Kristen Kish On ‘White Girl Asian Food,’ Peeing Her Pants, and the ‘Top Chef’ Finale
Our penultimate chat with the Stir chef de cuisine.
Kristen Kish plates her curry chocolate dessert. Photo courtesy of Bravo
After several grueling weeks in the online purgatory known as Last Chance Kitchen, Kristen Kish finally earned her rightful place in “Part 1” of the Top Chef season finale. Unexpected plot twists might work wonders in shows like Downton Abbey, but Kish has built a dedicated following that was desperate for atonement. Concentrating on a philosophy of simplicity, she edged Hawaiian nice guy Sheldon Simeon and is left to face her stiffest competition in next weeks’ flashy conclusion. In our penultimate conversation, Kish discusses her mindset going into the finale, her Asian “shortcomings,” and her new-found Twitter fame.
At the beginning of the episode, they showed Sheldon Simeon relaxing at a barbecue in Hawaii and Brooke Williamson resuming her life in California. But both of them talked about preparing mentally and in the kitchen for the last part of the competition. How did you spend your time off?
When I came back [to Boston] it was pretty much as normal as it could be. Once the show started airing, people were more in my business than usual, which I don’t mind. I was still doing my dinners at Stir. That was my preparation because the menu changes everyday. So that was preparation in itself. I also went on some little trips with Barbara [Lynch] and I got to help her out with some stuff.
What kind of trips did you take with Barbara?
I helped her with some dinners that were in support of the Barbara Lynch Foundation. We went to New York and Maine. It was just some random things where I was happy to help in any way that I could. She’s been so supportive of me that I wanted to return the favor as much as I could.
At Judges Table, Sheldon said that he came into the finals with a dessert already planned out. He admitted that he held it back though, in anticipation of making Part 2 of the finale. Were there dishes that you had pre-planned for the finals?
I definitely had dishes in mind, for sure. But they were for the finale and not necessarily that challenge. It was hard to not automatically go to the ones that you already came up with in your head. But then you start thinking, “Well what if I get to that point?” I didn’t want to have to repeat anything. I think that’s why it was so difficult, because we were all going into it with a plan, but not for that occasion.
When the judges revealed that you were the winner of Last Chance Kitchen, Brooke and Sheldon actually looked happy to see you, despite the acknowledgment that you were their biggest competition.
Yeah, obviously Brooke and I have become very close. And Sheldon is just one of those guys that easy to get along with. He’s a cool dude and very funny. They’re both good people.
When Tom Colicchio said that you were going to be taking over service at Craft, you honestly looked like you might vomit.
Yeah, I tend to vomit all the time. I actually never do, but I say I’m going to. One of these times it’s actually going to happen and I’m going to look like an idiot. They only gave us three hours where we were all responsible for three courses for an open service. So, you have to play around with numbers to see how much you need to prep. Three hours is not a lot of time to familiarize yourself with the kitchen and the walk-in. Oh my god, it was very hard! I know people were like, “Oh, you had three hours for just three courses.” No, it’s actually a lot harder than maybe what people think. And the service part was actually extremely difficult because most times in a restaurant you don’t have to pick up a first, second, and third course all by yourself.
The hiatus between challenges seemed to really fluster Brooke, who looked rusty for the first time. Do you build a certain kind of momentum after being in the Top Chef grind week-in-and-week-out?
I think you definitely build some momentum, but again, some of these challenges are such a short amount of time and you really want to showcase what you can do. So you have to walk that fine line. I think I said it in last night’s episode, that I wanted to be more simple, but in no way safe. I was trying to take what I learned beforehand and apply it to the challenge.
That seemed to be a real focus for you heading back into the competition. You kept saying that you wanted to keep everything simple, but not safe. When we talked last, you said that admired how Lizzy Binder just concentrated on making good food without a lot of “fanfare.” Was that in you head as you approached this leg of the competition?
The main thing I was thinking going into the challenge, was that when I got kicked off, the judges said I was reaching too far; I was trying to do too much in the time allotted. And that was very true. I tried to take that into consideration moving forward.
I think you coined a new term last night. Can you define “white person Asian food”?
(Laughing) Sheldon was giving me such a hard time. It was funny. Well, for me, I don’t know how authentic things can be, but I know what tastes good. I know soy sauce, and sesame oil, and ginger, and all those flavors that I love, can be typical Asian. I use all those different flavors in some of my cooking, just maybe not all together. I’m not sure what I meant by that. I hope I’m not offending any Asian people. But that’s what I am! I was born in a white household. I was raised by white parents. But I’m Asian. But I kinda don’t know a lot about Asian cooking.
You said that you might “pee your pants” you were so nervous with Tom Colicchio expediting the service at Craft. How difficult was it to having him in the kitchen?
I don’t think it was necessarily the presence of Tom that made me nervous, it was the pace at which service was happening. I felt that I was getting so behind and on top of that, you don’t want to look like an asshole in front of Tom. So, the initial presence of Tom wasn’t so nerve-racking, it was the idea of me disappointing him; the idea that I couldn’t keep up.
You obviously tasted every component of your dishes. Why did you decide to go with that Meyer Lemon puree in your tuna dish that so many of the judges thought was bitter?
I don’t necessarily think it was even that good. It was in the moment and I kind of went with it. When I tasted it at the end, I knew it was bitter. Had I had the chance to do it over, I would have changed it. I included it because it needed acid. It needed something. In the moment I should have been a little quicker on my feet and 86’d that and done something else.
When you were at Judges Table, why didn’t you just lie about your own impressions of your dessert? It felt like as soon as you were critical of it, everyone sort of jumped on board and started bagging on it.
I don’t want people to think that I was proud of that! If I were a viewer, and a chef were saying that was the best thing ever, I’d be like: “Who is she? Is she stupid, or something?” I was unhappy with the dessert, but again, I thought the idea was good; it was just the execution that didn’t work. But never do I go up there and try to play the judges.
Was the dessert an afterthought in your preparation?
I can remember looking at the clock and thinking, “Okay, Kristen, you probably need to think about a dessert at some point.” Yeah, it was a total afterthought. I had no idea what I was going to make.
You were saying in our last conversation that you were inspired by cooking shows on television from an early age. One of the more famous personalities in any era is Martin Yan, who was one of the judges last night. Were you fan of Yan Can Cook on PBS?
I don’t remember watching him while I was growing up, but funny enough, I watch him now on Youtube. If you’ve ever seen him breaking down a chicken, it’s pretty damn impressive. On Thanksgiving, I was over at Barbara’s house and she did a really funny video with a turkey, inspired by Martin Yan. Maybe one day she’ll show it to you.
This morning, I saw that you re-tweeted an emphatic congratulatory message from Jimmy Fallon. You seem to have built up a huge fan base at this point. What are some of the other big names that have reached out to you over the course of Top Chef?
With regards to the whole Jimmy Fallon thing, I didn’t see it until I saw Brooke tweet something about it. I’d really like to go on his show, so, try to get me on. That would be awesome. Other than that, throughout the season, past Top Chefs have written me really nice things. Mike Isabella wrote something, Fabio [Viviani], Paul Qui, and Ed Cotton who used to work at No. 9 under Barbara. I’m still waiting on Adele. I want to be friends with her so bad.
A lot has been made of place this season, with emphasis on Brooke’s home in Los Angeles and Sheldon’s in Hawaii. Do you feel some pressure to win for the city of Boston?
Obviously, I want to win for Boston, but the pressure is already there. It would be absolutely amazing to have that title and to have it be here in Boston. I definitely think the Boston dining scene is getting really good and I think the rest of the world needs to know what’s going on here as well.
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