Making Her Connection
Top Chef alum Kristen Kish is about to embark on a new adventure co-hosting an upcoming Travel Channel show inspired by New York Times‘ “36 Hours” column. What will this mean for her culinary career and will fans be able to connect with her in the same candid way?
story by OLIVER SARIA
photography by AUSTIN HUCK, Hive Studio
styling by CASSIE HUCK, Hive Studio
hair and makeup by LORI GREENE, Ennis Inc.
In late 2012, as Kristen Kish left defeated challengers in her wake on Last Chance Kitchen—the online companion show to Bravo’s Top Chef, where eliminated contestants go head-to-head for a chance to return to the competition—key characteristics of Kish’s cooking style solidified, like a perfectly tempered ganache.
Kish—the eventual winner of Top Chef, Season 10, and only the second female to have won the title—created dishes along the way that were deceptively simple, belying their true complexity. She successfully translated her inventiveness through impeccable technique, whether it was her perfectly pan-fried chicken livers with pickled fruit and caramel garlic sauce; her orecchiette with brown butter herbs and (surprisingly) pomegranate; or the judges’ favorite in the finale: her celery root purée with bone marrow and mushrooms. Regardless of the frantic environment, her food remained focused, composed and balanced.
In many ways, Kish’s personality seemed to mirror her food; even when her nerves kicked in, she remained focused. Hardly a ruffle disturbed her neatly styled, short-cropped hair; she balanced authentic emotion with composure, confidence with humility; and her actions and words always felt genuine—unvarnished but never unhinged, balanced at all times. And though she said she never wanted to be on television, the camera loved her anyway. Boston Magazine described her allure this way: “Kish’s friendly yet badass demeanor (not to mention model good looks) earned her a legion of fans the nation over.”
Now, the producers of 36 Hours, a forthcoming show on the Travel Channel to debut later this year, are banking on Kish’s appeal, tapping her (along with former professional soccer player and current studio analyst Kyle Marino) to host a series based on the popular weekly New York Times column of the same name. Six episodes have been ordered, though at the time of printing, the destination cities had yet to be announced. In each hourlong episode, according to the press release, the hosts have a day and a half to “explore the most delicious foods and hot spots, meet fascinating local insiders and experience the best attractions unique to each destination.” At the time of our interview, Kish had already shot one location and was leaving for the next in a few days.
Kish’s new hosting gig marks her first major career move after winning Top Chef three years ago. She passed on opportunities to publish cookbooks, open her own restaurant or host her own cooking show—opting, instead, to return to Boston and continue to work for close friend and mentor, famed chef/restaurateur Barbara Lynch, as chef de cuisine at Lynch’s crown jewel, the fine-dining establishment, Menton, located in Fort Point.
For Kish, the opportunity to be paid to travel was just too tantalizing. “I think you’d be pretty stupid to pass this up,” she says, laughing, during a phone interview from her home in Boston. “It’s pretty much an amazing dream job.”
There are definitely worse ways to make a living besides eating your way around the globe to the vicarious thrill of viewers at home. No one understands this more than Lynch herself, who was responsible for recommending Kish for Top Chef. According to Kish, “[Barbara] was so happy when I finally got to tell her [about 36 Hours]. She was like, ‘This is so much better than being a chef in one of my restaurants. This is spectacular. Do this while you can.’”
No one would blame Kish for retreating from the kitchen or for balking at opening her own restaurant. The food industry is notoriously brutal—both physically and financially—equally apt to burn through your savings as well as your flesh. But Kish insists that being a chef will not take a backseat to being a television host. “If anything, it’s just completely ramping it up for me. Chefs and cooks—we all read these books about chefs around the world and look at their food and taste it through the pages,” she explains. “I just get to do that firsthand.”
The way Kish sees it, travel will only enhance her cooking. “As chefs, we find inspiration not just through food, we find it through our experiences in life and people that we meet,” she says.
