Top Chef’s New Season Has Tons of Boston Flavor

Dorchester’s own Valentine Howell Jr. competes in Wisconsin-set Season 21. Plus, Boston-trained chef Kristen Kish becomes the show’s host, and more local connections.

A man with a full beard and long dreads wears a white chef's coat with Top Chef branding and stands smiling for a portrait in a large pantry.

Valentine Howell Jr. / Photo by Stephanie Diani/Bravo

Dorchester native Valentine Howell Jr. had a wave of nausea while standing at the judges’ table, but once the Boston-based chef reminded himself that this was real life, he was able to smile for the rolling cameras and accept the comments he’d always dreamed of receiving.

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“It was nerve-racking and fantastic all at the same time,” says Howell, 38. “I’ve been watching Top Chef since the inception of the show, dreaming: One day, maybe I want to be on it. But I never thought the time was right.” Now, with a James Beard award nomination to his name from his time at critically-acclaimed Back Bay restaurant and wine bar Krasi, and plans in the works to develop his own restaurant, “I told everybody this was going to be my year,” Howell says, “and here it was.”

Howell’s family is Italian American, Jamaican, and Haitian. “It’s just an explosion of flavor every time we get together,” he says. (It didn’t hurt that his father was a hotel chef during Howell’s youngest years.) Howell got into the culinary arts as a kid attending after-school programs at the local Boys & Girls Club and went on to the culinary program at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury. He earned a bachelor’s degree in hospitality and restaurant management from Newbury College in 2009.

Throughout school and after graduation, Howell worked in Boston-area kitchens under the wings of Lydia Shire, a decorated and beloved titan of local cuisine, at Locke-Ober and Towne Stove & Spirits, as well as under Andy Husbands at Tremont 647. Howell also did a long stint at Legal Harborside and worked at Seaport steakhouse Mastro’s Ocean Club before jumping ship to serve as opening executive chef of Krasi.

At the time, around 2019, Howell was burnt out on restaurant life, he says. Before reconnecting with former coworker Kayla Padilla, a partner at Krasi who recruited him, “I was actually gonna just call it a day” in the industry, he says. He was contemplating joining his father as a union-protected heavy machinery operator. “I had been trying to break through that ceiling for a while,” he says, about having culinary control and creative freedom in the kitchen.

Greek food wasn’t his specialty, but he was familiar with broader Mediterranean cuisine, “so it was a challenge and a learning opportunity,” he says. “[Opening Krasi] was my break, so I took it. And I mean, look what happened.”

Krasi quickly landed on Boston’s Top 50 Restaurants list, where it remains at No. 17 this year, and in 2023, the distinguished James Beard Foundation named Howell a semifinalist for Best Chef: Northeast. “We got tons of accolades there, and I couldn’t be more proud of myself and the team for everything we accomplished,” Howell says. Last year, when Top Chef reached out, it was only the latest step in the chef’s steady ascension.

That’s why Howell recently stepped away from Krasi and its parent company, Xenia Greek Hospitality. Despite the continued growth of the restaurant group, led by Best of Boston chef Brendan Pelley, “I knew I wanted to do so much more, and I was capable of so much more,” Howell says. “I was super grateful for the experience, but I felt like it was just time to go.”

Currently, Howell is head chef at EF Education First, cooking for hundreds of employees Monday through Friday at the company’s Cambridge headquarters. He also oversees Lingo, an onsite bar and café that’s open to the public, “where I can have some fun serving up bar food and snacks,” he says. The corporate pace and schedule gives Howell the space to focus on developing his own culinary concept. “[EF has] welcomed me with open arms and really made it a great transition,” he says.

Howell and his fiancée and business partner, Renea Adger, launched Black Cat, a taco-focused pop-up, during the restaurant shutdown of 2020. Lately, it’s been a regular presence at Lamplighter Brewing’s location on Broadway in Cambridge. The duo, who also work with line cook Radmary Bernabel, are scouting locations to host seated, multi-course dinners.

