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What to Expect on “Top Chef”'s New Season in Wisconsin: 'People Will Be Surprised,' Says Tom Colicchio (Exclusive)

Gail Simmons, Tom Colicchio and Kristen Kish serve up a few secrets about the new Wisconsin edition of the show, which premieres on Wednesday

<p>David Moir/Bravo</p> Top Chef

David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef's Tom Colicchio, Kristen Kish and Gail Simmons

When Top Chef premieres on Wednesday night, it's bringing new rules, a new host and a new setting.

The cheftestants traveled to Wisconsin for the show's 21st season, which means devoted fans of the Bravo cooking competition series are in for a surprising treat, according to longtime judge Gail Simmons.

"A lot of people have preconceived notions of Milwaukee as beer and cheese and frozen custard," Simmons, 47, tells PEOPLE. "But they aren't giving credit to the state of Wisconsin in terms of making it a true craft. There are real artisans here."

Simmons credits Top Chef producers with "doing really deep dives in their research" before the cast even arrives. "So we come here with a lot of really great information about the city, and we try to do it justice, because every city has extraordinary stories to tell," says Simmons.

Related: Top Chef Gets 'Shaken Up' with New Rules and Kristen Kish as Host — See the Trailer and Meet the Chefs (Exclusive)

<p>David Moir/Bravo</p> The Top Chef season 21 kitchen

David Moir/Bravo

The Top Chef season 21 kitchen

Judge Tom Colicchio agrees.

"Wherever we go we always find a particular culture that's there — not even necessarily a restaurant culture, but traditions that go way back to whichever group settled somewhere, and whatever recent demographic is here as well," adds the acclaimed chef, 61. "I think people will be surprised."

"We want to show all of that because that is so integral to the food story of Milwaukee," Simmons adds. "I'm really excited that there will be German influence, and Hmong influence, and Serbian influence and indigenous influence. That all plays out in the way people here eat."

In its first few weeks, the competition was "a little uneven," Colicchio teases. "I think it's a lot of nerves. But that's every season. It takes a little while to settle in. But once they do settle in and I think they realize that we just want their food, it's okay."

<p>David Moir/Bravo</p> The Top Chef season 21 kitchen

David Moir/Bravo

The Top Chef season 21 kitchen

Someone else who's settling in is new judge and host Kristen Kish, who won season 10 of Top Chef after redemption on Last Chance Kitchen. Kish, 40, replaces departing host Padma Lakshmi, who exited following season 20 last year.

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"I think everyone's really happy," Colicchio shares. "If Padma had to leave, they were happy to see Kristen."

Kish seems happy, too. "I find myself saying stuff and getting goosebumps," she says of some of the show's iconic lines. However, telling a contestant to "pack your knives and go" for the first time "sucked," she adds.

<p>David Moir/Bravo</p> Top Chef's Kristen Kish, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons

David Moir/Bravo

Top Chef's Kristen Kish, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons

"I know what it feels like when you're asked to leave the competition — it's not a nice thing to hear or say," she shares. "But being here is already a really fantastic accomplishment. There are so many people who try out for the show and not a lot of chefs make it. So the fact of the matter is they got on, they did a challenge and hopefully they can walk away with their head held high."

Related: Top Chef Winners: Where Are They Now?

Kish credits her colleagues with making the transition from contestant to guest judge to full-time host a positive one for her.

"Obviously this is a fantastic job, but the consistent support has been a really fantastic thing, from both the crew and Tom and Gail," she shares. "You get to come to work and see people that you really admire."

Top Chef premieres Wednesday, March 20, at 9 p.m. ET on Bravo.

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