Podcast Episode 104

Top Chef Host Kristen Kish: Her Incredible Story from Culinary School to Culinary Stardom

Kristen Kish | 47 Minutes | March 19, 2024

In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Kristen Kish, the new host of Bravo’s Emmy Award-Winning Top Chef.* Kristen is the chef and partner of Arlo Grey in Austin, TX, as well as the founder of Kish Apéritif.

Kristen shares how remaining authentically true to herself has opened unexpected doors of opportunity, such as winning Season 10 of Top Chef and becoming the franchise’s second female winner. Now, coming full circle, Kristen is taking the helm as the host of Season 21, succeeding Padma Lakshmi. Kristen also chats about her experience authoring two cookbooks: “Kristen Kish Cooking: Recipes and Techniques: A Cookbook,” and “It’s All in the Sauce: Bringing Your Uniqueness to the Table.”

Tune in as Kristen details her journey of being chosen as the new host of Top Chef, reflects on the invaluable lessons gleaned from culinary school, and delves into the significance of encouraging children to pursue their curiosity.

*“Top Chef” season 21 premieres on Wednesday, March 20 at 9pm ET/PT on Bravo. Episodes will be available the next day on Peacock.

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I’m speaking with Kristen Kish, the new host of Bravo’s Emmy Award-winning “Top Chef.”

Kristen is also the chef and partner of Arlo Grey in Austin, Texas, as well as the founder of Kish Aperitif, a line of chef-inspired liqueurs designed to elevate anyone’s cocktail craft.

Kish’s career in television began when she competed in and won Season 10 of “Top Chef,” earning the distinction of becoming the franchise’s second female winner.

Now coming full circle, she’s hosting the 21st season, scheduled to air on March 20th. Her credits include co-star of “Fast Foodies,” on truTV/Food Network, and co-host of “Iron Chef” on Netflix.

Kristen also hosts and produces “Restaurants at the End of the World” on National Geographic/Disney+.

In 2023, she was named to TIME 100’s Next, AdWeek’s Creative 100, and Marie Claire’s Power lists. Kristen has also authored two cookbooks: “Kristen Kish Cooking: Recipes and Techniques” and “It’s All in the Sauce: Bringing Your Uniqueness to the Table.”

So join us today as we chat with Kristen about Top Chef Season 21, staying true to yourself in the culinary world, and so much more.

And there she is! Good morning. Good morning, good morning.

Kristen Kish: Good morning. How are you?

Kirk Bachmann: I need to catch my breath. That’s a lot! That’s a lot! Oh my gosh! We are so excited. Thank you so much for taking some time out of the day. I can’t imagine how busy you are. First, as I told you, I’m nervous. I’m excited. I’m happy. I feel like it’s Christmas. I’m chomping at the bit.

But, I’ve got to get right to it. I’ve got to go back to 2006. You graduated from Cordon Bleu in Chicago. I just happened to be involved with Le Cordon Bleu at that time. Here we are, 18 years later, coming full circle. Wow! Just wow! My wife says hello. My daughters say hello. My niece says hello. Students around the corner in the pastry lab here at Escoffier say hello. Welcome. Welcome. Thank you so much.

Kristen Kish: Eighteen years!

Kirk Bachmann: What?!?

Kristen Kish: Wow! Okay. Shocking. It makes you [think] “How old am I?” You know when people are like, “Back in 2001.” You’re like, “I thought it was just a couple years ago.” No. That’s over two decades ago.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s a long time ago.

Kristen Kish: It is.

Happy Accidents and a Big Surprise

Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to go off the script just for a minute there. I play this game every once in a while. As I age, I can remember 20 years ago thinking, “What is it going to be like when I’m 46 or 56.” Did you think about things like that in 2006? Or did you just let it all happen?

Kristen Kish: I kind of let it all happen. I’ve always said my life is a series of happy accidents. So much of it was designed by my own desires and passions and purpose and all that kind of stuff. But for the most part, it was just like one thing led to the next, let to the next, led to the next. I don’t know if I would have ever been able to tell you back then that this is what I wanted because I didn’t know it existed or was an option for me.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s okay, too. It comes to you, that element of surprise, satisfaction. Again, congratulations from everyone. Students keep walking by saying, “Hi! Hi!” I love it. I absolutely love it.

We’ll get to “Top Chef” and all of the accolades, but I wanted to open up [with] Ryan Flynn, who is the senior VP of current production at NBC/Universal. He says, “Kristen Kish represents everything that makes ‘Top Chef’ incredibly special. She’s an acclaimed chef, and her experience as a contestant, winner, and judge, alongside her culinary curiosity” – love that – “makes Kristen the perfect host for the next chapter of ‘Top Chef’ as we take on a new region of the country that we haven’t explored.”

