After 20 Seasons, ‘Top Chef’ Introduces a New Era: ‘There Was No Better Time to Do It’

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After 20 seasons, “Top Chef” has gone through some significant changes. Most notably, former champion Kristen Kish replaces longtime host Padma Lakshmi for Season 21, which also introduces its first major twist — at least since the introduction of redemption with “Last Chance Kitchen” — to the overall gameplay in two decades.

“It was a great opportunity for us to take a look at what we’ve done for the first two decades and start thinking about the next two decades,” Ryan Flynn, SVP of Current Production for NBCUniversal Entertainment and Streaming, told IndieWire. “With Padma moving on, it really felt like a great exclamation point” on that period of the franchise.

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With “Top Chef” Season 21, which sees Kish join returning judges Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons for the installment set in Wisconsin, there was an opportunity to “sort of shake the rhythm a little bit” and “challenge ourselves to step outside of the expected and what we’ve gotten used to,” Flynn said. Executive producer Casey Kriley added, “That was our starting point to kind of have those creative discussions about where we wanted to go.”

One of the things that came up — from audience research as well as feedback from the production team — was their approach to quickfires. In these, the competitors often faced off in speedier cooking challenges to win immunity for that week. Over time, some chefs used that to coast through the elimination challenges, knowing in advance that they couldn’t go home.

To up the stakes, immunity is no longer offered during the quickfires. Instead, the top chef-testant receives a cash prize, while the winner of the elimination challenge is protected from going home the following week.

“It’s actually a pretty unique change. I like it,” said Colicchio, who recalled previously championing an evolution to the overall competition. “I’m always saying we’re too focused on who goes home and who loses. It’s, like, the only competition where you focus more on who goes, who loses versus who wins. And so, it was like, ‘If you win something, what do you get?'”

Echoing that sentiment, Kriley also said that “the elimination challenge has always carried more weight in terms of the show.”

This became “a great way for us to reward chefs along the way and make sure that quickfires still counted,” Flynn said, while Kriley noted that when it came to the gameplay this season, “it shook stuff in two ways.”

The first is the cash prize, which the EP said “is huge for those chefs” because now, “every episode there’s real rewards.” In addition, the format change “did ratchet up the stakes for those elimination challenges within an episode as well. There’s nowhere for anyone to hide.”

TOP CHEF -- Chef's Test Episode 2101 -- Pictured: (l-r) Daniel Jacobs, David Murphy, Kaleena Bliss, Manuel "Manny" Barella Lopez, Savannah Miller, Kenny Nguyen, Charly Pierre, Iisha Elenz, Laura Ozyilmaz, Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio, Kristen Kish -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)
‘Top Chef’David Moir/Bravo

Other tweaks to the format seen throughout the season include the recurring Restaurant Wars competition going “back to basics” after adapting to chef’s table style format for seasons filmed during the pandemic and other evolutions seen throughout the years. “The one thing I loved about it — we did go back to basics, but we also eliminated front of the house,” Colicchio said, noting that the hosting role in the challenge “always bugged me because I always felt that people would go home for a bad front of the house and it’s, like, ‘Top Chef’ not ‘Top Restauranteur’ or ‘Top Service Person.’ I’m glad we got rid of that.”

Additionally, Colicchio and Simmons join Kish to judge quickfires in the latter half of the competition. Noting that it was “a change that is really important,” Flynn says “they will be taking into consideration both the quickfire and elimination challenges for their final decision” during those later episodes, preventing chefs from “phoning it in or barely squeaking by in that quickfire, but then only doing enough in that elimination challenge to stay on.”

While Kriley lauded the crew of roughly 140 people for being adaptable — “both in the moment, due to unforeseen circumstances as well as holistically, like, how we’re going to shift, whether it’s for the schedule or the location,” she said — the changes didn’t come without their hiccups.

Particularly for Colicchio, judging both the quickfires and the eliminations “got a little tricky because there’s a couple of ways to look at it. I think it sounded good until we started actually getting into it and it was like, ‘This is much more complicated than we think it’s gonna be,'” he explains.

However, “it added to the discussions at judges’ table in a way that I think maybe we didn’t even realize how much it would,” Flynn said. And that’s something Colicchio was happy to see take place during filming this season. “For a couple of seasons now, I wanted to go back to what we used to do at judges’ table, where it was much more of an interactive conversation, going back and forth,” he said of being able to play off Simmons and Kish, who, he added, “fit right in seamlessly.”

At the end of the day, Kriley said the changes were made with consideration of how much it would service the show, which “is watching chefs compete and their holistic journey of the season.” Adding to that, Flynn said that everything was done “without it feeling like we’re doing a different show because ‘Top Chef’ is still, ultimately, the premier cooking competition show on television.”

“Top Chef: Wisconsin” premieres Wednesday, March 20 at 9 p.m. ET on Bravo.

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