So now that she’s embarking on this new avenue of her culinary career, what type of television personality will Kish be? The success of food/travel shows often hinge not merely on the concept, but on the appeal of the host and the viewers’ connection with him (and, yes, by-and-large, the hosts are men, mostly middle-aged white everyman types). Anthony Bourdain (No Reservations, Parts Unknown) is the acerbic hedonist with a literary bent, the Hunter S. Thompson of the genre. Andrew Zimmern (Bizarre Foods) is the relentlessly affable Minnesotan who never met a plate of testicles he didn’t crave.
For fans of Kish from Top Chef, it remains to be seen how much she will get to share about herself, or if she’ll be presented as the “friendly badass” fans had grown to love. For her part, Kish hopes viewers will connect with her genuine sense of wonder. “I’m hoping that someone watching is going to see and be able to experience with me things that I had never had before,” she says. “Food is my world and it’s my life, but do I know everything about it? Absolutely not.”
Owing to the fact that she has spent much of her adult life in the kitchen, the 30-year-old actually hasn’t traveled all that much. Kish began her training at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago at age 19, then had a “brutal epiphany” in her early 20s that inspired her to escape an ill-fated executive chef position and the pitfalls of her increasingly heavy past drug use by moving to Boston, where she landed a lowly linecook gig. Her first trip to Los Angeles’ Koreatown, in fact, was shortly after the fellas of Seoul Sausage Company (Ted Kim, Chris Oh and Yong Kim) interviewed her for KoreAm in April 2013 and offered to take her on a tour.
“I’ve never had such a whirlwind eating and drinking experience ever. It was crazy,” she says, laughing. “From the moment I met them in front of Seoul Sausage, to the second we got into the car, to when we pulled out of K-town, it was sensory overload—all in the best way.”
Kish was born in Seoul, adopted at 4-months-old by a Caucasian family and raised in Kentwood, Michigan, close to Grand Rapids. Trips to Walt Disney World in Orlando with mother Judy, father Michael and older brother Jonathan were about as far as the family ventured. Though she grew up eating delicious, hearty Midwestern meals, Kish’s early exposure to food was not particularly vast. Her favorite childhood dishes consisted of chicken fingers (still her favorite, by the way), a vegetable soup made from a base of V8 juice and her grandmother’s töltött káposzta, Hungarian stuffed cabbage. An early fascination with the cooking series Great Chefs, which aired on the Discovery Channel, sparked her interest in classic French technique and fostered her appreciation for cuisines that she could see on screen, but never taste.
For Kish, 36 Hours is very much an opportunity to expand her horizons. “I’ve always had this bug to travel and see the world, and working in kitchens the past 15 years, I was confined to a kitchen with a cook’s salary, essentially—so, I didn’t really have the opportunity,” she says. “But that didn’t stop me from dreaming and one day, hopefully, being able to do that. And that fact that I can marry both for my job, it’s pretty spectacular.”
One destination, in particular, still remains on her bucket list. Upon winning Top Chef, Kish tearfully told viewers she planned to visit South Korea in the very near future to see where she came from and to experience what it’s like to be surrounded by people who look like her. But the self-described workaholic quickly found herself rooted once again in the kitchen. “The timing of me not being ready and the timing of my job, I just couldn’t leave [for Korea],” she explains, adding, “I’m hesitating because I need it to be at the right time. It’s definitely a very personal journey, and it’s a personal journey that I would want to share with all those who have supported me. There’s a lot of thought that happens with such a personal trip.”
Kish’s adoption backstory drew the interest of Top Chef viewers, and her openness about her own experiences has made her a role model within the international adoption community. During our interview, she states, “I’m incredibly fulfilled. My family is my family, and those are the people in Michigan, and I don’t know anything other than that.”
She continues, “My adoption is something I’m very proud of. It’s something that I don’t hide, and [which] I like to talk about any part of. It’s definitely shaped who I am.”