And you mention, in a similar way, “’Top Chef’ is where I started my journey, first as a competing chef, then as a guest judge, and now as a host, and I have the honor of helping to continue to build this brand. It feels like coming home.” Can you take us back to that day? This is always so exciting. When you got that phone call from the network, how did that feel? Did it all make sense?

Kristen Kish: No, none of it made sense at all to me. It was a surprise. Just like everyone saw on Instagram, Padma announced her departure. Naturally, I’m like, “Wow! I wonder who’s going to take that job. That’s a big job. How do you do that after someone’s been the face of it for nineteen seasons.”

It came and went. As you said, I am quite busy. I wasn’t sitting on this thing for quite some time. I carried on with my life. I ended up in Thailand for work, and I was flying back from Thailand, back to New York, [with] a stopover in Dubai. I land in Dubai, I turn my phone back on, and I have texts, missed calls. Everything from one of my managers.

“What is going on? This is either super urgent or something’s really bad. I don’t know what’s going on right now.” I immediately call her as soon as I touch down, turn my phone on. “What’s up? I just landed.”

She was like, “Oh! Bravo wants to talk to you.” I know what that means. I [hadn’t] so far forgotten about what I had just read.

“I have to call you back. I have to get off this plane. I have to get through security. I have to catch my next flight to make it back home.” I called her in the security line. I’m putting my suitcase up. I call her back, and I’m like, “All right, listen. I have about two minutes before they’re going to make me go through this metal detector. What?”

She was like, “Can you be on an airplane? They want you in LA in two days.” Meanwhile, I am in Dubai.

Kirk Bachmann: Around the world.

Kristen Kish: I was like, “Sure! Yeah. I’ll land.” I repacked, and I went back to the airport. Everything just happened really quickly.

“It Just Happened”

Kirk Bachmann: I love…I think I almost felt it when you just said that. Heck, when I saw that Padma was leaving, I thought maybe they’d call me! You had to think about it for a minute! It’s so unbelievably exciting. Is there or was there someone in your life – I want to go all the way back – who encouraged you? Television is tough for so many people. The cameras and all of that. Was there someone who really encouraged you to take that step? I don’t know if you had any fears or not, but to overcome those fears to get in front of the camera. Who was that go-to person back then?

Kristen Kish: I don’t know if I ever had that moment of “I want to be on TV and this is how I’m going to do it.” Culinary school happened because I was miserable at university going for international business and economics, subjects that I had no purpose or business doing. Quite frankly, I wasn’t good at it. After my first year of college, about midway through that semester, I started living at home again.

My mom could see how unhappy I was, and eventually, it got to the place where it was like, “Clearly, you shouldn’t be going back to continue this degree.” She was like, “You’ve always liked cooking. Why don’t you go to culinary school?”

I was like, “Sure?” I think at that point in life – I was nineteen – you’re just trying to find where you want to fit it, just trying everything on for size. I was like, “Sure. It sure is better than what I’m doing right now.”

We drove to Chicago, enrolled me in culinary school, did the whole thing. When I enrolled, there was not one part of me that said, “I want to be on TV one day.” In fact, I have had severe social anxiety my entire life. Nervous in front of cameras, in front of people, in front of large groups of people. That was just never something that I felt like was natural for me.

So when “Top Chef” came along, I don’t know how many decades later – not decades. I guess I was nineteen. Hold on. Let me do the math. I was nineteen when I went to culinary school. I think I was 26 when I started entertaining the phone calls for “Top Chef.” It all happened because my then-boss, Barbara, was like, “’Top Chef’ is looking for more women chefs, and I think you can do it, and I know you can win. So I gave your name forward.”

I was like, “You’ve got to be out of your freaking mind! Absolutely not! No way.” I was cooking for ten people a night. I had a very controlled environment, and that was how I tamed my anxiety – by controlling my environment to make sure it was a safe place for me.

I don’t know what happened. My whole thing was just timing plus the idea of “saying yes until I want to say no” all kind of collided. I just ended up doing it. I don’t know. Things just happened. I couldn’t tell you how. Everything just happened. I didn’t control it.

A French Foundation

Kirk Bachmann: And that’s probably why it comes across so genuine, so real, because you just let it happen. I’m going to sound like I’m lecturing. My wife’s going to kill me. Here’s what I’m going to say. When you mentioned anxiety and being nervous, here’s what I tell my son who is somewhat of a baseball prodigy – he thinks he is, anyway. He’s getting there, but he gets nervous, and I say the same thing before every single game. “You’re nervous because you care. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t feel anything right now. You’re nervous because you care.”

