Food & Drink

Cream of the Chop: Top Chef Kaleena Bliss

Washington native competes on popular Bravo cooking competition

By Daniel Anderson March 20, 2024

A Top Chef Kaleena Bliss with crossed arms standing proudly in a restaurant kitchen.

Seattleites will spot a familiar face on the latest season of Top Chef, set in Wisconsin this year. Chef Kaleena Bliss competes for the coveted title on the longstanding cooking competition franchise, now in its 21st year. Epicureans might recognize her from victories on Food Network competition shows like Chopped: Casino Royale, and Beachside Brawl

A native of Vancouver, Wash., Bliss graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., before landing cooking gigs in Portland and Bainbridge Island. Seattle stints included Mistral Kitchen and Six Seven at the Edgewater Hotel before assuming the executive chef position at the Thompson Hotel in 2019.

In March 2023, Bliss started a new role as executive chef at Cindy’s, a stunning rooftop restaurant at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel. She never expected to leave Seattle, but a three-week work trip changed everything. The Chicago property, part of the Hyatt family like The Thompson, needed assistance. An opportunity soon arose for Bliss to fill the executive chef vacancy, and the rest is history. She’s still adjusting to sprawling Chicago and seeks restaurant recommendations for the area.

As she navigates her way and blends her vibrant Pacific Northwest palate with Midwest flavors at Cindy’s, Top Chef: Wisconsin provides another opportunity for Bliss to delve deeper into the region, but she’s never forgotten her roots.

Top Chef’s season begins March 20 on the Bravo network.



What motivated you to audition for Top Chef?

So, back in 2006 to 2009, I used to watch Top Chef during culinary school. As my career progressed, I stopped watching cooking shows because they give me anxiety unless I’m participating. I don’t really like watching things that remind me too much of my real life. But I started dabbling in competitive cooking in 2022 with Chopped, and then with Beachside Brawl. I realized that I had some beginner’s luck and some success in it. I liked the thrill of it. I’ve been cooking for a long time, so to do it in a different capacity gives me some kind of rush. The way that you cook in these competitions is so different than in your own kitchen. I have friends who have competed on Top Chef, but I applied online as a random thought. I didn’t expect to make it to the casting process with how popular the show is. Yet, I received a callback, and continued through the application steps, never truly expecting to be chosen, until I was.

 

Did your prior cooking competition experience on Chopped and Beachside Brawl help prepare you for Top Chef or was it a different beast?

It’s a bit of both. Top Chef is a very different beast compared to shows like Chopped and Beachside Brawl. Those were tournaments, multiple days of filming, but even then, you were away from your life and business for about a week and a half. With Top Chef, it’s made clear that if you get picked, you’d have to give up around four to six weeks of your time. That alone is a huge difference — it puts you in a different mental space when you’re away from loved ones, family, and your business. Top Chef not only has a longer duration but also pushes you in different ways. It’s not just about cooking quickly. It’s about the entire culinary experience, from concepting to shopping to working with other chefs. Top Chef paints a bigger picture that you don’t always see with other shows, making it more intense and nerve-wracking in a good way.

A focused female chef, Kaleena Bliss, wearing a white apron reads a "Cream of the Chop" carton while working in a busy "Top Chef" kitchen environment.

Image still from Top Chef: Wisconsin, premiering March 20 on the Bravo network.

Photo by David Moir/Bravo

In what ways did Top Chef surprise you?

Honestly, I want to say everything. I believe you can do as much possible to prepare, and that’s what I always do before going on a show. I study, gather recipes, and do crash courses on anything that might come up. But with Top Chef, it’s broad, with surprises thrown at you all the time. You don’t know the competitions or what they’ll entail. Even though you know the theme is the Midwest in Wisconsin, it gives little insight into the challenges. I don’t think there’s much you can do to prepare. There wasn’t one thing in particular I felt unprepared for, but the hardest aspect for me, even though I anticipated it, was the mental challenge of being away from my business and loved ones. Not having that support system nearby was tough mentally.

 

You’ve mentioned in the past how nerve-wracking Chopped was. You’re also a very big mental health advocate. How did you navigate the mental game of Top Chef

Yeah, I mean, it’s one of those things where you can only do so much to prepare. Top Chef did a good job of informing us beforehand about the potential length of time we’d be away and the restrictions, like not having our phones daily. But mentally preparing for it was tough. Every day brought something different, new emotions. Even if you felt fine one day, you could be in a completely different mindset a few days later. You have to learn to process and deal with it. Maybe the advantage for me is that I dealt with mental health issues for a while. I’m very open to the media that I have an anxiety disorder and a panic attack disorder. I work with my doctor, and it’s gotten a lot better since when I was first diagnosed with it, but I’ve already had to do a lot of that groundwork for myself. We have this every day, not just when we’re in competitions. It’s work, it’s daily life, it’s social events. I think I’ve done a lot of preparing myself mentally for it. But again, even with all that work put in you’re always caught off guard. I was caught off guard multiple times and not to any fault of anyone. It’s just the nature of the game.

 

A rewarding aspect to watching Top Chef is seeing the competitors grow in their culinary point of view. How was that process for you balancing your Pacific Northwest roots and new Midwestern flare?

