When it comes to taking on the tough male-dominated world of modern kitchen culture, rising culinary star Kristen Kish has a lot to bring to the table. Both an American of Korean descent and an openly gay woman, Cordon Bleu graduate Kish has buffeted hardships to present a new image of diversity to the culinary scene. In our interview we the young chef, author and restaurateur, we talk about life, career and how pressure can itself be a gift.
If the future of professional cooking had a face, it would belong to Kristen Kish. Adopted from Korea by a Mid-Western American family at a few months of age, Kish was raised in the land of plenty. By 19 having earned a prestigious place at business school Kristen chose to drop out, instead pursuing her passion enrolling in Cordon Bleu. As a young, openly gay woman taking on the “kamikaze” culture of male dominated professional kitchens, the young chef has endured challenges and at times fell into life’s vices. It was mentor the legendary chef Barbara Lynch that catapulted Kristen to the stage of Top Chef, where her precision and grit succeeded her competition. Forged by fire Kristen opens up on her personal struggles, the quest of perfection and earning your spot.
The Bod Edit: How did you get into cooking?
Kristen Kish: It started when I was like five years old. I started watching cooking shows, particularly a program called ‘Great Chefs of the World’. It was on the Discovery Channel and I just kind of fell in love with it, and I started mimicking all their movements. For a long time, I didn’t know it could be a career. It wasn’t until after the first year of business university that I realised this wasn’t for me. My Mum was like, well why don’t you try culinary school? So I moved to Chicago from Michigan and the journey began.
And how did you progress into professional kitchens?
I went to culinary school and did a tier programme, and in school I worked in a couple restaurants, as a line cook. Then in Chicago I had a rough go at it because I was uncertain of who I was. I was trying to strive for perfection as opposed to learning the ropes, in an honest way. I was always dealing with anxiety, depression and issues with self-worth, all that kind of stuff. I was an irresponsible adult and fell into bad ways; I went out too much, I fell into drugs, I drank too much, the whole thing. There was a point where I didn’t work for 4-5 months, and my Mum and Dad were like ‘we’re not going to support you anymore’, so I moved back home to Michigan for about 5 months not working, and then I finally moved to Boston.
You have to earn your spot no matter what.
Professional kitchens can often have a kind of “Kamikaze culture”; high intensity, high stress. It is also often perceived as a very sexist industry. Did you ever experience challenges due to this?
I think when I was younger, I definitely got treated a little differently, I was the only girl on the line. But at the end of the day, no matter the industry, you put your head down, work hard and prove yourself and then you earn the respect. You have to earn your spot no matter what.
Once I moved to Boston, I was still struggling with a lot of things personally which hindered me quite a lot in my professional career. I was just like, ‘I don’t give a fuck, I’m gonna put my head down, I’m gonna work’. And for whatever reason, if there were any negative things against me, it was my responsibility to ask , ‘what am I doing to show up? And how am I affecting their responses and reactions?’.
Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m an openly gay woman? Is it because people are jealous? I don’t know, I just worked.
But I think kitchen culture has already changed in a positive way. For me, I hold a very high standard and I push my cooks and there’s a level of intensity, but it’s not by degrading people. It’s by pushing them and making them challenge themselves. Do people get yelled at if they don’t do something properly? Absolutely. You know, it’s just like any other job. If you don’t do your job properly, you’re gonna get reprimanded. It’s all about the delivery of the message. You have to understand that people are people and they have to hear you in order to change. And so in order to be heard, you have to speak in a way that they can hear you.
I didn’t know that just being me was okay. I thought I had to be this idea of perfection, or what I thought perfection was.
You were working when you entered Top Chef?
I was working for Barbara Lynch in Boston, she really was my first real, true mentor. She started as my boss, then as my mentor, and she is now family and one of my dearest friends. She was the one who put me forward for the whole Top Chef thing. I was like ‘no way’, I struggled with owning my work and understanding that I could be good at something. Or saying it’s okay if I go and I don’t do well.
It must have meant a lot to you winning Top Chef?
The biggest question that I always get asked is, ‘how did it change your life?’. From the outside, you get more TV, you get sponsors and you get people wanting to interview and know more about you. But at the end of the day, it showed me that it was okay to be myself, because I had no time to be anything other than me,and that was projected out on national TV. I just did me and everything was okay. I didn’t know that just being me was okay. I thought I had to be this idea of perfection, or what I thought perfection was.
