New Cindy’s Rooftop Chef Is One of Two Chicago ‘Top Chef’ Contestants

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It’s about to be all Wisconsin, all the time, for fans of Top Chef when the show returns on Wednesday, March 20 for Season 21. As midwesterners gird themselves for the strong possibility of Dairy State stereotypes and the certainty of ample Miller High Life product placement, it’s a good time for Chicago viewers to acquaint themselves with this season’s local competitors: chef Alisha Elenz, last seen at Bambola in Fulton Market, and Kaleena Bliss, the newish executive chef at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel.

The CAA is a Hyatt venue, where Cindy’s Rooftop provides stellar views high above Michigan Avenue. Bliss will oversee Cindy’s, which is run independently from Cherry Circle Room. That restaurant is operated by local hospitality group Land & Sea Dept.

Elenz is popping up on Thursday, February 22 at the Kinzie Chop House. She’s a past James Beard semifinalist who won a Jean Banchet Award for her work at Mfk in Lakeview, and is a better-known quantity among Chicago diners, Bliss isn’t as recognizable locally. From the beginning of her cooking career at 16 in her hometown of Vancouver, Washington, Bliss has thrown herself into the industry, earning a bachelor’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America and leading kitchens throughout the Puget Sound region. Now she’s shepherding CAA’s rooftop restaurant, Cindy’s, as well as the hotel’s events catering.

A fried fish with Korean side dishes.
A whole-fried branzino with Korean banchan.
Chicago Athletic Association

As Season 21 of Top Chef approaches its premiere, here are five things to know about Kaleena Bliss:

  • Bliss is listed on media materials as from Chicago, but she’s a fairly recent transplant. The Vancouver, Washington native had only visited the city once (“It was February, it snowed 12 inches while I was here,” she says) before signing on for a three-week stint at the Chicago Athletic Association in early 2023. She had no intention of staying in the Midwest, but once she met the culinary team and realized that she could make a difference in its members’ careers, Bliss says she found herself falling in love with the city. The change of heart surprised her boyfriend back home on the East Coast. “He didn’t want to talk about it for like three weeks, but then he warmed up to the idea,” she says, laughing.
  • Top Chef isn’t Bliss’ first reality TV rodeo. In 2022, she emerged victorious on Food Network’s Chopped: Casino Royale and Beachside Brawl, which means she’s armed with plenty of experience cooking under time pressure on camera. Nevertheless, Bliss says nothing — not even watching all 20 previous seasons — could have prepared her for the rigors of Top Chef: “Even though you know what you’re getting into, you don’t know what you’re getting into,” she says. “I have a lot of respect for anybody who’s gone through the circuit, [especially] knowing what I know — not just how hard it [looks to] viewers, but how hard it really is.”
  • Issues around lack of access to mental health support have long plagued the hospitality industry and are a subject of great interest to Bliss, who speaks publicly about her experiences with anxiety and a panic disorder to help others like her feel less isolated. She attributes this in part to the normalization of toxic kitchen culture throughout her early career, conditions which have undergone a dramatic shift over recent years, especially in the wake of early pandemic turmoil. Bliss, 36, points out that chefs of her age group are in an unusual position as they unlearn those harmful patterns. In her view, providing mentorship to her employees is an essential piece of that process. “We’re responsible for fostering this next generation of people who are going to be leading the industry in another 10 years,” she says.
  • Though much of her cooking style is rooted in the seafood and wild greens of the Pacific Northwest, Bliss and her team are striving to bring some playfulness to the menu in a way that won’t alienate hotel guests. For example, there are two types of fried fish. One is a riff on Midwestern fish fry and features a whole branzino that’s dusted in potato starch and fried with its tail curved for a striking presentation. It comes with a collection of banchan-style accompaniments like white kimchi and greens that fill the role of a lettuce wrap, if the customer so chooses.
  • In what might come as a surprise to Chicagoans, Bliss sums up the residents of her new city in a single word: Nice. “Everybody’s so nice!” she says. Though she acknowledges this view may be the result of her years in the “standoffish” Pacific Northwest, Bliss says she was surprised and delighted to encounter the warmth of Midwestern hospitality. “I was suspicious at first, to be honest,” she says.

Chicago Athletic Association

12 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL (312) 940-3552 Visit Website

Cherry Circle Room

12 South Michigan Avenue, , IL 60603 (312) 792-3515 Visit Website

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