4 instances where Top Chef Season 21 proved it's better than ever

Top Chef Season 21 judges, Kristen Kish, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons
Top Chef Season 21 judges, Kristen Kish, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons / Bravo

Few reality television shows have run for more than 20 seasons. When Top Chef Season 21 announced several changes to the iconic Bravo television show, people wondered if it could retain its past success. Borrowing a cliché from its locale, Wisconsin, this season proved yet again it is the "Big Cheese" of food television.

Food television is a strange beast. Almost any day of the week, there is a culinary competition on the schedule. From novice cooks hoping to hone their skills to restaurants longing for redemption, viewers engage with both the tempting food on the screen but also the people telling them. Just like a great recipe, all the ingredients must play in harmony for a program to get viewers watching time and again.

A dear friend often waxed poetic about the “secret sauce” that is Top Chef. Beyond the accolades that fill the press release, the food television show is more than just a gilded treasure without substance. It is a glimpse into what makes a meal from a highly talented chef engaging, memorable, and satisfying.

When Top Chef announced that Season 21 would have some changes, some people wondered if those alterations could be the crack in the foundation of its success. Like many areas of pop culture, people wait for the stumble, even though no one should wish misfortune on anyone.

Instead, Top Chef Season 21 became more energized. No one can deny that the chemistry between Tom Colicchio, Kristen Kish, and Gail Simmons. Many people knew that Kish was up to the challenge, but she exceeded expectations. From the banter between the judges to the honest feedback from someone who has been in that competition, there is more authenticity in the show. That concept is often a rarity in food reality television.

As the Top Chef looks to say goodbye to Wisconsin, the look back at the locally based challenges proves that the show is better than ever. While only four chefs will sail off into the final cook, viewers have been captivated by the evolution in the competition.

Here's how Top Chef Season 21 knocked it out of the park.

Changing the competition rules slightly

Keeping cheftestants on the toes is vital to pushing their creativity. Everyone knows that the chefs practice potential challenges or study the state’s ingredients and cuisines. While the iconic mise en place challenge should always be part of every season, the changes to the Quickfire and Elimination Challenge were vital to invigorating the competition.

Taking away Quickfire immunity ensured that a cheftestant did not just phone-in a challenge. Even though there was immunity available, the addition of monetary prizes helped to give a bigger incentive. With thousands of dollars on the line, no one was going to offer a subpar dish.

Additionally, the latter rounds included the Quickfire into the elimination discussion. Many chefs understand that they can have a bad day in the kitchen. Joe Flamm made that statement in an early episode. There are no bad chefs on Top Chefs, just sometimes a person has a bad day. Looking at two dishes, instead of one, helps to make the last chefs standing the best possible talent for the final cook.

Highlighting authentic, local experiences

While Top Chef has traveled around the U.S. and world for its shooting locations, Wisconsin might not have been the food destination that people would have put on top of their must-visit list. Throughout the season, the production team has highlighted that the Dairy State is more than just cheese, brats, and beer.

The Wisconsin Cheese episode was more than just Cheeseheads touting their spirited head gear. It was a celebration of the artisan cheesemakers and their award winning food. Even if too many chefs made croquettes, that episode, hopefully, inspired people to see Wisconsin Cheese in a different "slice."

The Miller High Life challenge was a great example how beer is no longer that cold can drunk at a sporting event. Beer pairings are just as nuanced as their wine counterparts.

From farmers markets to fish boils, the Wisconsin food scene came to life in a vibrant, engaging way. Some people might still long for that State Fair Cream Puff or brat at the Packers game. But, maybe, people will spend an hour to head to Door County for some cherries, too.

Last Chance Kitchen and Dish with Kish give a glimpse behind the curtain

While Last Chance Kitchen might offer the road to redemption, the Tom Collichio lead series is more than just impressing his discerning palate. This season, especially, has brought vital conversations to the pass.

Kaleena Bliss chose to put her mental health first and left the competition. When the Bravo production team decided to air that moment, it fostered a vital conversation about the hospitality industry. Again, it is a way for Top Chef to stand out from its food television competition.

Additionally, the Dish with Kish is the Top Chef super fan’s dream come true. From getting insight from the production team to seeing chefs’ approaches to the challenges, it is a glimpse into that food competition world. Few people will ever step onto that Top Chef set to see the chaos of a Quickfire, but the Dish with Kish is a taste of the culinary creativity required to earn the title.

Shop the episode

Over the years, the NBC Universal Team has fostered strategic partnerships. It is more than the bottles of Saratoga Springs water poured at the Elimination Challenge dinner. Finding seamless ways to incorporate food brands into the episode is vital to keep viewers engaged.

Even though this season might not have had Ritz Cracker recipe shared to the masses, many of the challenges invited viewers to enjoy a taste of those foods at home. From pouring a Champagne of Beers with dinner to seeing cranberries as more than the jellied sauce served at Thanksgiving, Top Chef has a way of blending the familiar with the elevated. For the fan who might only dream of sitting at the celebrated chef’s table, it is a way to satisfy a craving for that perfectly prepared meal.

In the end, Top Chef Season 21 evolved in a way that makes it seem probable that the iconic food television program will be around for many more seasons. Where will the Bravo production team venture off to next? Only time will tell.

Be sure to watch Top Chef Season 21 on Bravo, Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Episodes can be streamed the next day on Peacock. Episodes of Last Chance Kitchen as well as Dish with Kish can be streamed on Peacock.