Top Chef Season 21: The real winner is not up for debate

Top Chef Season 21 finale onboard Holland America Line Eurodam
Top Chef Season 21 finale onboard Holland America Line Eurodam / Bravo

Food television fans, especially Top Chef fans, are always willing and able to share their opinions. From voting for the fan favorite cheftestant to trying to recreate a dish featured in an episode, the connection beyond the screen is vital to the longevity of the show. With Top Chef Season 21, the commentary following the finale has been spirited. One thing that is clear from rewatching the season, the real winner never had to worry about packing its knives.

Every Top Chef season has a different vibe. From the mix of cheftestants to the guest judges, the infusion of new ingredients evolves the food television show. While the mise en place and blind tasting challenge might always be part of the mix, two things always change, both the season’s location and the finale location. How they are perceived by the viewer often makes one season more successful than another.

For Top Chef Season 21, the real winners were abundantly clear. Wisconsin and Holland America Line (HAL) showcased themselves beyond being just a backdrop for scenes and an influence for challenges. Through engaging storytelling, viewers are more likely to book a trip to the Dairy State or pack their bags for an Eurodam itinerary.

Most people will never be able to make an oxtail stew or contemplate using an anti-griddle for a frozen dessert. But, people can buy a ticket to watch the sausages race at a Milwaukee Brewers game or they can visit Curacao on a Holland America Line cruise.

As Jaime Cutburth, NBCUniversal's Executive Vice President, Marketing & Content Partnerships, said during an interview with me as the team filmed the penultimate Top Chef Season 21 challenge onboard the HAL Eurodam, “Top Chef has always been more than just identifying places that are popular in the culinary world. It identifies trends and where we need to be looking forward. I think that Wisconsin is a great example and an opportunity for us to tell that story.”

Cutburth believes that “as people watch the season, they see a different side of Wisconsin than they originally thought.”  While many people might know about Wisconsin Cheese or Miller Coors, it was the other stories that resonated deeply.

Being able to highlight indigenous cuisine and those culturally important aspects is vital to Top Chef maintaining its relevance. While the various cheftestants can become highly recognized names in the food world, the Bravo television show is more than a vehicle for their personal success. As Tom Colicchio said in the finale episode. The food on the plate is gone but the emotional connection and the story that it tells lingers.

That concept easily applies to the Holland America Line partnership. Given that travelers’ vacation experience does not fade from mind once they disembark, the cruise line partner saw an opportunity to weave their message seamless into the Top Chef world.

While on board the Eurodam, Kacy Cole, Chief Marketing Officer, Holland America Line spoke with me about the Top Chef partnership. She believed that viewers, as much as the guests on board, would resonate with the Global Fresh Fish program and their ambassador, Chef Masaharu Morimoto. In some ways, seeing that the diversity, versatility, and abundance of the fresh, local fish will excite the food traveler who is hungry for more.

At 150 years, Holland America Line is steeped in heritage and prestige. While some other cruise lines might focus on extreme adventure or multi-generational family engagement, HAL wants to give its guests a timeless experience. Whether the guest is in their 20s or in their 60s, the hospitality and refinement will bring them back time and again.

With the Top Chef partnership, HAL hopes to make cracks into that barrier to entry for the food traveler. The days of endless buffets and quick meals have been replaced with fresh, local, and even sometimes sustainable, food options. Elevated dining experiences are as nuanced as the meals Top Chef cheftestants offer in their own restaurants.  

Specifically with its Global Fresh Fish program, it is an extension of the experiences that guests have off the ship. Adding local ingredients to the dining makes the moment more tangible, real, and memorable. Weaving all those lines into a seamless storyline is key to capturing that food traveler.

Cole understands that booking a cruise does require a significant monetary commitment. While the Top Chef finale did a lovely job of highlighting some aspects of the HAL Eurodam, it is only a small sampling of what is offered. But, if those scenes sparked an interest, the partnership is successful not only for this season, but for years to come.

In the end, there is no debate about a winner in the Top Chef Season 21. Wisconsin and Holland America Line captured food travelers’ interest seeing these locales in person. When a food television show makes the viewer long to experience that locale in real life, the value of the brand partnership has a significant return on that investment.