Top Chef marked a return to the Midwest for Bravo's celebrated cooking competition. Taking place across Wisconsin, this season was the first in the region since the show filmed in Chicago over 15 years ago. Episode after episode, the cheftestants were tasked with a variety of Midwest-inspired challenges, including a dinner paying homage to Frank Lloyd Wright, a Door County fish boil and a cheese fest cook-off. As Top Chef prepares to crown a new winner, we spoke with host and judges Kristen Kish, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons about their experiences this season.

On returning to the Midwest for Top Chef:

Gail Simmons: “Chicago is its own thing, in a way, within the Midwest and I don’t think we covered the idea of the Midwest at all [in season four]. So going into Wisconsin really felt like we were covering and exploring the food culture of a part of the country we had never done before, and that felt great and new and different.”

On what they discovered about the Midwest:

Tom Colicchio: “Oh, people drive really fast here, that’s what I’ve noticed. I drive fast, and I’m getting passed by.”

GS: “Tavern-style pizza. When I think of pizza in the Midwest, I think Chicago deep dish, but this is the absolute opposite—cracker thin-style pizza that I came to really love. I discovered frozen custard. I mean, I’d had versions of it before but being in Wisconsin, we were able to go deep and eat frozen custard almost every day, for better or worse. And it’s pretty awesome.”

On the fervor of Wisconsin fans this season:

TC: “People have been respectful and they’re excited. Even if I’m going to the airport, they see you, ‘Oh, thanks for coming. I really appreciate it.’ So there was enthusiasm; it’s great because it’s much easier—we shot in London last year and it was no enthusiasm. And it was so hard to do everything.”

GS: “I remember Chicago, we were paparazzi’d everywhere we went and there were journalists following us and trying to decipher the contestants and figure out where we were shopping … we hadn’t had that in a while. But it felt like coming to Milwaukee, it was taken to a whole new level. There was apparently this huge Reddit thread of every restaurant that any of us were eating at. I don’t even know how they knew all this stuff. But it was unbelievable that we were all sort of like the biggest thing to hit Milwaukee in a long time and that was really nice, it was flattering.”

gail simmons, kristen kish and tom colicchio
Photograph: David Moir/Bravo

Kristen Kish on becoming the new host:

KK: “[It feels] fantastic. I mean, it’s been 10 years so it’s been far enough removed from me being a chef on the other side of the table. So it doesn’t feel as jarring to go from competitor to host because it has been a long period of time.”

On following Padma Lakshmi:

KK: “I don’t have to find my own space because my job is to simply be me, and to give my point of view and perspective. So I don’t need to be Padma—no one can replace her just as no one could replace Gail or Tom. Everyone is irreplaceable as their own human beings.”

On how Kish’s experience as a contestant helped her as a host:

KK: “I think I can come at it with a real sense of empathy. But then again, every person that comes to compete on Top Chef has a different experience. Not one person has the same experience as the chef competing against them. So as much as I can understand what they’re going through, I will never understand what they are going through.” 

On what Kish misses about living in Chicago:

KK: “All my awesome chef friends that have opened up restaurants that I have yet to go to. For me, my favorite restaurants in every city are the ones that my friends have worked really hard at creating, and those are the ones I think I’m most eager to go try because you want to go see what your friends are doing and you want to go support.”

kristen kish, tom colicchio and gail simmons
Photograph: David Moir/Bravo

On food highlights from a recent trip to Chicago:

GS: “I ate at Joe Flamm’s restaurant Rose Mary for the first time because it opened in the pandemic and I hadn’t been back to Chicago. Joe has become a really close friend since he was on the show and won his season … I just love him and his family so much and I was so frustrated that I hadn’t been able to eat there yet. So we did that.

“I got to eat at Damarr [Brown] and Erick Williams’ restaurant Virtue for the first time, which was also very meaningful to me because they are leaders in the industry who I admire so much. I’m so proud of Damarr for all of his accomplishments and damn, that was a good meal. Like, I knew it was going to be, but I was really blown away by how delicious it was.

“We also ate at Lula Cafe, which I think is one of the most perfect neighborhood restaurants in America. I think Jason Hammel’s amazing and it’s just one of those restaurants that has stood the test of time because it is so good and one of the best.

“And we ate at Kasama, which blew me away. I love [Genie Kwon and Tim Flores] so finally eating there was a total dream. We had so much fun and it exceeded my very high expectations.”

On what keeps Top Chef interesting:

GS: “It’s a big question. I think it starts with the fact that everyone making our show really loves making our show … and we are now a big family and we’re like this traveling circus that gets together for two months every year. 

“Every season is in a new place, and that’s by design because it allows us to tell a totally new story every season. We have a whole new batch of contestants every season. We raise the bar on them and we want stronger and stronger cooks. And I think we’ve just seen that the talent on the show is extraordinary. At the end of the day, our show is about them. It’s not about us or even the location as much as it’s about their stories.

“Finally, I think the special sauce of Top Chef is about the producers giving us the bandwidth to make changes every season to evolve the show as our industry evolves, and to have transparent conversations about what’s going on and reflect that through our show. Every year we go into it, we figure out what works best, how we can make it better, what didn’t work and how to change.”

On what still surprises after 20+ seasons:

GS: “You never see the same thing twice because not only are they different people who cook differently and come to the show with their own experiences, talents, beliefs and passions, but they are informed by the challenge we give them, which is so unique in itself. So every day we eat something totally new and try things we’ve never tried. Flavor combinations, ideas, ingredients—some work, some don't. But it's always new and I'm always learning. And yeah, they surprise me with their talents, their positivity, their ambition.”

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