Let me ask you a question, too. Not just because you went to a culinary school with a French brand and all of that. I’m really curious. Here at Escoffier, obviously, with Auguste Escoffier as our foundation, your foundation in French technique, does it influence you? Can you ever leverage? You know more than most, right? Do you leverage that sometimes on the show? “Hey, I know how this is supposed to be.” I’m curious if that’s part of your DNA.

Kristen Kish: When culinary schools started becoming this thing, it was all rooted in French technique. There wasn’t [anyone] saying, “Go to culinary school and learn Korean cooking.” There were courses in international [cuisine] that were offered within the structure of a French brand. By nature and by availability, that’s just what I learned. I think the foundation of French technique is something that I gravitate towards. It’s something that I enjoy. It’s something that I like to be good at because, for me, when that was the thing that was available, I could then take that and incorporate it in so many different ways. It doesn’t mean I have to cook French food. I don’t necessarily think French food is just one thing, just like Korean food isn’t just one thing. You can put your own spin. Once you have this foundation of how to properly braise, sear, roast, what it means to brunoise or dice or whatever, you can apply it to so many different other cultures, so for me that foundation is really the thing that allows me to cook other kinds of food.

Do I wish that there were more international courses in culinary school, especially when I was going? 100 percent. I would have loved to have more than just one class, but that’s the beauty and was the catalyst to so much of my desire to want to travel and to learn to soak in other ways people do things. The French mother sauces are great and all, but also, we can do more, too. Not everything has to be based off of a French mother sauce, if you ask me.

Aligning Yourself, Picking the Right Opportunity

Kirk Bachmann: So well said. Ironically enough, Auguste Escoffier would be really proud hearing that. That was one of his tenets, this idea that it’s just a foundation. He encouraged creativity, so I love that.

Here’s the tough question to always ask because I don’t ever want to underestimate the amount of work that goes into what you do. You make it look so easy, but people have to realize the hours and hours of anxiety and nervousness and what’s going on in front of you with all the cameras. For students or practitioners of this craft who have aspirations to be you, to be on that camera, I’m really curious how someone should prepare themselves mentally for that rigor. Not just physically, not just technically, but mentally for maybe being disappointed at times. Maybe being off key, or being super, super successful. Any thoughts on that?

Kristen Kish: There are a couple ways I look at it, and I feel there are some people – actors, great Oscar winners – that have always known that they wanted to be on the screen. They train that muscle. They learn how to be a better actor, learn how to deliver something. But when you’re asked to be on television for being you, you’ve got to have a firm grasp of what that is. I say that not saying, “I need to have a list of understanding every single part of me,” but I understand where I am challenged the most. I know what I’m good at, but even more than I know what I’m good at, I know what I’m not good at and where I have to work harder to be good at it.

I think that there is an understanding that you don’t ever go on television to become rich and famous. You go on because you want to be there. Or in my case, you kind of go on because it just kind of kept presenting itself. I was like, “Well, yeah. Sure. Why not?” I always align myself. It’s not just television; it’s certain projects that happen to be on television that I gravitate towards. I don’t take every television job; I take the ones where I’m allowed to be myself, where I can flex different muscles of being a professional chef, or me being a curious human being, or me being any other version of myself.

It’s not saying, “I want to go on TV and this is how you do it.” It’s saying, “What means something to you?” And then, if there is an opportunity to share that and showcase that on television, great. If you want to go on “Top Chef?” Man, I don’t know. I don’t even know how I got there. Someone believed in me more than I believed in myself at the time. Again, you have to do it for the right reasons. If you don’t do it for the right reasons, it’s going to fail. It’s going to come off disingenuous, and it’s not going to take you the length that you were hoping for when you initially started out for that.

Kirk Bachmann: So well said. I love that you say, “I understand where I am challenged the most.” That’s humility, being real to yourself. That’s a great lesson for students right there, understanding where they’re challenged the most.

Culinary students are really funny because they just assume they have to get it right the first time.

Kristen Kish: I was that way. Yeah.

A Peek at the New Season

Kirk Bachmann: Now we’re going to Season 21. The backdrop is Wisconsin. Lots of cheese, so we’ll see what happens. I don’t know how much you can disclose or how much you can talk about. Probably not much, but for those who have watched…You got there, if my memory serves me correctly, five times!

Kristen Kish: Last Chance Kitchen.

Kirk Bachmann: Five times! You had to win in Last Chance Kitchen. That’s perseverance. For me as a fan, as a viewer, I have read that there are new rules.

Kristen Kish: There are new rules.

Kirk Bachmann: It seems tough already.

