April Issue: The Dish on ‘Top Chef Seattle’ Winner Kristen Kish

Photo by David Moir/BRAVO

Kish and Tell

KoreAm taps your favorite sausage-making food truck winners to interview Kristen Kish, the newly crowned winner of Top Chef: Seattle.

interview by CHRIS OH, TED KIM and YONG KIM

Kristen Kish is a happy woman these days. Sleep-deprived, certainly, but over-the-moon happy.

Ted Kim, Chris Oh and Yong Kim. Photo by Yann Bean.

The 29-year-old chef became only the second female to win Top Chef, the popular reality show contest on Bravo that just wrapped its 10th season Feb. 27. Less than a month after the televised win, an excited Kish announced on Twitter that, starting in June, she will be the new chef de cuisine at Menton, the Boston restaurant that boasts Relais & Châteaux status, in addition to a AAA Five-Diamond rating. Menton is part of a restaurant group owned by Barbara Lynch Gruppo, which also runs Stir, where Kish currently works as a chef de cuisine.

Kish, adopted from Korea at age 4 months by a family in Kenton, Mich., took the reality show competition by storm, showing early on her mad skills in the kitchen and quickly emerging as the one to beat. However, she was shockingly booted off in Episode 11, a Restaurant Wars-type episode with Kish leading the female team; she essentially accepted responsibility for the mistakes of a teammate (that Josie!). But Kish, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, battled her way back on the related Last Chance Kitchen web series, where eliminated chefs get a second chance, and became the first Top Chef contestant to win in this comeback fashion. In a tearful moment on the show, she said that she planned to use part of the $125,000 prize money to travel to Korea, so she could explore her heritage.

Kish is the first Korean American to win Top Chef, though there have been Korean Americans who have previously won a food reality show competition. So we at KoreAm thought, who better to interview Kish than those who can relate to her sense of elation, exhaustion and newfound celebrity? Chris Oh and brothers Ted and Yong Kim of the L.A.-based Seoul Sausage Company, who won Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, spoke with Kish by phone last month. Funny enough, both parties took care of business — the interview, that is — from their respective restaurant bathrooms.

Ted Kim: How you doing?

Kristen: I’m good. We’re buried in snow over here again.

Ted: We’re buried in the bathroom of our restaurant right now.

Kristen: Oh my God, I’m in the bathroom of my restaurant! It’s the only place that’s peaceful and quiet, so all is good.

Yong Kim: So Kristen, we have here Ted, Chris, and I’m Yong. Nice to meet you.

Kristen: Nice to meet you, too.

Chris Oh: We just didn’t think this would end up being a bathroom conversation, though.

Kristen: I know. I feel like this has to go into the story.

Chris: I’m sitting on the toilet with my pants on. It’s very weird. … So it’s snowing over there?

Kristen: Oh my God, it’s terrible again. We’re in the middle of March, and there’s f-cking snow everywhere.

Yong: You’re in Bahhhston?

Kristen: Yeah, where are you guys—L.A.?

Ted: Yeah, we’re on the opposite coast.

Chris: We’re buried in 70 degrees of sunshine.

Yong: OK, so let’s get to these questions. I want to start off with the hiring process [for Top Chef], because for us, it was pretty unexpected. But for you, can you tell us how you got to be on the show?

Kristen: I work for Barbara Lynch here in Boston. She owns eight different entities, and I’m the chef at one of them.  She was on the show last season [as a guest mentor] to help out [2012 Top Chef winner] Paul Qui. She came back from the trip from Vancouver where they shot that episode. She approached me, and she said, “I think you’re made to do this.” And with her approval and support, I just kind of went for it.  Ted: How was the application process like? What did you have to do?

Kristen: Basically, you have interviews and paperwork. I guess very standard. They want to make sure you’re crazy, but not too crazy kind of thing. And obviously, they want to make sure you can cook.

Yong: Did you always want to do something on TV?

Kristen: No, God no. I was a little camera-shy, and it never really crossed my mind. I didn’t think I was made to do this. Especially a huge competition setting like that is just not in my nature, but I was afraid of missing out on something if I didn’t try.

Chris: So when did you start cooking and when did you want to be a chef?

Kristen: It probably piqued my interest when I was 5 years old. I started watching this cooking show,Greatest Chefs of the World. It was on Discovery Channel. Then I would make stuff, but none of it tasted good. So I was going through the process, pretending to cook. So I picked up my first chef knife when I was 5 years old, and it’s been my favorite tool ever since.

Ted: You’re from Michigan, right?

Kristen: I was born in Seoul, but I was adopted and moved to Michigan when I was four months old.

Ted: Was there a lot of Korean food out there in Michigan?

