Top Chef: Why Padma Lakshmi Isn’t Back for Season 21 and Who Kristen Kish Is

Top Chef season 21 will welcome chef Kristen Kish as the show's new host. But why did Padma Lakshmi decide to exit the show?

Padma Lakshmi in Top Chef
Photo: David Moir/Bravo

When Top Chef makes its long-awaited return for its historic 21st season, it’ll be with a new host, chef and TV presenter Kristen Kish. You may not only recognize Kish from her shows on the Travel Channel, TruTV, and National Geographic but also as a former Top Chef competitor.

In fact, Kish won her season of the competition show, after first being eliminated in season 10 but then making a comeback in Last Chance Kitchen to ultimately beat out 23 other chefs. It’s an impressive resume, to say the least, and there’s arguably no one more qualified to take on the job of host and judge on Top Chef than someone who’s actually been through the gauntlet.

As great as it is to see Kish as the new face of Top Chef, some longtime fans might be left wondering why former host Padma Lakshmi decided to step down from the show. After all, the news came as a shock last year when Lakshmi announced that season 20 would be her final time on the show she helped pioneer alongside chef Tom Colicchio and food writer Gail Simmons.

“After much soul searching, I have made the difficult decision to leave Top Chef,” she announced on her Instagram (via Bravo) in 2023. “Having completed a glorious 20th season as host and executive producer, I am extremely proud to have been part of building such a successful show and of the impact it has had in the worlds of television and food.”

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“After 17 years, many of the cast and crew are like family to me and I will miss working alongside them dearly,” Padma added. “I feel it’s time to move on.”

Lakshmi, who on top of being a TV presenter is also an author and activist, had hosted the show since season 2, taking over from food critic Katie Lee Joel. Why did she decide to leave after so many years? As Lakshmi explained it to Variety in 2023, it came down to the show’s demanding schedule and her commitment to other projects, including her travel docuseries Taste the Nation on Hulu. In essence, the workload was just too much.

“I had been on location for eight months out of the year. And when I wasn’t on location, I was in pre- and post-production for both my shows. And I was looking at edits of one show while on the set of another show. It was just exhausting and untenable for me to continue that way,” Lakshmi told Variety. “I also felt I’ve done everything I set out to do and more at Top Chef. I’m leaving the show at a very high point, in very capable hands. Now, it’s time for me to challenge myself creatively.”

“Other complex factors went into me just being done with Top Chef, which we don’t have time to go into here,” Lakshmi added. “But I think I just thought, if I’m feeling this way, then I’ve got to trust my gut. I’ve also got to make room in my life and my schedule for new things to bubble up.”

Those complex factors seemed to include Lakshmi’s personal and family life. Producing and hosting multiple shows weren’t really leaving time for Lakshmi’s family and relationships.

“Totally off-topic, but I haven’t had a relationship in a long time either, because I’m always working. I don’t know when I think I was going to meet anybody. I’m surrounded by people I either employ or employ me, and neither of those [groups of] people are appropriate [for a romantic relationship]. It was also about having a personal life, to be honest, and also being present for my daughter — she’s a teenager. In five years, she’s going to go off and have her own life and hopefully go to college and stuff. It wasn’t an easy decision.”

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When asked whether she was nervous about what her post-Top Chef future might look like, Lakshmi seemed optimistic about returning for a third season of Taste the Nation as well as working on a few other projects.

“I am lucky in that I’ve had a good robust career. I can afford not to work for a bit while thinking about the appropriate next move for me. That is a privilege that I’ve not always had in my life. Sometimes I took a lot of jobs because I needed to pay my rent,” Lakshmi said. “What gives me hope is that — God forbid, “Taste the Nation” also goes away — my production company has two other projects in development, but they’re both scripted. So I’ve got to wait it out just like everybody else.”

As for Kish, she knows she has big shoes to fill as she steps into the spotlight for Top Chef season 21. The star chef expressed both nervousness but also excitement about her new role on the show.

“What’s hard about hosting is the expectation of having to fill the position that Padma held for a very long time. And she was very good at it,” Kish told Midwest Living. “Yes. I knew I had big shoes to fill. I don’t think anyone would have taken that job without a little bit of doubt. But that doubt wasn’t big enough for me to say I’m not going to do it. That’s letting fear lead your decision-making. I worked hard not to let that happen.”

New episodes of Top Chef air on Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Bravo.