Kristen Kish: None of the rules changed the heart and the soul of the show. “Top Chef” is successful and it has been long running for a reason, and that is because people trust it, not only for entertainment, but they trust it because it’s a true, authentic, genuine place that showcases the talent and skills of a chef when put in challenges. None of that’s being messed with.

For instance, as I read down my bullet points, if anyone comes at me from Bravo saying-

Kirk Bachmann: You heard it here first!

Kristen Kish: It’s in my email! I quote: “For the first time in series history, the chef-testants will have the opportunity to win cash prizes at every Quick Fire and immunity is up for grabs at the elimination challenges.” So basically, Quick Fires, you used to be able to win immunity for that next elimination challenge. Now, all of that, you can’t do it, but there is money attached to every single Quick Fire of the season, so you have a real chance of making some cash.

Kirk Bachmann: Exciting.

Kristen Kish: If you win an elimination challenge, that gives you immunity for the next elimination challenge in the next episode of the following week.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m super curious as you look at your list there. You’re coming in to take over. Did you have some influence, not just as a contestant, but a winner and a fan and a chef? Did you have some influence on what you like to see in the show?

Kristen Kish: You know, I think the producers are good at their jobs because they’ve been doing this for a very long time. A fantastic team. The super size episodes, the Quick Fire, the elimination immunity situation, that was already in motion, and I bet they had been planning that for years. Things like details of challenges, it’s always a conversation. Tom’s always really good about it, him and Gail being executive producers; they also don’t leave me out of the conversation. They earned and deserve that title and that control in a lot of ways.

But when we’re talking about chefs and food, the more the merrier on a point of view, especially me who has gone through it. “Would this be hard? Is this too hard? Are we asking too much or too little?” That conversation is always very transparent. But for the most part, going into the season, it’s buttoned up. There has to be planning involved. Challenges need to be set so we’re not building things on the fly. But consulting opinions is always a thing.

What’s really exciting for me, one of the most exciting parts is, for the longest time the host has always run the Quick Fires. Padma has always been the Quick Fire judge along with perhaps a guest judge, which is great, but it also leaves no room for Tom and Gail to have input or weigh in. What if you need to revert back to a Quick Fire challenge? On the back half of the season, it’s Tom, Gail, and I at every Quick Fire. Then we’re able to add that into the conversation.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow! Was that a producer decision?

Kristen Kish: That was a higher-being decision.

Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t that great?

Kristen Kish: I love it.

Kirk Bachmann: I really love it.

My wife’s going to kill me for telling this story, but when you’re a fan, you’re a fan. When you’re in the industry and a show like, “Top Chef” comes on where you hang on every activity, you feel for the contestants. I can’t remember what season she was. I said earlier I have four kids – three girls, one boy – and when we had our little girl, we had a few names. But we were really immersed in that particular season that Grayson – do you remember Grayson?

Kristen Kish: Sounds familiar.

Kirk Bachmann: She didn’t win, but she was phenomenal. She was effervescent and fun, so my little girl’s name is Grayson after a “Top Chef” contestant!

Kristen Kish: What an impact! Look at that!

Influence of “Great Chefs”

Kirk Bachmann: I love it!

Can we go back to your childhood? I want to talk about you. Just want to talk about you a little bit. You were born in South Korea. You were adopted into a family in Kentwood, Michigan. I’ve read – I’ve read a lot – that you showed this passion, affinity for cooking at a young age. You mentioned your mom’s influence. Can you take me back? I’m fascinated by all the stories. “I was reaching for the counter top. I was picking up stuff off the ground.” When did that passion hit you a little bit? Or was it later when your mom said, “Hey, you like cooking. Go to culinary school”?

Kristen Kish: I don’t know. It certainly was a passion at five years old. It was intrigue and curiosity. I always said cooking became a part of my life because at five, six years old, when you’re watching TV in that allotted amount of time that you’re allowed to have after school, before dinner, there were a couple of shows that were on: “The Oprah Winfrey Show” – which I loved watching as a child. Loved! Watched it all the way through high school – and “Great Chefs of the World.” Those just happened to be on back-to-back. Actually, it was like two thirty-minute episodes of “Great Chefs of the World” and then Oprah, or some kind of combination of that.

Whether it was pure coincidence and timing of when that show was on and why I took interest in it, or whether it was truly a passion in cooking, I don’t know. I err towards it just happened to be this thing that I gravitated towards because I didn’t love watching all cooking shows. I liked watching specific cooking shows. It wasn’t about the cooking; I think it was about the delivery and what was being shared that I took to. I always say if it had been a show on woodworking or Bob Villa would have been on, about fixing up houses, I would probably be doing that. It was time and place. It took over my interest.

