Luke Kolpin’s Top Chef journey began when Shota Nakajima—last season’s finalist and fan-favorite pick—called up Bravo and personally recommended his good friend. Apparently Nakajima's word carries a lot of weight: The show offered Kolpin a spot without even auditioning. He hesitated at first after receiving the surprise invite, but ultimately decided to leap into the world of reality television. The Queen Anne–bred chef is one of 15 contestants on the 19th season of Bravo’s Top Chef. The Houston-based installment premieres March 3.
“I definitely never thought I would do anything like this,” Kolpin says. However, if the horrid uncertainty of the pandemic taught him anything, it was to embrace spontaneity in the liminal periods between nationwide shutdowns.
Kolpin is contractually tight-lipped about his season’s details, but he says he learned plenty about himself from the experience. In the intense arena of Top Chef, he says, “dealing with your own demons, your own self” is one of the toughest challenges. He also has a huge amount of respect for his 14 esteemed competitors, and reports that filming lacked the cattiness of many reality shows. (The season will be plenty dramatic, he reassures, just don’t expect chefs to be throwing blenders at each other in fits of rage.)
Kolpin had never considered becoming a chef until age 18, when his best friend pointed out, “all you ever do is cook and eat.” After culinary school at Seattle Central College, he worked at McCormick and Schmick’s and then jumped straight to Canlis’s high-end kitchen. After a year there, he helped some Canlis alumni open Fresh Bistro in West Seattle.
His career assumed a new trajectory when a friend gifted him a book about Noma, Copenhagen’s vanguard of Nordic cuisine. Glossy images of those three-Michelin-star plates resonated with Kolpin: “I realized everything that was in this book was basically Northwest ingredients; all the stuff that I would grow here or cook here or be experiencing…but it was done in a way that I had never seen before.” He vowed to cook there one day.
Less than a year later, he flew to Copenhagen for an internship. What began as an eight-week stint turned into a nearly nine-year run and a full-time job offer just two weeks after his start date.
After nearly a decade in Denmark, ultimately reaching the level of sous chef in Noma’s kitchen, Kolpin moved back home, unwittingly right before the pandemic. He wanted to be close to his family, he says, and defend his title as the self-professed favorite uncle. Since returning, he’s mostly spent time with family, experimented with dishes, and put on a few dinners with friends here and there. That’s the plan for the next year, he says: “Cooking with people I really want to, and having fun with it…since these last years have mentally not been fun for every chef,” says Kolpin.
He does plan to open his own restaurant in the near future, a vegetable- and seafood-heavy spot to showcase his unique take on Northwest food.
Kolpin is understandably trepidatious about watching himself on screen. But, “I guess that I have no choice,” he jokes, since his family already coordinated a weekly viewing party, where his attendance will be undoubtedly mandatory.