A top chef in town, and she’s just 29
How Kristen Kish made the leap from line-cook to ‘Top Chef’ to rising star of Boston’s culinary scene
While shopping at the Copley Square Farmers Market, Kristen Kish stopped by the Siena Farms stand, a favorite of hers. Slicing off pieces of fresh produce — candy-striped beet, Persian cucumber — Kish mused aloud about how she might put each ingredient to use at Menton, the elegant Congress Street restaurant where she took over as chef de cuisine this summer.
Her presence did not go unnoticed. Kish, 29, is a former model, and, after her winning appearance last February on Bravo TV's "Top Chef," is highly recognizable. Before long, she was approached by several passersby.
"I loved you on that show!" gushed one woman, asking Kish to pose for a snapshot. Another wondered if Kish would be interested in a modeling job. "Here's my agency, give me a call," the woman said, proffering her business card.
Attention like this comes with the territory, as Kish acknowledged on a cab ride to Menton, where she talked about her life and burgeoning cooking career. Her promotion by owner Barbara Lynch, whose Boston restaurant group also includes No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters, and Sportello, will be highlighted this month with a pair of autumn menu preview dinners.
Guests will pony up a hefty $350 ($5,000 for a chef's table for 10) to meet Kish and sample her new menu, one measure of the faith Lynch has placed in the young chef's culinary and kitchen-management skills. Her installation there, coupled with her exposure on "Top Chef," the Emmy-winning chefs' competition show, has vaulted Kish from relative obscurity to a position near the pinnacle of the Boston restaurant scene.
The buzz around Kish is not entirely new. No sooner was she crowned "Top Chef" — her dishes winning over celebrity judges Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck, among others — than the offers began pouring in: to write cookbooks, open her own restaurant, even host her own cooking show.
Still, she said, she did not audition for "Top Chef" in the pursuit of fame. Not now, certainly, when she's just begun putting her stamp on a top-flight kitchen where the prix fixe menus run $95 and $155 per person, plus wine and liquor.
"I never even thought of going on a show until Barbara encouraged me," said Kish. "She said, 'I think you're made to do this.'
"Maybe that's why I did OK, because I didn't go on the show to win. Or try to be recognized," Kish continued. "At the end of the day, we're chefs, not celebrities."
As for the offers to polish her personal brand, they've mostly been tabled. Kish, who knows the fast lane doesn't always lead to fulfillment, seems in no rush to plunge ahead on that front.
"I play therapist to myself all the time," Kish confessed while preparing for an afternoon meeting with her kitchen staff. "Realizing all the mistakes I made when I was younger, I learned the importance of having a reason behind everything I do. Every event I'm offered, every opportunity, every conversation, I always ask, why? If I don't have an answer, I won't do it."
Kish's personal story, and willingness to share some of its less-than-savory details, only adds to the interest as she bids, consciously or not, to join a long line of high-profile local chefs, from Julia Child and Todd English to Jody Adams and others.
Born in Seoul, Kish was adopted by a Michigan couple and raised in a middle-class, suburban Midwestern home. While her upbringing was comfortable and her parents loving and supportive, Kish says, she constantly strove for perfection, despite harboring nagging self-esteem issues.
Looking back, she says, being adopted was one factor — although not the only one — in her desire to please others, rather than focus on her own happiness. That would come later, through cooking.
"If somebody gives you up for adoption, it means (a) they can't care for you or (b) they don't want you. Either way, you're missing a piece of something," she said.
Cooking and food were always passions. Her father, a packaging and design engineer, and mother, a high school teacher, both enjoyed cooking; by age 5, Kish was an avid Food Network watcher and kitchen helper, making stuffed cabbage and chocolate chip cookies with her grandmother on weekends.
A modeling career that began at 13 led to her signing with a Chicago agency while prepping for college. All the while, though, she questioned her own worth and "felt intimidated to be myself," as she recalled in a March speech to the Ad Club.
"I wanted to do international business and economics, but I had no real love for either," Kish said later. "It just sounded like it would give me the picturesque life. Not my ideal life, though, which means getting to work at 11 in the morning," she added with a smile.
With her mother's encouragement, Kish enrolled in Chicago's Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, graduating in 2005. By then, she'd begun partying heavily and using recreational drugs, including cocaine, to battle anxiety and depression.
At just 21, she landed her first executive chef job. The business was poorly run, she says, and she took the job mostly for its title, having no experience running a team, or a sense of her own cooking style. She quit nine months later.
One morning, Kish awoke and experienced a "brutal epiphany." She decided to stop using drugs, pack up her belongings, and move to Boston, where she landed a low-level line cook's job at the Top of the Hub restaurant, spending 18 months there. Two other chef's jobs followed, both at now-defunct restaurants.
"I was a bratty, spoiled, cocky 19-to-26-year old. And I failed," Kish said. "I hope that's made me much more humble."
She ultimately found a mentor in Barbara Lynch, who installed Kish at Stir, Lynch's tasting kitchen, three years ago. Apprentices have little time to stand around and observe, Lynch notes. Yet Kish "got it right away," proving, at least to her, that Kish was finally ready for prime time.
Months before "Top Chef" came along, Lynch and Kish began discussing Kish moving to Menton, should a position open up there. As part of her training process since arriving, Kish spent a week at each station to learn her staff members' personalities and kitchen responsibilities.
"Everyone here knows how to cook," she acknowledged. "Getting them to open up to you on a personal level, not just as colleague to colleague — that's a hard challenge to balance. You want to be their friend. But if something goes wrong, you have to be disciplinary."
So, is she a tough taskmaster? Laid back? Temperamental?
"All of the above," she replied, smiling. "You don't want this roller coaster of emotion, though, because it's going to send the kitchen this very weird vibe. I can feel all these things, but I'll always remain even-keeled. I don't like to yell."
Rialto restaurateur Jody Adams has, over three decades, seen significant changes in the way younger female chefs have been accepted, and nurtured, in the local restaurant business. She herself was once told she was "too female and too inexperienced" to be anything but a pastry chef. Those days are long gone, according to Adams, although the media still give disproportionate attention to male chefs and their sometimes bad-boy personalities.
"My guess is, moving forward, Kristen will do well," Adams said. "The public already knows her. She's enormously talented. Barbara is putting her confidence and support behind her. And Menton is the most high-level restaurant in the city."
Beyond the kitchen, Kish hopes to make her first trip back to South Korea sometime early next year. Not necessary to reunite with her birth parents, she says, but to reconnect with her cultural roots and re-imagine what her life might look like had she not been raised in Middle America.
If someday she should move on and open her own restaurant, according to Kish, it will not be to cash in on her 15 minutes of "Top Chef" fame.
"I want to make certain people come because they like the food, and not because they saw me on TV," she said. "You can't sustain a career that way. You'll get this huge spike in interest, and when that next [TV star] chef comes long, they'll go there next."