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A rotund Midwestern summer sun was beating down on a group of well dressed strangers as we waited to be corralled into a mystery location.

Despite the promise of an upscale setting, we were standing in an open-air parking lot in Madison, Wis., lining up to sign paperwork and surrender our phones to ensure confidentiality. We were here to get a sneak peek behind the culinary competition "Top Chef" as it heads into its 21st season with a new crop of cheftestants, a new host and a mid-America location that is notably not Minnesota.

A few weeks earlier, I'd been contacted with the tantalizing offer to be a background diner in an episode. Details were sparse, which is how I found myself in this holding pen that, after a cursory glance around, was nowhere near a restaurant. My new stranger-friends seemed equally baffled. But like a good Minnesotan, I wasn't going to ask anyone if they knew what we were supposed to be doing.

Soon everyone had paperwork settled, shuffled and signed. We were ushered across four lanes of traffic, midblock (without the benefit of a crosswalk) by people radioing back-and-forth with the set crew: maws were on the way for feeding. It wasn't long before we were murmuring culinary assessments to be cut and spliced into an episode where one chef would be crowned the winner and another sent to pack their knives.

This was TV magic in the making. The rhythm of the episodes is familiar to fans: Someone will likely flub risotto, and the clock is going to catch up to one of the chefs and they'll miss ingredients on the plate. Personalities will emerge and names unknown right now will become familiar in the famous-chef circuit. But it does raise questions, like how does "Top Chef" find a way to remain fresh? And why not come to Minnesota?

It turns out that Wisconsin had made the hard sell. Magical Elves Productions, the company behind "Top Chef," worked with the state, ultimately deciding to split filming time between Madison and Milwaukee. According to local news sources, Wisconsin had been wooing production to the state for the better part of a decade.

But there is love for Minnesota. After filming this episode, new host Kristen Kish, who has worked her way from being a participant, to guest judge, to now holding down the job made famous by Padma Lakshmi, sat down to talk about her new position and a recent trip to the Twin Cities.

Kristen Kish in discussion with Alison Arth last summer for Spoon and Stable's Synergy Series, which brings bold name chefs to the Twin Cities.
Kristen Kish in discussion with Alison Arth last summer for Spoon and Stable's Synergy Series, which brings bold name chefs to the Twin Cities.


Exploring Minnesota

At the time, it had been only a matter of weeks since she'd spent time in Minneapolis cooking with Gavin Kaysen and his crew at Spoon and Stable. Her visit was part of the Synergy Series, where well known chefs cook and host a conversation about their craft.

"I loved it," she said of her time in Minneapolis. "Everyone was so nice. Especially — I met one chef of a Chinese restaurant [Rainbow Chinese]. Tammy Wong. You can tell she's just the kind of woman who scoops you up and ... " Kish mimed a big embrace.

"My introduction to Minneapolis was by way of Andrew Zimmern and Justin Sutherland — both fantastic friends. So, I've been hearing about the food in Minneapolis for years." Kish also filmed the TV show "Fast Foodies" with Sutherland, who competed on "Top Chef."

"I need to go back and explore more," she said.

That trip would have to wait. There are a lot of eyes on Kish as she assumes "Top Chef" hosting duties, but the gaze wasn't stressing her out.

"The thing I love about all of my jobs is that they're vastly different, so I get to delve into different parts of myself. On 'Fast Foodies,' I'm a chef — there's no makeup and that's really fun. 'Iron Chef' was very polished. 'The End of the World' for Nat Geo was outdoorsy — lots of mosquitoes," she said. "'Top Chef' was very much a homecoming."

The way Kish speaks of "Top Chef" mirrors how others might talk about grad school or other formative, educational experiences. "It's iconic in a lot of ways — it's also responsible."

The show's responsibility that Kish appreciates is due to chef Tom Colicchio, who's been a "Top Chef" judge since its 2006 debut. "He would give the chefs feedback like he would the cooks in his kitchen," said Kish. "All the critiques come from a place of wanting the chefs to be better — not just to retain viewers. Those dramatics just happen to follow."

