Chef Kaleena Bliss brought a vital conversation to Top Chef Season 21, interview

Chef Kaleena Bliss on Top Chef Season 21
Chef Kaleena Bliss on Top Chef Season 21 / Bravo

Although Chef Kaleena Bliss may not have earned the Top Chef Season 21 title, she should be applauded for a unique, powerful, and commendable aspect that she brought to this season. The popular Bravo food television competition has celebrated culinary creativity, determination, and overall excellence. Thanks to Chef Kaleena, the importance of being true to yourself is equally vital to the conversation.

During Top Chef Season 21, Chef Kaleena was eliminated twice. First, she and her fellow teammate, Chef Iisha, were eliminated during the Frank Lloyd Wright themed challenge. While her dessert in that challenge was subpar, Chef Kaleena fought her way back through Last Chance Kitchen and rejoined the competition.

Unfortunately, during Restaurant Wars, Chef Kaleena was eliminated a second time. When she arrived in Last Chance Kitchen, Chef Kaleena made a choice no one expected, including Tom Colicchio. Before the cook began, Chef Kaleena poignantly put herself and her mental health first. She chose to leave the competition.

During a conversation prior to her second elimination and Last Chance Kitchen airing, I spoke with Chef Kaleena Bliss. For those unfamiliar, Chef Kaleena has been outspoken about the importance of making mental health a priority. She wants to wash away any stigma associated with the topic and encourages everyone to be open, honest, and vocal about those struggles.

While portions of this conversation have been edited for length and clarity, the message that Chef Kaleena Bliss conveys is vital not only for the hospitality industry but for anyone. Talking about mental health is never a sign of weakness.

Top Chef fans might tune in every week to salivate over scrumptious food and culinary delights. Although that food excites the palate, the person who creates that dish can never be left out of the conversation.

Chef Kaleena Bliss on Top Chef Season 21
Chef Kaleena Bliss on Top Chef Season 21 / Bravo

Speaking to why mental health is and will continue to be important to her, Chef Kaleena Bliss said, “I have been cooking for 20 years. I never really thought that I would be somebody who was open to talking about something as personal as this topic.”

“When I came into the industry, I worked so many hours for free and it was expected. You had to do it to grow and to get ahead. Like many of my peers, I went to the Culinary Institute of America, and I had debt until just recently. I made $9 an hour with no benefits and worked a ton of hours.”

“For the first 10 years or so of my career, in relatively great kitchens, there was a lingering toxicity that seeped through the cracks and still existed. Today, I think people are more open to talking about the issues and perceptions than when I was coming up.”

“Even something as simple as work life balance, that did not exist, and still does not exist for some people, (is important). I am fortunate enough to be at a place that values (work life balance) and that is why I am at here (Executive Chef at the Chicago Athletic Association).”

“My generation is helping to push this industry for the next generation. People are not putting up with it anymore. We suffered enough. COVID was a big ‘whoa’ moment where we looked at what we were doing with our lives.”

“Personally, I was furloughed, I stayed in my house, everything was closed. I was used to working long days, glued to my phone. I was forced to take a step back and it gave me the worst anxiety and panic attacks that I ever had in my life because I did not know what to do anymore. You would have thought that it was a reprieve, but it caused me to have a full-on panic attack.”

Left breathless, barely able to function, and mentally exhausted, that moment was pivotal for Chef Kaleena to make a change. She decided to be open and to talk about her experiences, her feelings, and the importance of making mental health a priority.

As Chef Kaleena said, “I appreciate that so many more chefs and people in the industry are talking about mental wellness. We can be a little more real about that is happening in the industry.”

Specifically, Chef Kaleena shared this very personal story. “When I was in my mid-20s my parents passed away and I remember thinking that I could not take time off work. It was not an option at the time. It was my first sous chef job, and I could not even think about calling in to say that I would not come to work. I was up all night crying my eyes out, but I came in the next day and did the job. I never want anyone that works for me to ever have to do this.”

That willingness to share her story, weave the mental health conversation into her role as executive chef, and even to step away from Top Chef is why Chef Kaleena Bliss should be celebrated. Of course, her culinary creativity is superb, and her menus will have people fondly remembering that meal. But, if a diner, fellow chef, or Top Chef fan remembers her story, becomes unencumbered to speak their truth, or lends an ear to someone in distress, her legacy is far greater than any culinary accolade.

Since Chef Kaleena has been vocal about her personal struggles, she understands that her platform opens the possibility to have this mental health conversation. At an event in Seattle, she recalled meeting a guest who specifically stopped her. A complete stranger told Chef Kaleena that her willingness to speak about mental health spurred her to be more open about her own struggles. Many chefs talk about how food is the common connector, but it is the person who must place the opening line of communication on the table. Chef Kaleena took that risk and it made a difference.

Chef Kaleena commented, “I took a chance and made myself vulnerable. There was a moment where I wondered if I would be called weak. At this point, I do not care anymore. It is ok if you do not like me, but I know who I am. I am not perfect. I am human. I break too.”

When Chef Kaleena connected with that other person, it brightened her day. Specifically, she said, “I got through to someone, they related to me, and it changed everything.”

Many people will look back at Top Chef Season 21 and remember the best dishes, the intense challenges, or a few fun moments along the way. If one person remembers that Chef Kaleena Bliss took a stand for her mental strength, her tenacity, and her well-being, she is the real winner of this season.  

Chef Kaleena Bliss is the executive chef of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel in Chicago, Illinois.

Top Chef Season 21 airs new episodes Wednesday nights on Bravo at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Episodes can be streamed the next day on Peacock. Last Chance Kitchen airs on Peacock.