Food & Drink

Renee Kelly Competes for ‘Top Chef’ Title

Kansas City’s own Renee Kelly discusses competing on the upcoming season of “Top Chef.”

Photo by Andrew Eccles/Bravo

The world is about to watch Renee Kelly compete on season 13 of Bravo’s hit cooking competition “Top Chef,” debuting on Dec. 2 and 3. One person who won’t likely won’t be tuning in? The Renee Kelly’s Harvest chef herself.

“I hate it,” Kelly says of TV’s food competition trend with a warm laugh. “I say that tongue in cheek. Food TV has really done a lot of great stuff for our industry, but I don’t go home and I don’t watch my career. Who does that?”

To be fair, Kelly has done a lot of things that most chefs don’t do, starting with enrolling at Texas A&M University to study biomedical science. Around the time she was growing uninterested with the reading-intensive program, the university experienced a tragedy when its traditional bonfire collapsed, killing 12 students and injuring 27.

All Kelly could think to do was cook for the people searching for survivors and trying to clean up the wreckage who she realized probably hadn’t had a chance to eat.

“I thought, ‘You know what, maybe there’s something to this,'” she says. Soon she had dropped out of school and was pursuing yet another career path: art. But that too was short lived after the instructor of her sculpture class, a man she remembers as “super tall and very skinny” came in uncharacteristically upset, proclaiming he was literally a starving artist after going unpaid for recent projects.

At that moment, Kelly had one thought: “If I go to culinary school, I can totally eat like a queen. I will never have to worry about food,” she says.

Don’t let the pragmatism of her decision fool you; Kelly is deeply passionate about food, as fans of Renee Kelly’s Harvest, the farm-to-table restaurant she opened in Shawnee’s Caenen Castle after years of operating it as first a supper club and then a wedding and event venue, can attest.

“I always cooked in the kitchen with my mom, and she was the one who taught me not only to cook from a recipe but to pay attention to the way that food smells and the way that it looks when all the flavors are combined and they come together,” Kelly says. “She always told me that a cookbook is to write in, and it’s to dog-ear, and it’s to have stained, and it’s merely a guide. I started way back then. As a matter of fact, I would negotiate out chores from my two older brothers: ‘If I make you donut holes, I don’t want to do laundry.'”

Clearly a natural businesswoman, Kelly also took an early interest in the environment—”I was that kid on Earth Day who would knock on people’s doors and ask them to recycle when there were no recycling bins anywhere,” she says. That emphasis on sustainability is evident from her food, made from locally sourced ingredients used in their entirety.

“It’s very familiar food, but it’s done well and it’s always done with intention,” Kelly explains. (Reservations are in demand now more than ever, so don’t wait to book a table.)

Her approach to cooking has won her many fans, including people who voiced their dismay when Renee Kelly’s Harvest was left off a list of KC’s top 10 restaurants at the beginning of the year. Their response caught the attention of Bravo’s production department, which reached out to Kelly about appearing on the Emmy Award-winning and James Beard Award-winning “Top Chef,” which this season embarks on an epic gastronomic road trip up the coast of California.

“I’ve always said I will never apply to any of this stuff, but if somebody calls me, I will pay attention to the opportunity,” Kelly says. Pay attention she did, and after going back and forth, she made the decision to go for it. “I know that I’m really solid in my skill set, and I know that the competition is completely outside of my box, and I thought, ‘Well, why not?'”

Although she can’t talk about the specifics of her time on the show, Kelly does say it was a wonderful experience.

“It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” she adds. “It was really amazing to be around all of that talent. It’s a very interesting experience as well just to see a completely different aspect of what is kind of shaping and molding our industry right now.”

Back home, Kelly says she’s honored by the outpouring of support—several customers have told her they’re hosting watch parties to cheer her on. But she will likely be busy working when “Top Chef” airs and, after all, she’s not one for watching food shows anyway.

“I do have all the DVDs of Julia Child,” she points out. “That’s really all I need.” We can think of one other thing that might come in handy: the “Top Chef” title.

Catch Kelly, the lone competitor from the Midwest, on the show’s two-night premiere Wednesday, Dec. 2 and Thursday, Dec. 3 at 9 p.m. –Kelsey Cipolla