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Colorado “Top Chef” contestant wins first competition on season 21 premiere

Chef Manny Barella went into the premiere episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef” Season 21 terrified of being eliminated first.

“I’ve never been more nervous in my life, even when I proposed to my fiancee,” he joked. “As chefs, we fail in private, but failing in public is a whole different animal.”

Barella, a 2022 James Beard semifinalist in the Emerging Chef category, not only made it out of the first competition alive, but he won the first challenge for his green pozole with chicken and charred salsa verde.

“I had that mirror moment after that, where I looked at myself and thought, ‘Maybe I have what it takes,’” Barella said.

Barella previously worked at Michelin-starred Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, as well as a sous chef for Uchi and executive chef and partner at the now-closed Bellota in Denver. He is now the culinary director of Camp Pickle, set to open in Denver next year and Jaguar Bolera. Both are “eatertainment” concepts from Punch Bowl Social founder Robert Thompson, who also owned the now-closed downtown Denver restaurant Three Saints Revival.

Barella was approached to join “Top Chef” after an outstanding 2022, where he was nominated for a James Beard Award and earned a Rising Star Award from StarChefs. “It was the year that shaped my career,” he said.

“Top Chef” Season 21 was filmed in Wisconsin last summer. And it was perfect timing for Barella, who had just joined Thompson’s restaurant group months prior. “I was very grateful I got to do this at a time when I have no kids, the restaurants hadn’t broken ground yet, and I could remove myself without as many responsibilities.”

The first episode aired on Wed., March 20 with new ones coming out each week. For the inaugural elimination challenge, the 15 competitors were tasked to either make a soup, a stuffed pasta or a whole roasted chicken.

“I’ve seen the level that a ‘Top Chef’ brings, and as my own worst critic, I’m only as good as my last plate,” Barella said. “I never thought I’d be able to be at a level that would even allow me the opportunity to interview for ‘Top Chef.’”

Barella, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, got the soup category and immediately knew he’d make a pozole. “Even if it was the only dish I made on ‘Top Chef,’ I wanted it to be Mexican,” he said.

Barella moved from his hometown 14 years ago “with nothing but a bunch of family recipes,” he shared on the show. He went to law school for three years before he decided to start cooking at 24 years old. “When I started cooking, it was mostly because I wanted to eat, and learn how to make myself tacos because I couldn’t afford the nice restaurants,” he said. “Next thing I know, I’m competing on ‘Top Chef.’”

His secret to pozole: pure memory. “Recipe books don’t tell you the secrets that grandma did,” he said.

In the end, judges and chefs Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Milwaukee restaurateur Paul Bartolotta and Kristen Kish, Season 10 winner and the new host, crowned Barella supreme.

“Manny’s dish was just everything that I wanted,” Kish said on the show. “The cabbage had the crunch you wanted. The chicken was wonderful to bite into.”

“To make a Wisconsin bowling analogy, he rolled that thing right down the center, man,” Bartolotta said on the show.

Barella earned the first immunity of the season and will be safe in the next episode, guaranteeing him a spot in episode 3. In the meantime, he’ll be serving up his winning dish as a greeting to guests at his “Mientras” pop-up, taking place at Cantina Loca in LoHi with reservations available on March 25-26 and April 1-2. The four-course menu ($110 per person) features vibrant and flavorful dishes like roasted broccolini with green mole, lobster tetela, butternut squash barlotto, birria mafaldine and 100-layer lasagna.

“I speak two languages, and I was speechless,” Barella said of his first “Top Chef” win.

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