Kristen Kish Discusses Last Chance Kitchen, the Moment She Wanted to Become a Chef

We're all still waiting to hear whether Kish made it into the finale—in the meantime, the Stir chef chats about this week's episode.

Top Chef - Season 10

Kristen Kish competes in the final episode of Last Chance Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Bravo

 You can’t deny Andy Cohen’s nose for drama. Last season, Beverly Kim was whisked from Last Chance Kitchen straight into the final four. This year, the powers that be at Bravo have used LCK to incorporate a cliffhanger into a cooking competition. One thing is for certain after Wednesday’s episode: Josh Valentine was sent home to enjoy fatherhood. But did Kristen Kish edge out Lizzy’s succulent looking black cod with spaetzle? We won’t find that out for another week. Kish is in the midst of an all-out media blitz in New York this week, but she was kind enough to catch us up on her final opportunity to reenter the competition.

Last night’s episode centered around the “aha” moment when each of the contestants was inspired to become a chef. The Elimination Challenge was to create a meal inspired by that influential period or person. What in your history made you want to become a chef?
My inspiration really came from television shows, especially Great Chefs. It really started to form my love of French cooking, and precision, and technique. I had no concept of flavors, it was all about how it looked. Back then everything was ringed and had little dots around it. Of course, that’s not exactly considered good any more.

Sheldon Simeon’s story mirrored a lot of today’s chefs. He began as a dishwasher and worked his way to the top. What was your first position in the restaurant world and how did that set you up on your current path?
My first “restaurant job” was my externship at the Union League Club of Chicago. I worked in the banquet kitchen plating 400-person weddings and buffets, and that kind of thing. I wore a silly little hat and worked the carving station. There was a restaurant on the lower level and I remember going down there and saying, “this is where I want to be.” I distinctly remember going down on my thirty-minute union break and hanging out in that little restaurant during brunch. I loved the idea of the tickets and hearing them roll in. That was the moment I said, “I need to be in a restaurant!”

Another huge moment in that episode was when Josh Valentine had to miss the birth of his daughter. On his blog today, Tom Colicchio wrote about the the unglamorous side of being a chef, including missing out on birthdays, holidays, and all kinds of personal events. What are some of those substantial moments you’ve missed out on because of your career choice?
I’m not married and I don’t have kids and all that jazz, but I miss out on the holidays, and seeing extended family. I haven’t seen my immediate family on numerous holidays. I’ve also missed out on a lot of my best friends’ weddings just because I couldn’t get away. But for the most part I feel very fortunate that I was there for my brother’s wedding. We’re a very close-knit family and they understand that I can’t be there all the time. My mom used to have a rule where every three months we had to see each other, but as the years progressed I’ve gotten deeper into this industry and it’s now more like every six or seven months.

Do you have any regrets because of that?
No, none whatsoever! I would have regrets if my mom wasn’t supportive of this path, but she knows this is where I want to be in life. She understands, so that makes it a lot easier for me.

I imagine that working the late hours and the sacrifice that goes along with a chef’s life can be difficult over the course of a long career. Do you ever force yourself to look ahead?
Of course! When I was younger, I was thinking that by twenty-three I wanted to have my own restaurant and I wanted to be married with kids. That sounds awful right now. I couldn’t do it. I don’t try to look too far down the road because that’s what caused me so much anxiety in high school and college when I’d try to figure out my whole life. Now I just look at the immediate future. I try to think about what I’m going to do in the next month that’s potentially  going to make an impact within the next ten years.

You and Josh Valentine faced off in Last Chance Kitchen against the winner of the Fan Favorite Vote. Were you surprised that Lizzy Binder beat out CJ Jacobsen for that honor?
Yes and no, only because CJ had that Last Chance Kitchen run and he conjured up a ton of fans. He’s a likeable guy and people think he deserves to be there, and rightfully so. But I got to tell you that Lizzy has this calmness and she’s such a humble, good person. I’m not saying that CJ is not, but she’s very warm. That’s one thing that I took away from her. She’s a very warm person and I think that showed on television, especially on the episode where she was eliminated.

The last time we talked, you said that CJ had been your hardest competition up until that point. After last night’s episode, have you changed your mind?
I think Tom [Colicchio] said in Last Chance Kitchen that it was one of the closer decisions. It definitely was! I tasted everything that she made and it was very good. I said that CJ would probably be my biggest competition because he’s super out-of-the-box and crazy and someone I would look to for inspiration. But Lizzy just cooks good food. It doesn’t always have to be about this crazy fanfare of things happening. So, I’ve slightly changed my answer, but not completely.

When Tom inquired about your orecchiette dish, you told him you were self-editing as you made it. Is that something you often do when creating a new dish?
At the end of the night at Stir, I’ll make the menu for the next day and order everything. I’ll write it out and have it all planned. With that being said, things get switched around. It’s funny, some of the girls who do the menus [in the] front of the house will start asking me at 3 if I’m ready yet, and I never am. At 4:30 they’ll ask me again and I’m still not ready. By 4:45, I’m like, “okay, I get it” and I’ll try to give them something. Just the other day, I just gave them very generic words, because I like to play around. Cooking is fun. Cooking is improvising.

The judges are constantly berating the contestants when in it comes to tasting their own food. Sheldon was almost eliminated because he didn’t taste his snapper and he served a super salty broth. I can only assume your improvising skills would be seen as a an advantage.
I don’t know how much they show me tasting, but I’m literally tasting every single component. I’m piling shit on a spoon and shoveling it into my mouth, just to figure it out. You just don’t know. Something could sound good in your head and after you plate it, it could be a total flop. Things take editing and time.

I know that you’re a perfectionist. Was your semolina orecchiette the best plate of food you could have made in that moment?
I think so. I liked it. I thought it was creative. Making pasta in thirty minutes is tough. I could go back and make that dish better, but in that moment I thought it was a fantastic plate of food.

Stay tuned for more discussions with Kish as the competition progresses.