LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) – On Thursday, when Kentucky Commissioner of Tourism Kristen Branscum watches the season premiere of “Top Chef” Kentucky on Bravo, she predicts there will be a sense of relief, pride and perhaps even a few tears.
“I think there will be a sense of relief to finally see it airing and pride to see Kentucky on the international stage for everyone to see,” said Branscum, a UK alumna. “This show is an open invitation to the world to come see us.”
The Russell Springs native earned a master's degree in secondary English education in 2001 and a master's degree in sports administration in 2003 from the UK College of Education.
University of Kentucky Now recently had a chat with Branscum, at the famed Keeneland Racecourse to talk all things "Top Chef," tourism and her love for the University of Kentucky.
UK: So, how did you work to persuade "Top Chef" to film in Kentucky?
KB: Tourism basically comes down to economic development. What we want to do is get people outside of the state, to spend their time and their money in Kentucky and leave having a great time, going back and telling all their friends and then they bring their friends here. With "Top Chef," we wanted to swing big. "Top Chef" has a demographic and an audience that, with our marketing budget, you usually can’t pay for, so we took a big swing riding the bourbon wave and the culinary wave that we’re experiencing in this state with some great chefs and great restaurants and our local food. We pitched it, brought them here and we had an incredible week, kind of going all throughout Kentucky.
UK: How much work went into bringing "Top Chef" to Kentucky?
KB: I will say a lot of hard work, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of back and forth, a lot of worry, we were in a competition. "Top Chef" is highly sought after. We had to be at the top of our game, no pun intended, at all times. What was so great, that whether it was Lexington, Louisville, Lake Cumberland, everywhere we went in the state, everybody pitched in and just got it done.
UK: When you found out they picked Kentucky, what went through your mind?
KB: When I got the call, it was very surreal. It still wasn’t real until I saw it in People magazine, and then I was like “oh my gosh this is real.”
UK: What should fans and viewers watch for during this season of "Top Chef" (that’s within your consent agreement)?
KB: You really need to watch every episode. There is so much Kentucky throughout the episodes! I think that’s going to be very exciting, to see Kentucky all the way through, and really kind of take in what others see and how they see Kentucky. And we all know, since that’s public knowledge, you know, they did film the episode at Rupp, so I think that’s going to be very exciting. I will say they were blown away by how many people showed up (at Rupp).
UK: Was that a really proud moment for you, when you were in Rupp, home of your alma mater?
KB: It was an incredible experience to be in Rupp Arena. You know, they were so taken aback by how loud UK fans can be and we kind of just knew when to cheer on cue. It was incredible to walk in there and see UK and "Top Chef" on the big screen and just really to share the University of Kentucky with the world through a different type of medium and different viewership than we would normally have.
UK: What would you say is the most fulfilling part of your job?
KB: The most fulfilling part of my job is seeing someone who’s not from Kentucky, coming to Kentucky and having a great experience and walking away feeling like a Kentuckian and feeling like family.
UK: What is your philosophy when it comes to promoting Kentucky?
KB: I actually had a T-shirt made up that said, “Why Not,” why not Kentucky? I think that’s what we really have to think about as Kentuckians and as students at UK. Why not us? I think for far too long, we kind of discounted ourselves, maybe as a state. You know, we are good, and we are worthy of having international acclaim. (I see it as, you) take a swing. If we miss, we miss, and we know where to go next, and take another swing.
UK: How did your time at UK help prepare you for this role?
KB: Through my work at UK Athletics, I learned to have a swagger about what you’re selling, to just believe in your product. Through my sports management classes, I learned the value of really just owning it, believing it and selling it. I get to sell my home state and it’s the best job ever.
UK: How proud are you to be an alumna of this university?
KB: I think we’re all proud when we wear our UK gear, but I’m proud to have received a degree and to have gone through two programs that really pushed me. I know I got the best degree I could have out of both my programs and it really set me up for success. We have top caliber academic programs, a top caliber athletics department and a top hospital at UK … I think that as an alumnus, you can hold your head high knowing it’s the best education and the best experience you can get in the nation.
UK: What advice do you have for UK students?
KB: Don’t be scared or afraid to change your mind. Don’t be afraid to figure out what you really want to do because school is a very short time, and you’re going to be working the rest of your life, so you better love it, and you better do what you want to do.
Season 16 of Bravo’s "Top Chef" premieres 9 p.m. Eastern (8 p.m. Central) Thursday, Dec. 6.