It’s so relevant in my case here. I feel like they did a really good job of bringing diverse cooking styles into the season. There’s Michelin chefs, there’s chefs with James Beard backgrounds. One person is a tempura chef. In terms of bringing my identity to the Midwest, and the struggles I faced, there were definitely challenges. My cooking heavily features seafood, as I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest since childhood, and I’m familiar with the products, including those imported from Southeast Asia and the Pacific region. One of the biggest hurdles was adapting to a different food culture and scene, similar to challenges I face in my real job. On Top Chef, we shop at local markets like Whole Foods, but the Whole Foods in Milwaukee was vastly different from what I’m used to. The smaller seafood department made it difficult to showcase my techniques and recipes that relied on specific ingredients not always available.

Of the numerous Seattle restaurants you’ve worked at, which was the most influential for you?

I’ll start off by saying that every job I’ve had has helped shape me and my career in some way. They’ve all contributed something to who I’ve turned out to be today, but one that always stands out to me was the time that I spent at the Edgewater Hotel. I had a chef there named Jesse Souza. Meeting him kind of changed the trajectory of my whole culinary career. I came to that property already being a pretty good cook. I spent the first 10 years of my career in independent restaurants, and gained a lot of one-on-one experience with the chefs I worked with. The Edgewater was the first hotel I transitioned to, and it was like a light bulb turned on. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about a totally different industry within my industry. One of the things he taught me the most about  wasn’t cooking. It was about being a good chef, a good human, and a good manager. He had a good 10 years on me, and he’d worked at some very difficult properties. He had so much experience managing staff and different personalities. I had been trained by chefs who were kind of hotheads. I learned a lot of bad habits up until that point and I didn’t even realize they were bad habits. I would yell at people. I would lash out at people at the end of the day. He really transformed my brain in those three-and-a-half years to help me understand that a lot of the things that I had seen in the industry prior were just wrong. 

Three chefs in uniform, including Kaleena Bliss, are standing in a commercial kitchen environment.

(L-R) Kenny Nguyen, Danny Garcia, and Kaleena Bliss in Chef’s Test, the premiere episode of Top Chef: Wisconsin.

Photo by David Moir/Bravo

How do you lead your kitchens now? 

My generation has been vocal about challenging the old-school mentality in the culinary industry. We’re seeing a shift away from yelling and tyrannical leadership toward a more inclusive and supportive environment. With younger generations like Gen Z entering the workforce, they’re not putting up with those outdated practices, nor should they. I wish that I wouldn’t have put up with that. I worked for free. I went to the Culinary Institute of America for four years and came out with a bachelor’s degree. I made like nine dollars with no benefits, and I remember being super proud of that. Chef Jesse taught me to think for myself, and I’ve carried that with me quite a bit into what I bring to the Chicago Athletic Association. I think that my generation does a really good job of caring for the people that work for them, like fighting to pay them living wages with benefits. Having people not be afraid in your kitchen, leading with inclusivity, and really training the people that are under you to be the next chefs of the next generation. If we mess them up, then the industry goes downwards and that’s our fault.

I also want them to be able to talk about their mental wellness. I was never able to talk about that. I went through some difficult periods in my life, where I just had to suck it up and get through it. It’s just it’s not like that anymore. I’ve changed a lot as a manager and as a human with how I treat people around me and how I want my kitchen to function. It turns out, you can have a great kitchen, still make a profit, and make great food without being some crazy tyrant. 

 

Which Seattle dishes or restaurants do you miss the most? 

I’m missing so many things in Seattle. The first one is definitely going to be Taylor Shellfish. Oh my gosh, do I miss Dungeness crab. It’s my favorite food. I took it for granted when I was back home because everyone has it on their menu. My favorite thing to do was go to Taylor Shellfish on Queen Anne by myself. I would get an extra spicy Bloody Mary and get their whole chilled crab. There is also Crawfish King in the International District. They have this amazing whole Dungeness crab except it’s a crab boil style, which is really fun and interactive. I miss Plenty of Clouds in Capitol Hill. My friends own it. It’s not super traditional Sichuan food, but it’s very addictive, and it’s so yummy. I just can’t seem to find anything else that’s like it. Another is Carrello in Capitol Hill. My boyfriend served there for a while. I really respect the chef and what they’re doing there. The food was always just so phenomenal. Whenever I wanted an upscale meal, we would go there.

 

Which Chicago restaurants are you loving?

I live in the West Town/Ukrainian Village neighborhood, and am still exploring Chicago’s vast array of neighborhoods. Despite being here for a year, work has kept me busy, but I want to explore more. Some favorite spots include the International District and Daebak Korean Barbecue. It’s a chain I also enjoyed in Seattle. I tend to stick close to home, and there is a wine bar nearby called  All Together Now. They offer natural wines with cheese and charcuterie, which is my jam. 

 

You’re stranded on an island with a hot dog cart. Is it from Seattle, Chicago, or New York?

No! You’re gonna make me choose. OK, OK, OK, OK. I’m gonna answer this strategically. Can it be a mix of both? Because here’s the thing, both Seattle and Chicago have really good things about their dog. Chicago takes it very seriously. One of the things I love about the Chicago dog is the poppy seed bun. I don’t know why we don’t do that? It’s delicious. I also love all the produce that they have on it, the relish. I love acidity. I love pickles. But Seattle has the jalapenos. I love spicy. And who doesn’t like some creamy elements? I want the best of both worlds. I want a hot dog with a poppy seed bun, cream cheese, jalapenos, and super bright green relish. And then I’m definitely like a ketchup and mustard person.

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