Kish’s mere presence on television was (and will likely continue to be) a source of comfort for adoptees, and hearing their stories has a reciprocal effect on her. She recalls tearing up after reading a post written by blogger Martha Nichols about her 11-year-old son, an adoptee from Vietnam, who regarded Kish as the equivalent of a “knight in shining armor.” He and his mother hugged, nearly in tears, as they watched a rare moment on television that captured the duality of the adoptee experience: Kish resting her head on her father’s shoulder, his voice quavering as he beams with pride after her Top Chef win, intercut with her interview where she expresses her need to visit Korea.
It’s a heavy responsibility to be a role model, one that expanded in March 2014 after The New York Times Magazine published a profile of Kish and Lynch that mentioned Kish’s girlfriend, Jacqueline Westbrook. The pair had kept their relationship a secret at first because Westbrook works as an assistant to Dana Cowin, editor of Food & Wine. But with the cat now out of the bag, Kish posted an Instagram photo shortly after the article appeared, commemorating their one-year anniversary.
Only nine months prior to that, Kish came out to her family for the first time during a phone call, which she describes as thus: “I finally got to the point where I called my mom and I was so excited to share the news about Jacque. Was I nervous? Oh, my God—you had no idea how nervous I was. But my mom was like, ‘Oh, well I kinda already knew.’ And that was that.” Kish further explains, “I couldn’t have imagined coming out to my parents and been like, ‘Oh, I’m gay,’ but without having [said], like, ‘I’m in love with somebody already.’ Jacque solidified this for me.”
Kish continues, “I’m in love with this woman, and I want to share that. She was the reason for me to say something. When you’re in love, you just want to share it with anyone who’ll listen.”
Yet, the fact that anyone listens or cares about Kish’s life still surprises her. “I had no idea that these things about me, people could find refuge in, or find safety in. I had no idea,” she says. “It was nice to receive messages and outpouring from the LGBT community. And the ones that are like, ‘I’m adopted AND I’m gay, too!’ Like, holy s—-! I feel very humbled that someone wants to share their story with me,” Kish’s voice beams across the phone line.
Kish isn’t afraid of the responsibility that comes with being a public figure. And the way she speaks about it harkens back to the composure, the balance, the sheer badassery she displayed on Top Chef. She muses, “The more and more I think of myself as being in the public eye, it makes me more confident, so that I become more accepting of myself, which then makes me more of an honest person that people can relate to.”
When it comes to her new gig as a television host, her philosophy is this: “The [hosts] that you connect with wholeheartedly are the ones with whom you feel are being their authentic selves,” she says. Like her cooking, Kish’s approach to television is rooted in a strong foundation. In the kitchen, it’s technique. On air, it’s authenticity.
But no matter what happens with the new show, certain things, according to Kish, will remain the same. She declares, “I will always want my personal life to remain like it always has been.” Secondly, Kish will always cook. “Without cooking,” she says, “I’m going to be a miserable human being. So I have to cook.”
That restaurant she’s always wanted to open—it’s still at the forefront of her mind. But how she defines a restaurant is in flux.
“I’m constantly brainstorming different ways of being able to cook for people because I think a restaurant now is just cooking for people,” she says. She hints that her culinary evolution could veer in that direction. “Perhaps I’ll pop up in different cities and do amazing dinners. The opportunity is there. I’ll leave it at that,” she says.
That also sounds like an intriguing travel show concept.
However Kish defines her career or her life in general, odds are it’ll be a success. When you can define “family” on one’s own terms, and “love” on one’s own terms, then you can do almost anything on your own terms. As Kish has proven numerous times already, she’s up for all sorts of challenges. “If I don’t feel slightly uncomfortable or slightly like I’m being taken out of my comfort zone,” she declares, exhibiting that bravado that has served her well thus far, “then what’s the point in doing it?”
This article was published in the June/July 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June/July issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).