Chow Town

Local chef Renee Kelly says competing on ‘Top Chef’ takes stress ‘to a completely different level’

Renee Kelly will compete on “Top Chef,” premiering at 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday on Bravo.
Renee Kelly will compete on “Top Chef,” premiering at 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday on Bravo. Bravo

Local fans of Bravo’s “Top Chef” might recognize a familiar face framed by wavy red tresses when they tune in to Season 13.

Chef Renee Kelly, who lives in Merriam and owns Renee Kelly’s Harvest in Shawnee, is one of 17 “cheftestants” on the show, which premieres in two parts at 9 p.m. Wednesday and 9 p.m. Thursday.

“I’ve always said I would never sign up for one of those shows, but if they called me, I would pay attention,” Kelly said by phone on Tuesday. When she got the call from Bravo, “I waited two hours before I called back. I was like, ‘Is this for real?’”

The latest season of “Top Chef” was filmed over the spring and summer in six cities along California’s coast. It features chefs from cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans and Atlanta. They’ll battle to impress host Padma Lakshmi and a panel of judges, including celebrity chefs Tom Colicchio and Emeril Lagasse. The last chef standing wins $125,000, plus a feature in Food & Wine magazine, a showcase in the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., and the title of “Top Chef.”

Kelly says shooting the show was a little like being in a pressure cooker of stress.

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“I don’t know if there’s any way you can prepare for that type of atmosphere,” she says. “Chefs have a very intense, high-energy lifestyle … but doing a competition series takes it to a completely different level.”

Kelly studied medicine before deciding to pursue her passion for food. After culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston, the chef honed her skills in restaurants at country clubs and resorts. She eventually returned to the Kansas City area to open a catering business, and in 2012 opened Renee Kelly’s Harvest, a farm-to-table restaurant in the historic Caenen Castle at 12401 Johnson Drive.

She says she wasn’t very familiar with “Top Chef” before she was on the show.

“I never watch cooking shows because they give me such high anxiety,” Kelly says. “I (cook) every single day. Why would I want to come home and watch what I do?”

Kelly says her goal going into “Top Chef” was to shine a spotlight on Kansas City’s culinary scene and to solidify her personal food philosphy, which is all about making healthy, nourishing food with local, seasonal ingredients.

“It gives me an opportunity to show people that Kansas City is awesome,” Kelly says. “We’re in the center of the country, and we’re doing amazing things here. Plus, we’re all really nice, great people.”

The chef is back in the kitchen at Harvest, and probably won’t be watching “Top Chef” this week.

“We have a packed house on both nights,” she says, “so I will be on the line. I’ll be sweating — probably doing the grill station — making the food I love so much for all the people who helped get me on the show.”

For more about Renee Kelly, who is a contributor to The Star’s Chow Town blog, go to bravotv.com to check out her official “Top Chef” bio and introduction video.

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