From the first episode of Top Chef Season 10, I was rooting for Kristen Kish: She entered the competition with her co-worker-slash-best-friend (they’re still tight), she’s a Bostonian (by way of Chicago), and she is girl-crush-worthy gorgeous (she models, too, NBD).
After getting eliminated towards the end of the season, Kish won Last Chance Kitchen, the show’s internet spinoff, and earned a spot in the season finale. And homegirl won it all. I got a chance to sit down with her in the dining room of the Barbara Lynch institution, Menton, where she now works (Kish left Stir, another Lynch establishment, last month), and I’m now rooting for her even more. She’s nice, she’s frank, she’s funny, she knows her strengths and she’s confident in a steadfast way that makes you believe in her…in a word, she’s totally inspiring.
(Special thanks to L&C photog Andrew Wang for not only taking fabulous photos, but for setting this interview up).
AFTER WINNING TOP CHEF, YOU’RE BACK IN BOSTON, AND YOU’VE LEFT STIR FOR MENTON. WHAT’S THAT BEEN LIKE?
It’s different. Stir was the only job I’ve had [where I taught classes]. I love restaurants, and I wanted to get back into one. Stir was a really good opportunity and a great learning experience, and I want to carry that with me here.
DO YOU HAVE A VISION FOR MENTON? DO YOU WANT TO CHANGE ANYTHING?
Obviously I want to do my food. The food is already fantastic as it is, so I’m not going to recreate anybody else’s stuff. So, I’m going to stick to beautiful, refined, perfectly executed, French-Italian influences and then just pepper in whatever inspiration I just get from traveling and eating at fantastic places.
WHAT’S THE BASIC PREMISE OF THE MENTON MENU?
It’s all about experimenting; food doesn’t need to be complicated. As long as you have really beautiful ingredients, you don’t have to do much to it. It’s about highlighting what you have.
YOU’RE STICKING WITH BARBARA LYNCH GRUPPO. WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE PART OF SUCH A CELEBRATED RESTAURANT GROUP?
It’s a great way to make friends! [The company] becomes your family: front of the house, back of the house, everybody in between, people who don’t even work in the restaurants. You get to know a lot of great people. Especially being in restaurants where you’re working a lot, and you’re here 14 – 16 hours a day, sometimes even more, it’s nice to have friends at work.
DO YOU CONSIDER BARBARA LYNCH TO BE A MENTOR?
Yeah, friend, mentor, boss, kind of everything wrapped into one package.
ANY THOUGHTS OF OPENING UP YOUR OWN RESTAURANT?
Oh sure, absolutely. I think that most chefs and people in restaurants would like to have something of their own. But when the time is right I will.
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF STAYING IN BOSTON?
Yes. Obviously, I want to give it a few years at Menton, and then who knows.
WHEN YOU’RE NOT WORKING, WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO AROUND THE CITY?
Well, eat. [Laughs]. Yes.
In Cambridge, at West Bridge – I spent some time with Matthew Gaudet [of West Bridge] in Aspen, and he’s fantastic and his food is beautiful. Chinatown, I like Chinatown. Obviously all of the Barbara Lynch restaurants. I think I frequent The Butcher Shop and No. 9 Park the most. Oleana in Cambridge, my favorite. I kind of like to go to places where I don’t necessarily do that food. And then that’s fun to get inspiration from something completely out of my wheelhouse.
WHAT DO YOU COOK WHEN YOU’RE AT HOME?
Nothing! I legit don’t cook at home. Ever. a) I am never at home, and b) you don’t want to do what you do all day at home. I will say that if I go to a friend’s house, I’ll cook. I enjoy cooking for my friends. It’s not satisfying to cook for myself. So I’ll make homemade pasta–really, really homey stuff–a beautiful roast chicken, or some other roasted meat, and mashed potatoes, vegetables…nothing foofy.
AFTER A LONG DAY AT WORK, WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE COMFORT FOODS?
Bread and butter, rolls, chicken fingers, french fries, onion rings. I like dirty food. Macaroni and cheese. Things that are super, super easy…and that can be delivered in the matter of 30 minutes.
DIDN’T YOU GO ON TOP CHEF WITH YOUR ROOMMATE?
Yes, Stephanie Cmar. We lived in the same apartments. She’s the sous chef at No. 9, so we work at the same company. We’re still best friends.
IS TV SOMETHING THAT YOU WOULD DO AGAIN?
Before going on Top Chef, I would have said TV was just not my thing. I wanted to be in the kitchen. That being said, I am not oblivious to the fact that television can help market you in a really great way if it’s done right. If I were to go back, I’d want to represent myself as a chef, and not prove myself as a chef. So finding that balance is important. You don’t want to be away from the kitchen too long.
IF YOU WERE TO HAVE YOUR OWN COOKING SHOW, WHAT WOULD THE PREMISE BE?
I guess my style of food is not complicated, it’s not fluffy, but I like to think it’s creative, perfectly executed and done with beautiful technique. I’d hope somebody could pick up something from watching the show, even if they didn’t cook the whole dish…a little trick that triggers a light bulb. I love beautiful cuisine, but it’s also important to make people realize it’s something they can do in their own home. Food and cooking is supposed to be from your heart, it’s supposed to taste good, everything else is just plus.
SINCE YOU’RE THE SECOND WOMAN TO WIN TOP CHEF, AND THE FIRST ASIAN WOMAN, DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE A ROLE MODEL ON TV?
When I am cooking, I don’t necessarily think I am a girl or that I am Asian, I am just a chef. But that being said, these are obviously questions that I get often, and it makes me realize that people do look at people on television like that. So I try to stay cognizant of it.
NOW THAT YOU’RE TOP CHEF, DO YOU EVER FEEL ANY ADDED PRESSURE THAT PEOPLE ARE CRITIQUING YOU MORE OR THAT YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO LIVE UP TO?
There’s definitely scrutiny. Had no one known who I was, and I doubt they would have made a press release that I was coming to Menton. But I think it’s good pressure. It makes me want to do better. Also, it creates some buzz for not only myself but for the group and the restaurant.
DO YOU WORK WELL UNDER PRESSURE?
Yes, I like it. Pressure is good. It makes you focus a little bit more. It’s a good feeling.
Photos by Andrew Wang