Kristen: God, no. I remember my mom taking me to a lot of Korean festivals to get me into the culture as much as she could. I remember going to a kimchi festival, and I loved it. I ate the sh-t out of it. My poor white mother was like, “Oh my God.” You can tell that she was trying, but you can tell that the smell and the taste just weren’t for her. But I loved it.

Chris: You were adopted by a German family?

Kristen: My dad is Hungarian, and my mother is English. So, you know, very white.

Yong: Did you like kimchi right away? Because even some of us, like my brother [Ted], it took him until college to like kimchi.

Kristen: Really?!

Ted: Yeah, I’m not much of a Korean there. But once I got into it … yeah.

Yong: My mom had to make a separate soy sauce kimchi for him every single time.

Ted: Kimchi stinks up the refrigerator.  There’s a reason why Korean people have two refrigerators, you know?

Chris: Sticking with the whole Korean theme, did your parents try to help you embrace your Korean culture at all?

Kristen: They did. They took me to those festivals. And also a lot of books, like the Korean version ofCinderella, how to count to 10, and a lot of those educational Korean books.  Then I was also introduced to an exchange program to Korea. My mom was an educator, so she had that connection.  So they definitely tried to introduce me as much as possible.

Kish with Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio.

Ted: So you’re pretty much more Korean than Chris is.

Kristen: Is that right? Probably.

Ted: Do you have a favorite Korean dish?

Kristen: I don’t know how amateur this is gonna sound, but OK, I love the Korean fried chicken. It’s f-cking amazing. And then there’s this really chewy noodle dish with … lots of vegetables. I don’t even know the name. Umm, japchae? Is that it?

Chris and Ted: Yeah, japchae.

Kristen: That is awesome. And Korean barbecue in general.

Chris: How about Korean sausage? [Laughs.]

Kristen: Is that sexual harassment? Where is this going?

Ted: Well, we do own a Korean sausage company, so …

Kristen: Oh, then yes. I love Korean sausage. I would love to come out there and eat Korean sausage.

Chris: Do you cook Korean food at all? Or do you try to?

Kristen: No, no, no, no. I’m kind of afraid to mess it up. I don’t know much about it. I’m definitely more equipped for French or Italian cuisine. I would love to learn, but I also need someone to learn from.

Ted: Did you ever drink soju?

Kristen: I don’t think so.

TedChris, and Yong: No?!!!

Ted: We’re sending you a box of soju right now.

Chris: Someone should be knocking on your bathroom door soon.

Kristen: I need someone super Korean to show me the way because I don’t have anyone to do that for me.

Chris: Well, next time you’re in L.A., we’ll definitely take you to the dark side of K-town.

Kristen: I’ll be going in May. So I’ll definitely be looking you guys up.

Yong: Did you always want to do something on TV?

Chris: I know you said on the show that, if you won, you would make a trip out to Korea. Have you planned that yet?

Kristen: Sort of planning. I’m trying to go for a chunk of time, from three weeks to a month. I really want to kind of go and explore everything. Definitely in the fall, because I heard in the summer it’s really hot, and the winters are so cold. So I’m trying to stick right in the middle. Hopefully, maybe in October.

Ted: How was your experience on the show? Did you get super comfortable towards the end, or were you still nervous?

Kristen: I’m a big ball of nerves every single time because every time there’s so much pressure. I put so much pressure on myself to do well for my family, and do well for my friends and for me. It’s so hard to explain. I’m sure you guys have experienced it, but I was so nervous because I wanted to do so well. So I was in fear of disappointing myself if I didn’t do a good job. That’s kind of where I was at. But I was going one dish at a time, competition by competition, and hoping to make one step further.

Ted: Did you watch yourself on TV?

Kristen: Yes. I watched, and it was a little difficult because I hate hearing my own voice. But in my head, I looked more like a bad-ass than I actually did.

Ted: No, you’re a pretty big badass, Kristen.

Chris: When you lost to Josie (in Episode 11), tell me how you felt.

Kristen: Obviously, I felt extremely defeated. But I was OK with the answer because I was confident in the way I behaved and how I handled the situation.

Yong: Other people who were eliminated had these breakdown moments.  How did you keep your composure?  You had such a good attitude about everything. Where do you think that stems from?

Kristen: You know, at the end of the day, we were a select group of people to go on the show. Regardless of whether you got eliminated or you won the whole thing, we were in a very fortunate situation to be given that platform to do what we love. The last thing I wanted to do was to go out there and look like a mess, or come off as a bitch.

Ted: How was the cast? Were you guys close? Did you have a best friend on the show—or an enemy?

Kristen: We were all pretty close, except for maybe a couple people.

Chris: Josie?

Kristen: I’m not saying anything.

Kish celebrates her Top Chef victory with her father (to her left) and others on the Bravo set.

Chris: Does it rhyme with Mosie?

Kristen: [Laughs.] We all got along really well.

