Kristen Kish Breaks Down the Top Chef: Seattle Finale

From the wilds of Washington and through the frozen tundra in Alaska, Kish's circuitous journey lands Top Chef gold.

Top Chef Winner Kristen Kish

Kristen Kish celebrates becoming the newest champion of Top Chef. (Photos courtesy of Bravo)

Despite a gaudy setup that reeked of a Gordon Ramsay sideshow or Iron Chef’s exhibitionist tendencies, there were components that I loved about Top Chef’s season finale. Strip away the stage, the spotlights, and past winners smashing table decor (i.e. Ilan Hall assuming the role of drunken uncle) and essentially you had a mano a mano contest, with Kristen Kish and Brooke Williamson—clearly this season’s best chefs—uninhibited to flex their creative muscle. The new format particularly benefited the Judges’ Table as Colicchio and co. were free from that nebulous, cumulative consideration of a chef’s past performance, something that so often clouds their crowning impressions. Kristen Kish proved unflappable, running away in a lopsided victory that clearly demonstrated her wealth of technique and her preference for bright, clean flavors. When we began this column with Kish, the only expectation was her insider perspective. But as weeks turned into months, Thanksgiving into St. Patty’s Day, we’ve watched with mounting anticipation and a barely concealed awe. It’s thrilling to have the Top Chef crown in Boston, but we’re even more excited for Kristen Kish and all the amazing things that undoubtedly lay ahead for her.

What was your first reaction when you walked into the new Top Chef arena?
“Holy Shit!” It was massive. You saw the seats, you saw the judges right there, and you saw our cooking station. We saw it completely empty and then later on people filtered in. But it was nerve-racking right off the bat.

How did you choose your teammates?
So, after the last challenge at Craft, we flipped a coin and Brooke got to choose first. We got to choose two people and she chose Stefan [Richter] and CJ [Jacobsen] and I chose Sheldon [Simeon] and Lizzy [Binder]. Then later on we were informed we could choose one more, and that’s when I picked Josh [Valentine] and she took Kuniko [Yagi].

You said you wanted a team with no drama. How did you put together your sous chefs, and were there members of Brooke’s team that you were hesitant to pick?
I just chose people I knew I could work well with—that would respect me and that I could respect equally. I wanted calming personalities. So, those three for me were a perfect choice.

Did you feel any additional pressure in front of a live audience, members of your family, and all the past winners of Top Chef?
No, it was the same amount of pressure. Obviously, it was ramped up because it was the last finale. But at the end of the day, what a cool thing to be a part of. The fact that Brooke and I are going through this together and going through this whole ride side-by-side is amazing.

All Top Chef Winners

Kristen Kish takes her place in the pantheon of Top Chef winners.

So, who did you have on your side that was able to come and support you?
My brother was there, my dad, and then, Stephanie [Cmar]. My mom couldn’t make it because she was taking care of my grandpa at home. Unfortunately, he’s a little sick right now and he’s staying at their house.

What did you think about the new format of the finale?
I liked it because I liked the immediate gratification of knowing if I won a round for a specific dish. Of course, I would have liked for everyone to see how we picked our sous chefs and how our menu came to be, and all that stuff, but I thought it was interesting. It was fun!

As you prepared for this final challenge, how long did it take you to conceptualize your dishes and what were some of your influences behind them?
We had a couple days to really nail it down. We had some time to make changes in L.A., but a couple of days to really write the menu. It kind of came about with knowing how much time we had to cook and how many people we had helping us. At the beginning we were told that we would have two sous chefs. The third one was a surprise, which was fantastic. But you try to work your menu around the constrictions that are put upon you, while still giving them a beautiful product.

We saw CJ Jacobsen over-frying some of Brooke’s pig’s ears that garnished her salad course. Can you describe the role your team played in your eventual victory?
Oh my god, they took direction so amazingly. I tried my best to convey my vision and what I wanted to see. At that point we really understood each others’ style of cooking, so they could pick up on where I was going. But I was rapid-firing tasks to them and they kept taking it on and finishing out, and they did a fantastic job.

Afterward, on Watch What Happens Live, Andy Cohen asked you who had survived for too long in this year’s competition. You picked Josh Valentine, who was on your team. What made you pick him?
So, when he asked that question, I was like, “Oh god, what do I say?” Then he looked and me and reassured me that it was all in fun. When I said Josh, it just came out. Maybe I said it because in past episodes I heard him say that he never expected to make it as far as he did. Maybe that’s why it came out. But I couldn’t tell you why or how, it just sort of vomited out of my mouth. Andy’s show is a fun environment. You watch past shows of his and that’s just kind of how it rolls.

Were you drinking, Kristen?
(Laughing) Yes I was. I would have preferred not to have said anything because I thought everyone deserved to be there. Josh texted me last night saying, “Really???” It was actually really funny and we had some great banter back and forth. I owe him dinner when he comes to Boston.

Tom Colicchio voted for your dishes in every course, which seemed to add to the rumblings of favoritism. You mentioned to Andy Cohen that you were privy to some of these rumors? What are some of the things you’ve read and how do you react to some of those statements?
I really don’t read a lot of the things, but you obviously want to stay up to date on what people are saying about you. I heard that Tom was favoring me, and all that stuff. I don’t think it’s favoritism at all. I don’t know, I think maybe I played into his tastes. My style of cooking is something I hope he enjoys. I think it’s stupid. People are going to find things to say regardless.

Top Chef judges

Kristen Kish almost unanimously won every challenge in the Top Chef finale.

Since you won before the fifth course, could you tell us about the dessert you were prepared to make?
It was a fennel pollen olive oil cake with candied fennel, olive oil powder, and meyer lemon ice cream. Josh completely took control of that. I just gave him all the stuff and I was like, “Go, you’re my new pastry chef.” And I’ve got to say, that ice cream was probably the most perfect texture that I could have ever hoped for.

All the former Top Chef winners have opened at least one signature restaurant since their respective victories. We know you love working with Barbara Lynch, but are you already feeling the pressure to go out on your own?
Well, I definitely want to go off at some point and do my own thing. I have some time, though. I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of ideas Barbara [Lynch] has for me. Whether I stay with her or go off on my own, I know she’ll support me. In the meantime, I’m sticking with Barbara. That might be at Stir or somewhere else. I’m not sure.

Is it a possibility that you two partner up on a restaurant?
Probably not. I think she’s over that kind of work and, quite frankly, I’d love for her to be coming in as a guest. It would be nice to  serve her and not just as a work thing.

Has Jimmy Fallon invited you onto his show yet?
No! I really hope he invites me on. I’d love to hang out with him. Watch What Happens Live was so much fun, though. We basically just sat there with cocktails and talked all night. At the end, Brooke and I just looked at each other and said, “Is it really over?” It’s hard to believe, but we just wanted to keep going.