Top Chef: A Q&A With Local Contestant Kristen Kish of Stir

Boston-based cheftestant Kristen Kish. (Photo courtesy of Bravo.)

Bravo’s Top Chef is now on its tenth season, where they’ve settled on the fog and flannel-tinged landscape of Seattle, eschewing a strong pitch by Boston. Despite the snub, Bostonians have enjoyed some intermittent success throughout the franchise; from Season One’s Tiffani Faison (Sweet Cheeks Q), to Ana Sortun (Oleana) and Jody Adams (Rialto, Trade) in Top Chef Masters Season Two.

Now, there’s Stir’s Kristen Kish (who beat close friend Stephanie Cmar of No. 9 Park to make it out of the first episode). Through week four of this season, the model-turned-chef de cuisine has already wowed the judges with her handling of a phallic-looking geoduck, an assiette of root vegetables, and her butchering of a slab of beef—and she won Wednesday night’s episode to boot. We talk to her here, in a new weekly segment that will be dedicated to the catty ongoings of her fellow contestants, the curveballs thrown into just about every challenge, and her bid to bring the elusive Top Chef crown to Boston.

Congrats on the win last night! Is there some secret to making French-fried onions stand out?
KK: What I like to do, you know when you poach an egg and create a whirlpool in the water? Kind of dangerous with a fryer, but that was the idea. You can’t throw them in and let them go. You got to move them around and make sure they get evenly brown.

What was involved in your mushrooms that were so well-received?
The classic mushroom is just the white button mushroom. I love that mushroom! I think it is highly underused, to be honest with you. The main secret is cooking them twice, which I do with all mushrooms. The first one on a grill pan to draw out moisture and then finished in a pan so they caramelize.

To get some background: You modeled, right?
Yes I did. It’s not something that I really like to talk about. Well, I don’t mind talking about it, but I try to make sure that they [cooking and modeling] don’t cross paths too much. Only because people assume things about you.

Was this before you went to culinary school?
Yeah, I was thirteen years old when I got scouted. It started from there. I still have some agents for that type of work.

What inspired you to go to culinary school and become a chef?
I always had this passion, starting at six-years-old, for cooking, and the love of food and watching TV shows and all that kind of stuff. Then I started going to school for something completely unrelated, and realized it was miserable and I wasn’t good at it. I like to do things that I’m good at, so I went to culinary school. My mom actually encouraged me.

Were your parents pretty good cooks?
Well, (long pause) my mom doesn’t like salt or real butter. So, whenever I go there she has a stash of real butter in the freezer for me. But she’s getting better. She getting much better.

Describe Stir? Is it more of a test kitchen?
It’s not so much a test kitchen. During the day, we sell cookbooks from noon to six which is when I’m also prepping for that evening’s dinner. But we do demonstration-style dinners every night. The menu changes every night. There are different themes. No one really knows what they’re walking into, they don’t know the menu, they don’t know the wine. They just have an idea for what kind of theme or cuisine we’re going to offer. Then everything is cooked in front of them, and we’re here as an open forum to answer questions or chat food.

Do you feel like that ever-changing menu has helped you in the contest environment on Top Chef?
Yes, I definitely think it was more helpful than anything. But on the flip side, because I’ve done so many menus and I’ve had so many different themes and cuisines, that as soon as you hear a challenge your mind just kind of goes crazy because there’s so much stuff happening.

Was it difficult to see your fellow Boston chef, Stephanie Cmar, get eliminated in the first episode?
Yeah, that was really hard. We went through the process leading up to that point and it was bad to see her go. But, she’s definitely very supportive of me right now.

Do you get to try other contestants’ dishes throughout the season?
Yeah, once it’s all done, everyone goes around and picks at everybody’s things. But is there that moment that you sit down to try everything? No. It’s very much like a restaurant: you stand up, you stick fingers in your mouth, and you just try stuff.

Who are some of your main competitors at this point in the competition?
Everyone is so different that it’s hard. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Everyone in their own style and cuisine is fantastic.

Regarding last night’s episode, how comfortable were you with the butchering segment? It seems that that’s one of those moments where, during a given season, at least a couple of chefs will totally flop.
Because Stir is so small, it’s not like we get whole animals every day. But I do work next door to our sister restaurant, which is a butcher shop. There, we deal with half pigs on a regular basis. I guess just from reading and having been so close, I’ve definitely picked up a lot of things. So, I feel very comfortable with it.

How do you stay out of the way of the chef vs. chef controversy that seems to erupt on every season of Top Chef?
I don’t want to get involved in it any way. It takes away focus for why I’m really there. If it doesn’t involve me, I’m going to stay out of it, and if it does involve me then I’m probably just going to keep my mouth shut.

Out of the four weeks, so far, what’s been your favorite dish that you’ve cooked?
Oh my god! That’s really hard. It’s hard to answer because everything is so specific to the challenge. It’s not like I’m cooking French food every single day and I can pick out my favorite. Everything is just so different. As long as it gets me through, then I’m pretty happy.

One thing I’ve noticed over the last couple seasons of Top Chef is a more experienced level of talent competing on the show. More accomplished chefs like John Tesar have started participating because of the money and exposure. Do you feel like the competition has gotten harder?
I’d never heard of John ever before in my entire life. So, it’s not like I knew who he was. Everyone is in their own cities doing really fantastic things, but we’re all separated. I think every season the culinary interest in the show, and food in general, is getting more hype and more people are just coming out of the woodwork, I suppose.

Before competing against them, had you ever tried any of the other chef’s food before?
No, I knew nobody except for Stephanie. I had heard of nobody and I knew nobody.

One thing a lot of the chefs mention in the cutaways, is how intimidating the judges are. Do you feel that pressure?
There’s pressure regardless of who it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s a judge or a fellow chef. It’s intimidating. If there’s any situation to be able to pull out every single insecurity that I have, it’s going on Top Chef. But, on the same side, it’s been a positive challenge for me. You learn a lot about yourself.

Stay tuned in the following weeks for more post-show chat with Kristen. For more online food coverage, find us on Twitter at @ChowderBoston.