Chris: Now that you’ve won, what have the last couple of weeks been like?

Kristen: Oh my God, it’s a mixture of Top Chef-related things, and a mixture of just the hype and the people and the city, now that I’m being recognized for my food. There are a few more [work-related] things coming out.  Formal press releases will be coming out. … Then there’s a lot of traveling:

New York, London and a lot of trips to Vermont and Maine, and all that jazz.  Just busy. I’m also speaking for the first time in front of 500 people. I’m giving an inspirational go-get-’em kind of speech, which should be interesting.  Life is good.

Ted: How’s the reaction from your family, friends and everyone who followed you on the show?

Kristen: My mom couldn’t have been more proud. It’s so funny. I tried to explain to her the culture and the magnitude of the restaurants, and she gets it, but she’s more concerned with me getting enough sleep and how I’m doing. She’s looking out for me.

Ted: So are you getting enough sleep?

Kristen: No. I actually found time for a four-hour nap yesterday, and I was in heaven.

Chris: Now that you’ve won the show, have a lot of people, especially the Korean community, reached out to you?

Kristen: Oh my God, so many Korean Americans and Asian Americans in general.… I’m even getting messages from Seoul, which is fantastic.  And I’m also getting a lot of adoption stories. People saying, “Oh, I was adopted from Korea” and all this kind of stuff. It’s amazing.

Ted: When we were in Arkansas, we bumped into this radio DJ who was half-Korean. He never embraced his Korean side, but when we were there, he said, “I never felt so cool to be Korean.” And that was one of the stories that really, really touched my heart. Is there any story that kind of hit hard?

Kristen: Yeah, I got a very, very long letter on Facebook. This girl who’s struggling to find her identity said she was watching me on the show and me talking openly about my adoption and where I’m from, and the struggles that I had with it. And it inspired her to embrace it a little bit more, and not be afraid of facing all of that. That actually kind of made me cry because it was so touching.

Ted: I think Yong’s crying right now .… After you won, have you been asked on a lot more dates?

Kristen: Yes! I started getting marriage proposals from men and women. A lot of “if you’re ever in my city, I’ll take you out” kind of offers.

Chris: So are you single, Kristen?

Kristen: I am single.

Ted: But are you ready to mingle?

Kristen: [Laughs.] In the very little time I have, yes.

Ted: What’s your ideal type so that everyone who reads KoreAm knows?  Does he have to know how to cook?

Kristen: No. All he has to do is to be good at something and have a passion for something. It doesn’t have to be cooking.

Chris: Yong is good at video games.

Kristen: Oh, maybe not that either.

Yong: I don’t think I’ve played video games in five years.

Ted: Oh, sure.

Kristen: We’ll do speed dating when I come out to L.A.

Chris: We’ll set you up with the lowest of the low Koreans.

Kristen: Perfect. I’m looking forward to it.

Chris: Who’s the one person you would love to cook for, and why?

Kristen: Umm…

Chris: Other than us, obviously.

Kristen: I have to say Daniel Boulud. That would be a huge honor for me. Julia Child would be amazing.  And I love artists. I love sculptors, I love painters, and Picasso would be someone I’d want to cook for because I get a lot of inspiration from artists.

Chris: Inspiration as in flavors?

Kristen: No, I can look at a painting that has nothing to do with food and come up with a dish because I would be inspired by the colors, the textures and also layering.

Chris: Is that how you conceptualize all your dishes on the show?

Kristen: I’m definitely more inspired by things that aren’t food. When I’m walking down the street, I’d see a couple pieces of paper, and that would spark something. Or a tree or leaves or dog poop or anything that’s not typically food-related.

Chris: Now that this whole Korean culture is embracing you, do you ever foresee combining French flavors and Korean flavors together?

Kristen: Absolutely. With the time I’ll be in L.A. and the culture there that you’ll show me, and my time in Korea, I want to incorporate a little bit of that into my cooking.

Chris: We’re going to Korea next week. What would you like for us to bring you back from Korea?

Kristen: Holy sh-t. Anything that you think is quintessential Korean.

Chris: Soju.

Kristen: Yeah, that’s exactly what I want.

Chris: We’ll get you some Shin Ramen socks.

Kristen: [Laughs.]

Chris: I have one more question.  If you were on a boat, in middle of the ocean, and you saw us three in the water and [Top Chef contestant] Stefan [Richter].  Who would you save and why?

Kristen: Well, I feel like I have to save you guys because we have this connection. I want to eat your food.

Ted: Anything else you want to say to all your fans?

Kristen: Honestly, thank you so much for all the support. It’s more than I would’ve ever imagined. I’m glad that I can somewhat be an inspiration because everyone else reaching out to me is an inspiration for me. So, thank you.

This article was published in the April 2013 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).