‘Top Chef: Seattle’ Episode 9 Recap—A Post-Show Chat with Kristen Kish

We chat with the Stir chef de cuisine as her winning streak continues.

Kish, center, wows the judges with a lightened-up version of chicken pot pie. Photo courtesy of Bravo.

Our ongoing conversation with Top Chef contestant Kristen Kish went on a brief hiatus during the holidays, but no matter, since the Stir chef de cuisine laid low and prevailed in an episode dedicated to the upscale cravings of the Rat City Rollergirls. We return on a high note after episode nine, as Kish dominated in a challenge to recreate a memorable dish from a prior season. Her healthy twist on Carla Hall’s beloved chicken pot pie from Season 8 was such a hit that (besides the $15,000 prize money) it’s soon to be in your supermarket’s frozen aisle courtesy of Healthy Choice. We caught up with her to discuss her Top Chef viewing habits, her capricious relationship with knives, and her guilty craving for frozen chicken fingers.

I feel like I say this every week, but congratulations on winning again! You’re on an unparalleled streak, probably challenged only by Paul Qui in Season 9.
KK: I’m doing good. I feel good! It’s kind of weird because I forget about them, and then watch them week after week and I’m reminded of what happened. It’s funny to watch it all play out.

Do you ever watch the episodes with friends or family?
Always. I watch it with the same group of people every week. Actually the roller derby one (episode eight) was the first episode I watched with my family because I was home for Christmas.

How was that different from your normal crew?
(laughing) It was good. There was no smoking and I didn’t swear too much or do anything embarrassing. So, my mom was okay.

Getting into the Quickfire Challenge, how familiar were you with Bob Kramer and the artisanal knife movement?
I wasn’t familiar to be honest with you. Then again, I’ve never bought myself a $4,000 knife, so I’ve never really been in the market to know who he is.

What kind of knives do you use?
I always stick with Japanese knives. My current ones that I use the most are Togiharu and Misono. I go to the Korin store when I’m in New York, which is awesome. Otherwise I find them online. I have a good selection because I get bored. I need variety.

How many knives do you have? Do you even know?
I have over twenty but I only use three on a daily basis.

The Quickfire broke the chefs into teams of three and challenged their abilities to sharpen a dull chef’s knife, tourne fifty potatoes, and then (if they made it this far) breakdown two rabbits. Unfortunately, Kish’s team lost due to the untimely disqualification of Josie Smith-Malave after she cut a finger.

How did you think you fared in the knife skills competition?
On the knife sharpening I was good. I really would have loved to break down the rabbits because it’s a lot of fun. The tourneing with those chef’s knives…those aren’t the typical shape of chef’s knives that I use. It was Santoku and I don’t really use those. Tourneing with a large knife like that can be very challenging.

How disappointing was it to come so close to winning that leg of the competition only to have Josie go out for cutting her finger?
We were so close, but here’s the thing: even if we had finished the tournes, I wouldn’t have been happy with them because they weren’t perfect. And that’s my problem. I like to make things look as perfect and even and geometric as possible.

In one of our prior interviews you said making pasta was a Zen-like thing for you. Is tourneing vegetables the same sort of meditative task?
Yes! God, I really love tourneing when I have the proper knife and I don’t have to race against any clock.

It looked like everyone but Micah Fields was having a really hard time breaking down the rabbits. Do you feel you would have had more success that Josh (Valentine) or Sheldon (Simeon) who made it to that leg of the competition?
I love it! I absolutely love breaking down whole animals. Especially at Stir when we have ten people and it makes sense for me to break down a small animal and butcher something like that. But Micah did a great job. He was super fast. I was impressed.

The Final Challenge was to recreate a memorable dish from a past season. Have you always been of fan of Top Chef? And do you have any favorite former contestants?
I have always been a fan. I kind of go in-and-out just because of work and daily life gets in the way of watching television all the time. As far as favorite chefs, definitely, Hung Huynh (Season 3). He was pretty badass. And Paul (Qui), of course. (laughing) I’m not saying that just because they’re Asian. There’s no biased answer here. They’re just really good and I’d love to meet them.

Have you met any of contestants from prior seasons?
I haven’t. Tiffani has her restaurant (Sweet Cheeks Q) here in Boston, but I’ve yet to go in. So, unfortunately not.

John Tesar was the eliminated chef last night. During the episode, he acknowledged that every chef who has made risotto in the past has ended up on the chopping block. Of course, he went ahead and made it anyway, to disastrous results. Why is risotto always a killer on Top Chef?
Risotto is hard because it has to be served right away. If it sits for even a couple minutes too long, it’ll harden up and become just this blob, as opposed to beautiful, creamy risotto. I don’t think the problem is actually cooking it. I think the problem is getting it from the stove to the table in time. Now John’s (Tesar) problem was that his was cooked completely uneven.

It started to become a running joke as Tesar kept blaming the Top Chef kitchen and the pans not having an even enough surface?
I remember him talking about it often when we were at Judge’s Table. He was definitely going on and on about it. When you walk into most kitchens, not every single pan is perfect. It’s just something that you have to deal with.

Tell me a little bit about your dish and how you managed to make it healthier.
So, I tried to go off the flavors of a really beautiful roast chicken that would later be pulled and put into a pot pie. But I couldn’t use butter so I used miso in place of it. As it was cooking in the plastic, basically sous vide or poached, the miso softened up and melted and marinated the chicken. I love miso because it’s this rich and salty base without having a lot of fat in it.

In your deconstructed potpie you eliminated the puff pastry to reduce calories. You also added a tofu/garlic emulsion to eliminate dairy. How did you come to that decision?
My mom would always make smoothies with tofu in it, instead of using milk or cream. When you blend silken tofu it makes this really this thick, creamy shake that works really well. Soy milk is something I often use in cooking, like in making cream soups because when you add dairy to something it actually dilutes the flavor. With soy you have to add flavor back in, but nothing gets diluted. So, I took garlic cloves and poached them six times to pull out the pungency of raw garlic and then simmered that in the soy milk and blended it with the silken tofu.

What are your thoughts on Healthy Choice adding your dish to its repertoire of frozen entrees?
I think it’s pretty cool. I’ve yet to try it, but a dish that’s inspired by what I made and put out to the public is fine. But I still recommend people coming to see me for the real thing.

In our last interview you admitted to having a soft spot for Pillsbury biscuits and canned green beans. Since you won a frozen food challenge, I want to know, are there any frozen foods you really loved growing up?
Oh my god, I still love frozen food! Chicken fingers that come from the freezer section, that you deep fry, is always a winner in my book. Quite frankly, when chefs get done working, they like something really fast and simple and sometimes that comes from the freezer aisle. And that’s okay.

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