Howell’s “[culinary] range is wide,” he says, but Black Cat focuses on African, Latino, and Caribbean cuisines and the intersections therein. “Tacos are vehicles” to showcase those flavors, Howell says. “For example, last week we were doing a jerk-carne asada with a sweet plantain-cabbage slaw. That’s something that you’d get as a dish at a Jamaican restaurant, but combining that all into one on a taco—my mouth is watering as I say it.”

With Black Cat, Howell is taking notes from his own family meals, as well as other area restaurants such as Comfort Kitchen in Dorchester. “We’d like to be part of that collective of restaurants bringing something new to the dining scene here in the inner city,” Howell says.

Meanwhile, his experience on Top Chef “really sparked something in me,” Howell says. Meeting the other contenders, many of whom are in business for themselves, was inspirational. “It had been a while since I’ve been surrounded by energy like that,” he says. “Chefs have weird hours, you know. They rarely get to spend time with each other.”

But it was also a strange experience for a longtime Top Chef fan. For one thing, this season raises the stakes by forgoing the franchise staple of “immunity” granted for a first-round, “quickfire” win.

Five celebrities in the food world sit at a long table with glasses of wine on the set of Top Chef.

Kristin Kish (center), once based in Boston, is the new host for Top Chef in Season 21. She sits with Adam Siegel, Paul Bartolotta, Tom Colicchio, and Gail Simmons (from left). / Photo by David Moir/Bravo

Most notably, Season 21 is the first in nearly two decades without host, Padma Lakshmi. The supermodel-turned-culinary-commentator announced her departure from Top Chef last summer, before filming began in Wisconsin. Boston-trained chef Kristen Kish, who won Season 10 of the show just before becoming chef de cuisine at Menton, stepped into the role. Since leaving Boston in 2014, Kish has gone on to open Austin restaurant Arlo Gray, pen her first cookbook, and host a culinary-travel show and the Netflix remake of Iron Chef. She also costars with fellow Top Chef alumni Jeremy Ford and Justin Sutherland in the TruTV reality show Fast Foodies.

Kish’s Top Chef casting didn’t surprise Howell. “She brings so much experience to the show,” he says. Another Boston-bred culinarian lends her skills to Season 21: Stephanie Cmar, a finalist from the 2020 season of Top Chef All Stars, is a culinary producer this year. Plus, one of the other contestants, New Orleans-based Charly Pierre, is originally from Cambridge.

No spoilers, of course, but Howell says he didn’t receive any preferential treatment from folks with Boston connections, though he had met both Kish and regular Top Chef judge Gail Simmons, who has a family home in Gloucester, before being selected. (He doesn’t think either remembers meeting him before Wisconsin. But that’s OK, he says, adding with a laugh, “I remember, and that’s all that matters.”)

Howell says standing before the esteemed panel of judges, which also includes New York City chef Tom Colicchio and many special guests from the culinary world, was surreal and extremely cool. However, he wasn’t excited to watch the show. “Hearing myself and seeing myself? I wasn’t going to watch it,” he says, laughing. But during last night’s premiere he ended up staying in the room with a few friends and family members, including his fiancée and his 15-year-old daughter, Anaiyah, “the whole time nervously tapping my leg.”

Presenting his own food to the people of Boston? That he’s stoked to do. Lingo Cafe & Bar at EF is open weekdays until 9:30 p.m., and Black Cat is popping up this Sunday, March 24, at Lamplighter Brewing Co. on Broadway. (Follow on Instagram to see where it’ll be next.)

Three chefs cook in the kitchen in a set photo from Bravo's Top Chef Season 21.

Dorchester native Valentine Howell Jr. (center) and Cambridge native Charly Pierre (right) compete in the first episode of Top Chef’s 21st season. Competitor Kaleena Bliss is in the background. / Photo by David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef’s season 21 premiered March 20 on Bravo, and new episodes are available to stream Thursdays via Peacock and