The new kitchen set of "Top Chef: Wisconsin," which filmed in Milwaukee and Madison.
The new kitchen set of "Top Chef: Wisconsin," which filmed in Milwaukee and Madison.


Filming, then fasting

Back on set, we are shuffled through a side patio of the restaurant into a room brimming with production equipment and people in headsets intensely watching monitors. Directors are feeding instructions to those who are with the chefs in another room. "Ask him ... Get a shot of that ... Move in ..." The restaurant crackles with energy as the cheftestants cook and we background eaters shuffle in.

A competing chef is heard from the other room and the monitor yelling, "Time?"

Eaters are corralled into a hushed dining room setting and seated; we mutter excitedly to our seatmates. There's a rumor that the flowers on the table are bugged, and that's how they'll hear our reactions to the food. Eyeing the centerpiece, I'm pretty sure it's just a grocery store mum.

Suddenly, we're called to attention and given the heads-up that the chefs are ready and the food is coming. They stand at the front, but we can't hear everything that's being said. It's for the benefit of the camera and the judges' table, which is in another room. The first round of food comes and we all do our best to eat intelligently, delivering hopeful bon mots to the mums and each other like this is all totally normal.

We chat with the table next to us between courses; it turns out they're family of the people who run the venue where this episode is being filmed. They were bursting with pride over the spotlight the show is bringing to the local dining scene.

Other diners are media, influencers and hospitality folk. Cameras swirl the room, stopping to focus intently on tables with great lighting — not mine. There was a lot of food to sample.

"I have to fast the day after filming," said Colicchio after production had wrapped for the day. "I have 20 different things, I have to take a day off," he laughed. "I can't eat like that anymore."

Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons of "Top Chef."
Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons of "Top Chef."

David Moir, Bravo

It's not just his capacity to handle eating four consecutive tasting menus in one day, but he's also experienced firsthand major shifts in the culinary world. "When I was at Gramercy [Tavern] I'd get in at 10 in the morning and not leave until 12 o'clock at night — and that was fine." At that time, the hard driving never ended for many chefs.

Colicchio has a unique perspective on the industry as a restaurant owner and someone with a front-row seat to how "Top Chef" can change a person's career and life trajectory. "When I took my first chef job, I was the first one in and the last one out and yeah, it was too much. It's totally crazy hours and that's not good for a lot of reasons, but you know you also have to work hard. It's a profession."

Even with his long workdays, the chef said, he still found moments to enjoy the area where they were filming. Between shooting days he'd found his way to the farmers market and gotten a proper Wisconsin brandy old fashioned at the Tornado Room. His review: "I'm more of a Manhattan guy."

After wrapping, I was ready for some kind of celebratory cocktail, but this wasn't the place. The set dissipated as diners roamed off after a rich midday, multicourse dining experience without climax.

On my way out I could see Kish on the monitor delivering her line, "So, tell us what you've prepared for us tonight." A faceless chef described a dish and gave context we wouldn't get with our bites. It was all part of the big show, and to find out what happens next, we'll have to tune in.

Manuel "Manny" Barella Lopez and Daniel Jacobs on "Top Chef."
Manuel "Manny" Barella Lopez and Daniel Jacobs on "Top Chef."

David Moir, Bravo

'Top Chef: Wisconsin'

When: Season 21 premieres March 20 at 8 p.m. on Bravo, available the next day on Peacock.

Added value: This season's episodes will be supersized at 75 minutes. There are two digital companion series, too: "The Dish With Kish" and "Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen" will air on

The judges: Head judge Tom Colicchio returns with Gail Simmons. Guest judges will include bold-name chefs from Dominique Crenn to our own Sean Sherman. There are some notable alums making appearances, too, including Justin Sutherland.

The cheftestants: No Minnesota chefs are competing. Our closest claim to fame is Dan Jacobs, the head chef and co-owner of EsterEv and DanDan — both in Milwaukee.