‘Top Chef: Seattle’ Episode 7 Recap—A Post-Show Chat with Kristen Kish

Kish won both the Quickfire and Elimination challenges this week. The inside scoop on both challenges, ahead.

Kish blends tayberries en route to winning this week’s challenge. Photo by David Moir/Bravo

Not only did Stir chef de cuisine Kristen Kish win the Quickfire AND the Elimination challenge on Wednesday’s episode of Top Chef: Seattle, but she spurned Quickfire immunity at an attempt at the ten thousand dollar prize money and an opportunity to return to her early roots in Seoul, Korea. Kish shared her unique story in our weekly conversation.

Stephanie Izard (Top Chef season 4 winner) was back as the guest last night. Until this point, she’s been the only female contestant who has won the title of Top Chef. Is that something that you’ve considered, maybe in the back of your mind, as you compete this season?
KK: No. I’m aware that she was the only girl and, of course, I want to be the next one. I think it’s time. But, at the end of the day I just want to win, regardless.

How did you think she fared as a judge?
I thought she was great. It’s always nice to be judged by someone who has been in the same shoes that we are right now. Not saying that they judge any differently because of that, but she (Izard) is someone who definitely understands.

Top Chef has done a great job this season of bringing back former chefs, whether it’s as judges or even contestants. What are your thoughts on building these recurring roles and establishing a recognizable Top Chef universe?
I think it’s great. It gives me hope that I can come back and do it all over again. I really want to do it again!

In last night’s Quickfire challenge, the contestants were tasked with choosing ingredients that were disguised in Reynolds Wrap. And anything that you grabbed had to be incorporated into the dish somehow. How did you decide on making sponge cake (Almond and Chocolate Sponge Cake, to be exact) and were you concerned you’d be tethered to a strange ingredient that wouldn’t gibe with your dessert?
Yeah, but I can definitely tell a flour product. I kind of remembered where all the baked goods were and through kicking the things and just sort of remembering where they’d kept them, it seemed like the obvious thing for me to do. I didn’t want to just go in blind and start picking stuff. I did get one ingredient that was a shock. I think it was queso fresco, when I was really going for crème fraiche or mascarpone, or something like that, and I got this soft crumbly cheese. But I just put it into the sabayon sauce for texture. It was very, very mild in flavor, so it was just used for texture.

Were you surprised when they informed you that the Reynolds Wrap would also be used in place of any bowls, pans, or cooking apparatus?
Surprised, yes. But you can kind of cook anything in aluminum foil. I wasn’t thrown by that at all. We use it everyday in restaurants. I went in with the mentality that this is supposed to be fun and entertaining to watch, so at the end of the day, I just wanted to embrace the challenge.

After having your family heritage go somewhat neglected in last week’s episode, Top Chef really made your background a focal point during week 7. Would you mind going into some of the details that were brought up in the new episode?
Yeah, so I was born in Seoul, Korea. The woman who gave birth to me left and when she didn’t come back after a couple of days I was given over to the police department. They actually named me. My Korean name is very generic; an “Amanda” type of name. After that I was shuffled around orphanages and then eventually adopted by a couple in Kent, Michigan.

Did you come to Boston straight from Michigan?
I actually came to Boston on a whim. I was in Chicago and getting bored. It was literally San Francisco or Boston. Growing up my family had taken vacations in the Cape, and stuff like that, but really it just seemed closer to home (in Chicago), in case I needed it.

Were you cooking in Chicago?
I was. I went to school there and did a couple of internships and then had a few jobs here and there. But, primarily that was my fun time in college. That’s why I needed to leave: because I was embracing my college life way too much and I wasn’t doing anything. It was a fun time in my life, but it was time to grow up.

The elimination challenge had you on a berry farm where you were forced to draw knives to find out which type of berry would be the main component of your final dish. You drew tayberries and seemed pretty comfortable. Do you eat or get to use tayberries as an ingredient very often?
No, I haven’t really worked with them much. I had an idea of what they were, but once I tasted it, all these flavor profiles flooded my brain and I went with a more savory route. I actually think it would have been more difficult to use a strawberry or blueberry or something more common. At least I had something interesting to play with. When I’m faced with an interesting ingredient that I haven’t worked with too many times, that’s when my creative side really shows. It brought out more ideas than something generic like a strawberry.

How would you describe the flavor of a tayberry?
It’s kind of a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry. It has the meatiness of a blackberry, with the flavor of a raspberry.

How did you conceptualize pairing tayberries with your Matcha Goat Milk Custard?
God, that’s a hard question. Goat milk was definitely the first thing that came into my head. How? I don’t know. Maybe it was the inspiration from being on a farm. But macerating the tayberries with olive oil, just sounded good for a really tart berry like that. Really, I had no plan. I just had some flavors I thought would work well together, and I ran with it.

With the sage and Matcha tea in the custard, it seemed like a very savory dessert.
Oh yeah, it was definitely more savory than sweet. I was calling it a savory dessert but it could be served as a first course or an ending course.

Last night, John Tesar was constantly haranguing Stefan Richter’s decision to use frozen, sushi-grade tuna in his Crudo. Would you ever use frozen fish and what is it even that big of a deal?
I don’t necessarily like to use frozen fish, but for that type of tuna, it’s frozen and flown into sushi restaurants every day. I don’t think it was that big of a deal. It’s a beautiful product. So, if it tasted good, then whatever, who cares.

Since we’re a couple days away from Christmas, I want to know, what are the dishes you associate with the holidays? What do you crave?
I grew up with my grandmother always making apple pie. But breakfast on Christmas morning is a great memory. You know, Pillsbury cinnamon roles with that glaze that comes in a packet. And that down and dirty, out-of-a-can kind of green bean casserole.

Do you ever try to spice up Christmas dinner with something more adventurous?
Not really. Whatever my mom cooks, I’m pretty happy. If I can get away with just standing on the sidelines and kind of helping her out, and not having to cook the entire meal, I’m pretty stoked.

Is she going to be using butter this year?
Oh god I hope so. She actually called me after last week’s episode and asked me if I’d make fresh pasta, if she bought a pasta machine. So, I got roped into making them fresh pasta when I go home for Christmas this year. If it’ll make her happy, I’m happy to do it.

You had the best answer I’ve heard for what you would like to do with the prize money, if you won the final challenge. You said you’d like to use it to travel to Korea and retrace your roots. Obviously, you did win, so when do you think you’ll actually have a chance to go to Seoul?
Hopefully sooner rather than later. I’ve been trying to plan this trip since I was eighteen. At eighteen I was too young to really make it the trip it should be. Twenty-two came along and my mom gave me the money for Christmas. But I still wasn’t ready. But I think I’m at that point in my life where I’m definitely ready and want to go and search out whatever it is I’ve been looking out for. There are some questions I need answered. I want to immerse myself in all aspects of Korean culture. I know that I have to go.

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