Kristen Kish doesn't give up.
The Top Chef contestant was trained by Barbara Lynch, and during her appearance on the show--during Season 10, set in Seattle--came back from being eliminated via Last Chance Kitchen and defeated Brooke Williamson in the finale for the title in 2012. Kish's elimination was particularly brutal to watch because it took place during "Restaurant Wars," but she took full responsibility for the pop-up not running according to her standards. After her comeback win, however, the concept of Last Chance Kitchen began to be taken more seriously as an avenue for eliminated chefs to fight their way back from being kicked off the show. Kish was, at the time, only the second female winner of Top Chef.
In the years since her victory, Kish has undertaken a variety of projects, including being part of the pandemic edition of Top Chef. The show's 18th season was set in Portland in 2021, and Kish served as a judge during multiple episodes. Her presence as both a past winner and a woman of color seemed to strike a chord with Chef Maria Mazon; the two shared a tearful moment of support and encouragement during Episode 10's Judges' Table.
Kish Before Top Chef
Although she was born in South Korea, Kish was adopted by a white family in Kentwood, Michigan in 1983, when she was four months old. As early as age five, Kish says that cooking:
"...was one of the parts of my life where I felt the most ease with who I am, not fully understanding all of the identity struggles that I was dealing with at five. Retrospectively, I realize that when I would watch cooking, all the noise shut off."
She modeled as a teenager and attended the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago. When she first arrived at Stir, a culinary demonstration kitchen in Boston, Kish worked as an instructor, but in 2012, she was promoted to Stir's chef de cuisine by the owner, Barbara Lynch. The culinary legend was deeply impressed and gave Kish a second position, as chef de cuisine at Menton Boston, her French-Italian fine dining restaurant. Her early adulthood wasn't easy: despite the illustrious career starts, she struggled with sexuality, drugs, alcohol, and insecurity. Although the experience at Menton was invaluable, Kish found the grind of the kitchen deeply grueling, and told Lynch, by then her friend and mentor, "I can't do this anymore." Lynch looked at her and said, "Then don't do it--you don't need it. You have opportunity, go spread your wings."
This wasn't the first time Chef Lynch had given her good advice. In an interview with TODAY Food, Kish recounted a difficult moment in her career:
"Until I worked for Barbara, I was struggling with a lot of things--personal or professional. She told me, 'I don't need to teach you how to cook. You know how to cook. I'm here to challenge the way you think about yourself.'"
Kish left Menton in 2014, and just three years later, published her first cookbook, co-authored with Meredith Erickson, titled Kristen Kish Cooking: Recipes and Techniques. A year later she became the chef at Austin's Arlo Grey, her very own first restaurant, in May 2018.
2014 was a momentous year for Kish in more ways than one. On March 28 of that year, Kish came out as a lesbian via an Instagram post that announced the one-year anniversary of her relationship with Jacqueline Westbrook, her girlfriend at the time. Five years later, in September 2019, Kish posted to Instagram news of her engagement to Bianca Dusic, VP of Food & Beverage for Standard Hotels. The pair married on April 18, 2021.
Until I sat down to research this article about Chef Kish, I didn't realize the difficulties of her career after her Top Chef win. She told TODAY that,"After TV it was interesting. I wouldn't say it was positive." A male chef in Boston spread a rumor that Chef Kish had slept with him to advance her career, a blatant and disgusting lie, given both Kish's sexuality and the intense hard work she had poured into working in restaurants. Recounting the experience, she said,
"I never worked for him a day in my life and I'm also very gay. It's a way of making women feel less than. It's just so disappointing--can't someone just be happy, rather than taking the thunder? That was the first hit of major reality."
Along with Top Chef alumni Jeremy Ford and Justin Sutherland, Kish hosts TruTV's Fast Foodies. Every episode features a celebrity and their favorite fast-food dish. The chef-hosts go head to head in two rounds: first, they attempt to create a perfect copy of the fast food dish. They then try to translate the dish into fine dining fare. Celebrity guests have included Amanda Seales, Joel McHale, and Andy Richter. Fast Foodies premiered its first season in February 2021, and its second season hit the airwaves last month.
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