And I wasn’t the kid to be like, “Oh, I’m going to cook tonight.” I had other interests. I wanted to go out and play with my friends. I went to basketball camps, played softball. I did other things. Cooking wasn’t the center of my universe, and it wasn’t until I had to go to school where it became part of my schedule.

Kirk Bachmann: I got such a chill. I almost forgot about “Great Chefs.” What an interesting program! I can remember Dean Fearing being featured on there, Mark Miller. There was a big movement with Southwest cuisine back then. It wasn’t particularly great production, either.

Kristen Kish: No! It wasn’t.

Kirk Bachmann: It wasn’t that good. The food was heavy, and there was a whole collection of books. What a great memory!

I don’t know if you can or want to talk about this, but you started modeling at a very young age. Was there a point when you were doing that you saw yourself doing that long-term?

Kristen Kish: No! Modeling was never a thing. It was a thing because I was 13 and five-foot-nine and just over 100 pounds. It was just because I looked like it to other people. I did not necessarily like doing it. I did it when things felt easy. “I can go to that thing, or I can take that picture.” But certainly not a passion. I don’t think at that age I had any passions other than hanging out with my friends and trying to make it through life. For me, it was a blip in the radar that just happened to happen. I made a little bit of money – a little bit of money off of it. That was it. It came and went as fast as I could blink my eyes twice.

Kirk Bachmann: My son is going to be so happy that I talked to you today. He’s thirteen, and I put a lot of pressure on him, but I think I’m going to go easy on him a little bit after this. “Go play with your friends.”

Kristen Kish: You’ve got to leave room to figure out what it is you want to do.

What Culinary School Teaches

Kirk Bachmann: I love it.

Let’s fast forward a little bit to Cordon Bleu. You land there. In those days, it was a bigger school; there were a lot of students there. Then you went on to work at, not just restaurants, but some pretty high-profile restaurants in the Boston area and such. Big move. I’m curious. I ask this mostly for students: did the experience at culinary school – specific classes, or just the fact that you had an interest in doing more – did that prepare you for cooking at that level?

Kristen Kish: That’s a complicated answer, and it’s the same way I look at the question of “is culinary school necessary?” For me, culinary school, yes, it gave me this foundation of cooking and learning techniques and different things. Of course, and that has carried on and set this nice foundation as I moved forward.

The thing that culinary school, I feel, taught me the most was that I could be good at something. All the way leading up to culinary school, I never thought I was going to be good at anything. I didn’t think I could be good at anything. I remember my first 101 class, knife skills. I will never forget. Mr. McGuinness was his name, and I don’t even-

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh, he was great. Mike.

Kristen Kish: Mike. I was chopping cabbage as you do in Knife Skills 101. Tons of vegetables are thrown at you. “We need 8000 pounds of coleslaw,” and you just get to work. I start cutting, and pretty quickly he came round. “You’ve done this before.” In my brain, I’m like, “No, I haven’t! I’ve watched a lot of TV.” But that gave me the sense of confidence and purpose that I was potentially on the right path. For me, that’s what I needed more so than anything that was taught to me.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. And that can be any educational experience. If you want to be a carpenter or a plumber or a lawyer or a doctor, I love how you say “gave you confidence and purpose.” That’s all we can ask from an educational institution.

Kristen Kish: When I left culinary school, I had this inflated idea of what it was supposed to be outside of culinary school. I chose a two-year program. “I don’t want to go to school one day over two years. It’s not happening. Get me out there. Get me out there and let me become an executive chef.” That was the dream that was sold. “Go to cooking school; become a chef.” All that middle part of line cook, and apprenticeships, and working your way up, and having restaurants that don’t serve you very well, but you’re going to learn from that, and you’re going to go find somewhere else that can maybe teach you what you want to learn. All that middle part, I chose to ignore if it was being told to me.

So what ended up happening is I left culinary school. I started going. The first two jobs that I applied for right out of culinary school [were] executive sous chef of the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Chicago.

Kirk Bachmann: In Chicago.

Kristen Kish: And then, executive sous chef of the Sofitel. I had no business applying for those jobs. None. Zero experience. I had culinary school, but I thought that’s what it was. “But this is what I’m supposed to do.” I had to find my way. I struggled a little bit in Chicago before eventually finding my way to Boston.

I think that when I look back in my career now and the things that I know in my restaurant from a technical foundation standpoint, I learned that in culinary school. You go and do a stage, the fact that you know what terms mean. If the chef is like, “Can you go cook this sauce to au sec and you’re going to add some chicken jus and you’re going to cook it to nappe,” you know what that means. [00:27:48] Because that’s how you talk in restaurants.

Kirk Bachmann: Really well said. The narrative is important. You get cognitive a little bit. It’s a really good point, chef, because half the time what we want our students to do. The coaching I do for chefs today is to just please be a facilitator. McGinnis was great, but today, twenty years later, I just asked our chefs to be a great facilitator of knowledge because our students know a lot. They know what they want and what they want to do. Just be a great facilitator of knowledge. Years and years ago, you had to go to culinary school because that’s where knowledge was kept, but knowledge is everywhere today. It’s on “Top Chef.”

I’d love to segue. In Austin, Texas, one of my favorite cities. We have a school there. Can you talk, not just about Arlo Grey, but how do you open up a restaurant? You’re about to be the host on “Top Chef,” you’ve got all this other stuff going on. And oh, by the way, Arlo Grey.

Arlo Grey and the Austin Market

Kristen Kish: Arlo Grey happened, it’ll be six years in June. We opened in 2018. Six years.

Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable.

Kristen Kish: It was something that I didn’t want. I didn’t want a restaurant, or at least I didn’t think I wanted one. My life was great. I was traveling. I was doing pop-ups all over the world. I was writing my first cookbook. I was fine, but what I realized as I started avoiding this whole restaurant topic – offers would come in, people are asking, “Do you want to open a restaurant? Can we be your investors?” – and I realized it went from saying, “No. No, because I need to explore my life outside of restaurants. I just spent how long in a restaurant? I need to get off the line for a second.”

All of a sudden, I was saying, “No,” but not for that reason anymore. I was saying no because I was too scared. “But what if I don’t do [well]? What if I fail? What if no one comes? What if no one likes it?” I was avoiding it based off of fear. When it finally registered that I was saying no because of fear, that’s when I said, “Yeah, I’m going to do it,” because that’s the time to do it. Again, timing is everything.

I got an offer at the time. It came at a time when I was like, “Yes, I want to do this.” It just kind of all happened. And out of the deal, I met my wife, so I can’t really complain about any of it.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to be in Austin in a few weeks.

Kristen Kish: Please come by.

Kirk Bachmann: We’re going to stop by.

I read that you describe Arlo Grey as a love letter to yourself. Really beautiful.

Kristen Kish: Anyone who opens a restaurant for the first time, we spend our careers cooking other people’s food. Work out of recipe books that are given to you. You work in culinary school where it says, “You need to cook this.” You are a soldier and a robot for another chef. So when the time comes when you’re finally allowed to say, “Go cook your food,” for me, I was like, “What’s my food?”

I put together the menu, and my first menu wasn’t what the Austin market wanted or needed. It wasn’t successful in that way. I had to re-shift that frame of mind. As opposed to cooking with my head, and probably some ego, I had to start cooking with what actually meant something to me without trying to be the best of something. “You know what? This is the food that speaks to me, and this is where I draw inspiration from, and this is what I want to share with others.” Because it’s the only thing, the only story, and the only restaurant out there that will remain unique is if it’s just something that only we – each individual person – can create.

It took about a year and a half to find and slowly shift, where it didn’t feel like we were changing concepts. Slowly get it into the right place. For me, being able to say that was a love letter to myself was truly that. It was like I finally stepped into who I am, not cooking for awards, accolades, attention. It was cooking because I wanted to cook.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s beautiful. It’s really beautiful.

I want to talk about the book in just a moment. I have your Instagram. I told you I did a lot of research. I just want to give you kudos because what you say on here is just so real. You say, “I cook things for you to eat, and I host things on TV for you to watch.” That’s so selfless. That’s so wonderful that you want to do this. We always say from a hospitality perspective, if you want to serve others, if you want to make other people happy, you’ll do well in this industry.

Kristen Kish: I feel like if I cook, if I have a restaurant and no one comes, I don’t have a restaurant. If I make things on television and no one watches, then that television show is not going to happen. Without the consumer on the other side, there is no restaurant and there is no TV show.

Exploring Creativity and Signature Dishes

Kirk Bachmann: Full circle. Full circle.

Your most recent book, “It’s All in the Sauce: Bringing the Uniqueness to the Table.” Can you tell us a little bit about the format of that book, and what it means to children, and what your goal is in terms of encouraging children?

Kristen Kish: That came to be because of this partnership I was working on. I got to build a team of three people: an author, a co-author, an illustrator, and a marketer. We built this dream team. The whole purpose of writing this book was, obviously, to have this product and put it out there. It’s kind of like a build-your-own-adventure for kids. Experiment in the kitchen. I’m not trying to teach this kid how to make homemade pasta and a great sauce. It’s like, “What do you want to put in your grilled cheese today?” At least it encourages conversation. “Do you want to put M&M’s in your grilled cheese? Sure, we can do that. Go ahead and taste it and tell me if you’re ever going to do it again.” Let someone else, let the kid have their own opinion, their own view, their own creativity in the kitchen. That’s really what it came down to.

We created the book with net proceeds going to What’s in the Mirror, which is a not-for-profit in Austin supporting the LGBT community, trans community, especially the communities of color. That, to me, is giving kids to do something while raising money for a group of people that I feel very passionate for. Why not make it? That, to me, was a passion project.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it.

I want to come back to cooking for just a quick second. Your creations over time showcase this wonderful blend of creativity and precision, which I really love. Can you speak a little bit – this is mostly for the students – what the process feels like to you or looks like to you in developing a signature dish? A dish that tells people it’s you cooking from the heart. I’m curious what that approach looks like.

Kristen Kish: My point of inspiration – and I tell my executive chef this all the time at the restaurant. If you can’t trace it back to something that is familiar – I don’t care what, just familiar – then that dish does not belong on our menu. If there’s not a flavor that reminds you of something, someone, some place, and it wasn’t a memory that you have, it does not belong on our menu.

So when creating a signature dish, when I created my first menu for Arlo Grey, the opening menu, there have been three dishes that remain on the menu. Not by my own choice. I wasn’t like, “This is going to be our signature menu.” It’s the people. That’s what people kept ordering. It was the top seller night after night after night. Not everything on the menu had this tie back, as I had mentioned. It took me a minute to find that, but the three things on that menu that have remained the signatures were ones that were very distinctly tied back to something in my life. We didn’t push it that way. People just naturally gravitate towards that.

There’s this great pasta dish with this beautiful sauce. It takes four days, three days to make. We’re extruding Texas grains and freshly-milled through our Italian extruder. But it’s a bowl of pasta. It is my ode to Hamburger Helper of sorts, growing up. It’s salty. It’s umami. It’s rich. It’s comforting. It’s homey, and it feels really good, but it’s done really well.

Then there’s a rice dish that we have on the menu that’s a combination of my college take-out order, which was crab fried rice, and my Korean-ness side of bi bim bap. Not flavor profile-wise, but the heart of the dish and where I pulled the inspiration from.

Then, there’s a dessert on there that’s a lime sorbet with an aloe yuzu espuma. It was based off of two things: one, the middle section of the red, white, and blue popsicles.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my goodness, yeah!

Kristen Kish: And I really liked the white part because it didn’t stain my teeth, and it didn’t make my whole mouth blue or red, so that was always my favorite part of it. Then, this trip I took to Singapore. At the end of the night, they brought out this citrus sorbet with one or two extra things in there. I was like, “This is near perfect.” So I took those two things and married them together to create this dessert. Those three things are on the menu to this day.

Necessary Ingredients and a Word for the Home Cook

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. And the key word is “familiar.” That’s such a good lesson.

The other day I was reading an old book by Michel Richard. It was really interesting. He was talking about the one thing that he always encouraged his kitchen to do, and that was to “sharpen the meal.” What he was referring to is – and he doesn’t care if it’s a little bit of salt, or fresh black pepper, or red pepper flakes. He even mentioned a sprig of rosemary. Just something at the end to sharpen the dish. I think I agree with it. I’ve been waiting to ask someone what they thought. I just read this the other night. There’s a few recipes I’ve made in that book a million times. How do you feel about that? To sharpen the dish, that one last thing. Because in culinary school, we tell students NOT to do that! We tell them to stick to the technique.

Kristen Kish: I understand it. I don’t know if I understand it in the way that he meant for it to be, but in my brain, when you sharpen the dish, you’re making it full. It’s round. It’s not extra; it’s necessary. It’s how sauces need a touch of vinegar. It’s not sharpening the dish with vinegar, it’s actually making the sauce full. So the way I look at sharpening the dish is just making sure that everything necessary is in there in order to convey it to the palate in the way that you want it to be conveyed.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a great interpretation. Well said.

Kristen, your impact on the world of professional cooking, cooking at a very high level, let’s say, and in front of a lot of people, has been profound. What we’re seeing a lot of today is this interest by the enthusiast crowd. People who simply love to cook. Simply love to eat. Simply love learning about food. I’m curious if you have any advice on how that audience can foster a deeper appreciation for not just school, but for culinary techniques.

Kristen Kish: When I think of home cooks, the fact that people are just getting in there and wanting to be in there is already a step ahead. There are so many people, and I have the days, too, where I don’t want to be cooking my dinner. I have to cook my dinner. It’s the same way. You have to just put food on the table for your family. However you get there, it doesn’t matter. I am in no place to be like, “We need to focus on this, this, and this when you do that.” No. Do what you need to do in order to live your life and maintain whatever busy schedule, mentally stable life that you are going for.

There is not one way to appreciate the culinary arts. There’s not one way to appreciate chefs. There’s not one way to do it right and to show that you care. If you care, great. If you don’t, fine. Whatever. Go do what you’re doing. There are moments, I’m not going to lie, when I watch social media and my eyes roll. “Oh my God. Really? Really? Are we doing this?” But I’m not going to leave a comment saying, “You suck!” on their thing. Let people do what they’re going to do. Everyone’s got something that they’re trying to achieve, whatever that might be. However you get there, that’s not my spot to police that.

Kirk Bachmann: I agree.

I just noticed – I can’t believe I just noticed it – but over your left shoulder, down about three shelves, you’ve got the collection of molecular gastronomy books. I’m looking at mine right here, just beyond the computer screen. I don’t know the last time I looked at them, but when they first came out – oh my gosh! – I couldn’t put them down.

Kristen Kish: That one’s the pizza version. I will say, it was sent to me, but when I was in Seattle, because my season of “Top Chef” was in Seattle, one of the scenes of the outings, Padma will take everyone out to dinner, the chefs. We did the same thing, and we went to his lab and had a three or five course menu. It was fantastic. It’s there for a reason. There is a connection to it, and I do find it incredibly informative.

Kristen Kish’s Two Ultimate Dishes

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it.

Hey, so before we get to the hardest question of the chat, I just want to say again, sincerely, Wow! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us with your busy schedule. So genuine. So humble. I’m appreciative. So proud of you. Congratulations on all of the success. I can’t wait for the season, March 20, to kick off.

But before we let you go, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. You started to allude to it a little bit, but I’m really curious. In your mind, what is the ultimate dish?

Kristen Kish: Can I ask one clarifying question?

Kirk Bachmann: You bet.

Kristen Kish: That I want to eat or that I want to give to other people?

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, great question.

Kristen Kish: Those are two very different things.

Kirk Bachmann: Can I get two answers?

Kristen Kish: Yeah, sure. Okay.

I’ll give you the answer of what I would give to somebody. My answer is always: there are chef’s that cook for themselves. Truly, they cook for them and other people get to enjoy it. I cook for the pure pleasure of somebody else. Feeding myself, I don’t love it. I’d rather order takeout at a two-star Yelp reviewed takeout place than have to cook myself dinner. So it’s whatever that other person wants. I ask my wife, our friends that come over, “What do you guys want?” They’re like, “Oh, whatever you want!”

No, no, no. It’s not whatever I want. I want you to tell me exactly what you’re craving. It can be so specific, down to the last grain of salt, to say, “I had this dish in Barcelona in the year 2000, and I want that again.” And then give me the flavor profile and let me do. Now, I can do it. I can’t guarantee it’s going to be great, but I can do it. So my ultimate dish for other people is whatever their ultimate dish is for themselves.

Kirk Bachmann: We have not had that answer, and I love that answer. It’s a brilliant answer. Again, selfless.

Kristen Kish: My ultimate dish for myself is, without question, hands-down, delivery or takeout chicken fingers, french fries, ranch dressing, and mayonnaise. Hits every time. Hits. Every. Time.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it! I love it. I’m definitely not letting my wife listen to that. But it’s honest, though. Sometimes it hits the spot.

Kristen Kish: There is not a time when it does not hit the spot for me. There was one time when I ate it, and – I don’t know, this might sound gross and TMI. There was this one time where I drank too much, we’ll say. I ordered room service chicken fingers, french fries, ranch dressing, mayo. It didn’t stay down very long. After something like that happens, and you have that deep memory of it coming back up, you don’t want it for a while.

Next day. Next day. I was like, “No, no, no! It’s going to stay down this time. It needs to stay down.” It is just everything that I want in a meal.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. I have not had either of those answers in 106 episodes.

Kristen Kish: And this is what culinary school can do for you!

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, I love it.

Can I just say thank you again? I know I’ve said it a million times. Thank you, thank you. Best of luck. Can’t wait to see the new episode, and I can’t wait to see what’s next because it feels like there is going to be a lot that is next for you.

Kristen Kish: Thank you. Well, tell your wife and all your kids hello. All the students at the school; hopefully they listen to this. Hello to everyone. I hope that you guys are all crushing it in class and enjoying yourself. First and foremost is having a good time and learning a lot along the way. Good luck.

If anyone needs a job after school, Austin, Texas is always looking.

Kirk Bachmann: I love the plug. I’m going to take you up on that. You know I am. Every student is going to listen to this. Can I just tell you? That’ll be an assignment. I love it.

Kristen Kish: Thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: Take care. Best always.

Kristen Kish: Thanks.

Kirk Bachmann: And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. And if you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take the next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.

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