The Many Accolades Of The Top Chef Season 21 Contestants

"Top Chef" season 21 premieres on March 20, and now that you know that Kristen Kish — season 10 winner and chef and partner of Arlo Grey in Austin, Texas — will be replacing Padma Lakshmi as the host, all that's left to dish about is the contestants, or "cheftestants," as they're called. The cities this season's competitors call home extend from New York City to Athens, and from San Francisco to Houston, bringing the brightest culinary talents from all corners of the country to none other than Wisconsin, where they'll be serving up dishes centered around the state's famous cheese. With a new host, however, comes new twists and turns. Still, a few contestants this season have the accolades to be considered favorites.

For example, Chef Alisha Elenz, one of the two Chicago chefs competing this season, is a two-time James Beard nominee and Jean Banchet Award winner. There's also Chef Amanda Turner, who staged at Michelin-starred RyuGin and was a James Beard semifinalist in 2022. Mexican-born and San Francisco-based, Laura Ozyilmaz's restaurant, Dalida, was recently added to the Michelin Guide, and she was also announced as a James Beard finalist this year. Fellow Mexico native, Manny Barella, was a James Beard semifinalist in 2022, while Boston-born and raised Valentine Howell Jr. was a James Beard Award finalist in 2023. Other standouts include Danny Garcia for his appearance on Team USA at the Bocuse d'Or championship in Lyon, France, and Charly Pierre, who is a two-time James Beard nominee. 

The underdogs

Accolades only go so far, and there's no denying America's love for an underdog story: Look no further than the heartbreaking end to Tiffany Derry's journey on "Top Chef" season seven as proof. Oftentimes, it's the less suspecting chefs that end up winning you over with their heartfelt stories, hard work, and passion to prove themselves. Chef Rasika Vekatesa is the first of the competitors that could do just that. She moved from India to New York to work at The Frenchy Laundry, a three-starred Michelin restaurant, but stands out for her experience at Mourad — the one-star Michelin New Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco — where she started as a station cook and worked her way up to Chef de Cuisine.

Then there's Michelle Wallace, who was the longtime executive chef at Gatlin's BBQ, the family-owned and run Houston establishment that's considered the go-to for barbeque — which, needless to say, is a big deal in Texas. She also spent time at its sister restaurant, Gatlin's Fins and Feathers, which was awarded the city's Best Fried Chicken by Eater in 2022; some people might consider that better than a Michelin star. There's also Kenny Nguyen, who was named the Rising Star of Georgia by Restaurant Informer magazine in 2021. That just leaves David Murphy,  Dan Jacobs, Savannah Miller, Kevin D'Andrea, and Kaleena Bliss, who may not have the stars or the beards but definitely have the potential to surprise the judges. After all, it comes down to what they serve.