I don’t ever want to feel like I ‘got it’, because once that happens, what’s the point?
What do you think influenced your quest for perfection?
I think it’s ingrained in me to do the best I can and strive for perfection, completely understanding that it doesn’t exist, but it continues to drive and to push. It gives me something to work towards. People are like, ‘do you feel like you’ve made it?’. I don’t ever want to feel like I ‘got it’, because once that happens, what’s the point? If I’ve made it and I’ve got all of it handled and under control, it means there’s nothing more to learn. I refuse to be in a place where I feel like that. Because, if you look at the entire purpose of life, it’s to continue to grow, shift, learn – the highs and the lows, dealing with your fears, understanding your successes. They all have to work together to be a fulfilling life.
You just do it, the kitchen mentality is you just get it done, period.
How do you keep up the momentum and drive?
It’s hard and I’m not going to lie. Some days I’m just like ‘fuck, it’s a lot’. I wake up at five, I’ll be down here at six, cooking, prepping. You’ll have people fall out and then go on lunch and dinner. It’s not ever going to be perfect, because it’s just not going to be, and that’s okay. It’s about kind of taking it for what it is. And just being present and saying,’ right I’m going to tackle today and do it to the best of my ability’. You just do it. The kitchen mentality is that you just get it done. Period. We do it because our guests are on the other side, and they don’t care if you’re short staffed, they don’t care if you’ve been working 15 hours already. And not by fault of being terrible human beings, but just, we are a business. Once you open the doors you have a responsibility to uphold.
And I do it for myself. But most importantly, I do it for the people that work for me and the people that I work with. And for our guests. If I know I’m not giving 100% and if I’m not doing whatever I can to troubleshoot and put out the figurative fires, then I’m doing a disservice to me,my worth and how I feel about things. So I feel the best when I work hard. It’s not always easy, but I owe it to myself to do everything I can.
Putting on a brave face is actually weakness. Because you aren’t willing to go there with yourself and the people around you
What would you say has been your biggest challenge to date?
There are obvious challenges. You know someone copping out, or you don’t have enough people, that kind of thing. We’ve all kind of dealt with that in some way, no matter your profession.
The biggest challenge to date has been learning how to be vulnerable. For so long we’re taught not to give in to that vulnerability; that you shouldn’t be open and honest and share who you are. That diving into the fears is a weakness. When in fact, it’s the strength and it’s the bravery that we all hold. We just need to shift what that looks like. Putting on a brave face is actually weakness, because you aren’t willing to go there with yourself and the people around you. That’s been the biggest struggle, is just letting go, opening up and being vulnerable.
Then in the restaurant setting, you are opening yourself up to so much criticism. Not everyone’s going to love everything and that’s one of the biggest challenges. Being okay in that space and not letting it take away from how I feel about myself and what I am doing.
I found who I was personally, that could infiltrate into my professional life and when that happens, you’ll get a more honest version and a more vulnerable version of a chef.
What’s been your proudest moment in your career so far?
I think one, is finding who I was and finding who I am. Because if I find who I am personally, that can infiltrate into my professional life, and when that happens, you’ll get a more honest version of a chef.
Obviously Arlo Grey has been a proud moment. I mean restaurants are hard. They are hard and they are all-encompassing, all-consuming, it’s tough. But once you can tap into who they are as people, then you build a family. That is one of my proudest moments, building myself and challenging myself to build a family within my space of the kitchen.
My mum and dad have always been proud of me, they will always be proud of me no matter what, but I definitely struggled a lot, and it came out in a detrimental way. They were supporting a non-working, non-motivated child, spending grocery money that they sent me on booze. I didn’t feel good about who I was.
Looking back on it, I was a spoilt little brat. Now when my mum says she’s proud of me and my dad says he’s proud of me, it’s about me showing up more for them. Now I can honestly trust when they say ‘I’m proud of you’, it’s because I’m me.
What’s your most memorable meal?
My most memorable meals are the ones that are spent with the people who mean the most to me, meaning my family and my dearest friends. Because I live in world where I work so much, I don’t get to talk to everyone. It’s just such a rarity now to be able to sit down and share a meal and not have your brain cluttered. So those are my most memorable meals where I sit down and I empty my brain of everything other than just the people in front of me.