Kristen Kish lifts the curtain on 'Top Chef' Season 21

More than a decade after she first appeared on Top Chef as a 28-year-old contestant, Kristen Kish returned to the Bravo reality show earlier this year as host for its 21st season.

Back in 2012, she was running a restaurant kitchen in Boston, Massachusetts when she was scouted for season 10. After showing off dishes such as her quick-fire almond sponge cake and semolina cat ears to the judges, the Korean-born chef emerged as the second female winner in the show's 18-year history.

Ten years, a cookbook and a Texas restaurant later, she's back—albeit in a different capacity. "As a host, I may not be able to cook, but I still talk about food the way I like to talk about food," said Kish, who recently partnered with Nutella Biscuits on the #BiscuitsnBesties campaign. “Whether it’s on the show or in a restaurant, I talk about the dishes and the show.”

As the Season 21 finale approaches, Kish experiences the cooking competition from every angle. Below, she explains what goes into making Top Chef , from the casting process to filming day schedules.

Top Chef Season 21. Bravo /NBCUniversal/Getty Images


Take a look back at Season 10 and tell me a little bit about what the casting process was like.

I didn’t really apply. The show producer asked my then boss if she knew the chef and she recommended my name without telling me. I never thought they would choose me. I watched the show and thought, "I can't do what they're doing." But I sent some videos, menu samples, and pictures of the food at their request. All of a sudden, I was offered one of those positions.

How are you preparing?

I have arranged my work, family, and home first. Did you know that if you're going to be gone for a while, you need to make sure someone has a key to your apartment? Otherwise, I wasn’t very prepared. I don't go back and watch every season, and already work in a 10-seat restaurant with a new menu every night and execute everything myself. I'm peeling my first potatoes and cleaning my last pots and pans. I think that prepared me a lot.

What does a typical day of shooting look like?

Start the day by removing everything from the TV, like wearing a microphone on your body. In [Season 10], the contestants all live in the same house, so we're taken wherever we need to go, whether it's food shopping or a top chef's kitchen.

The timer will start as soon as it starts on set during filming. There is no stopping. It was one of the most authentic processes I have ever experienced. The process fans see on TV is the same as filming - it just takes a lot longer in real life. It takes about a day and a half to two days to shoot an episode.

Kish as a season 10 contestant. Bravo/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

And as a host?

The experience is very different. I usually wake up two and a half hours before I go anywhere to meditate. I'm a very introvert so I need to recharge. From there, I go to the set, get my hair and makeup done, and start shooting. As a presenter, I have more alone time to film—the cameras aren’t following my every move.

Are contestants and judges interacting in ways that viewers can’t see?

You only interact with them when playing. This is not a personality contest, so if a contestant spends too much time with the judges during filming, it could cloud their judgment. Moments they only see on TV with competitors.

We were even separated by the producers backstage. If you try to walk down the aisle at the same time as a judge, you'll be moved somewhere else so you don't cross paths. This is all designed to ensure ultimate fairness.

What was the most challenging part of filming?

Not knowing what you're going to encounter in the race is the hardest part. If you're someone who likes to plan ahead, this can be very challenging, and that's by design. The actual cooking is no more than a normal chef's recipe. Most of the contestants have worked in restaurants, which is something we love to do.

What are the highlights of the filming process that fans don’t get to see?

So interesting. You get to know the staff and contestants well, and although it can be stressful at times, you realize what a special opportunity it is to be there - especially when it's your first time on the show because the filming aspect is all on-brand new. Everyone was laughing, smiling, or having a good time at some point.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity .