After attending culinary school and working her way up the Boston food scene to restaurateur Barbara Lynch’s test kitchen Stir and high-end Menton, Kristen Kish went on to compete in Top Chef’s 10th season—where she beat out 20 contestants for the title, cementing herself as a rising star in the American culinary scene. In the five years since Top Chef, she’s hosted a travel show, appeared in modeling campaigns, cooked all over the world, and released her first cookbook, Kristen Kish Cooking (Clarkson Potter, 2017).
These days, Kish finds herself constantly traveling. While there isn’t a particular restaurant that’s home base right now, she’s consistently in kitchens, cooking at other restaurants and working with new teams. Here, the nomadic chef shares how she finds new cheeses, her love of chicken fingers, and what she means when she calls herself “irresponsibly responsible.”
At the core, my French background is really just based on technique. That’s what you learn in culinary school. You learn French mother sauces and that kind of thing. I stuck with that because understanding the 101’s and the basics, I’m then better able to express my food, however or wherever that comes from. Whether it’s from my childhood, my travels, or working at restaurants, I can use that technique as the base foundation. Once you understand that, any recipe really reveals itself to you. With that tying everything together, everything makes sense.
If you’re starting from zero experience I think you should give yourself the time to understand the 101’s. If you understand what that [foundation] means, everything else will become infinitely easier and more seamless moving forward.
On bringing people together through food
When you can tap into [a] nostalgic feeling, you can relate to so many people from so many different lifestyles and so many different backgrounds. There’s a chicken noodle soup version all over the world; everyone has their version of what that means and what it feels like for them. If you can tap into one or two familiar flavors, that makes someone go, “Oh, that reminded me or when my mom or grandmother used to make that.” All of a sudden things become relatable and, at least for me, I like my food to be relatable. I’ll twist it and turn it to make it feel like something different, obviously, but I think it’s a special time when you can evoke a memory through the food.
How cheese fits into her cooking
I like putting cheese in things. I love picking up the nuances of different flavors and working them into a dish. It taps into a creative space, so I use cheese when it calls for it. If a cheese will work to richen a sauce, as opposed to using heavy cream or butter, then absolutely, because heavy cream and butter have one-note flavor, as opposed to an Époisses which has so many. I like to use smartly and have it all make sense. I look at cheese just like I would an herb: I love parsley but I don’t put it on everything because not everything needs it.
On her favorite ways to use cheese
One of my favorite recipes [in the cookbook] is the rabbit with the Époisses and mustard sauce. The Époisses sauce is basically a really rich chicken stock with mustard for acid and you whisk in cheese, the Époisses. I like that funky stuff when it’s integrated. Cheeses like that with so much complexity make it fun to play into a complete dish. I really love the Delice [de Bourgogne] that I use in the ravioli con uovo. That’s one of my favorite cheeses. It reminds me of cream cheese in the best way possible, which I love. Delice, as soon as it gets hot, becomes liquidy, so with a perfect al dente pasta and a runny egg yolk, it’s magical.
How her cheese tastes have changed
I am a fan of American cheese, which I know is not cheese, but it’s my childhood all wrapped up into one little thing.
I grew up with block cheddar and Colby Jack—the white and the yellow, that was a family favorite. We used cheese on tacos, we had the can of green parmesan with spaghetti, that kind of thing. But it really wasn’t until culinary school, once I was really starting to be introduced to new things, that I found that cheese was interesting and something I could work into my cooking. And then obviously moving to Boston and having places like Formaggio, that changed the game for me.
How she approaches the cheese counter
You make friends with the people working at cheese counters. I understand what I like and what I don’t like, but I don’t understand what all my options are. I’m definitely not an expert in that. Whenever you go to any specialty store, they obviously know the most about it so I ask questions. I tell them I’m looking for these three characteristics and then I taste a couple and then I pick one. That’s how I’m introduced to other cheeses. If it were up to me and if I was going in based on my own knowledge, I would probably just order the same cheeses every day. It’s more fun for me to ask people who know more about it than I do.
On what she eats when she’s not working
Chicken fingers. Everything tastes better when you don’t have to make it so I don’t cook for myself. I go out for dinner a lot, I get takeout, I spend a lot of time in hotels so room service is always a fun thing. I get more interest and inspiration that way and it’s more R&D for me to go out to dinner anyway.
On the perks of being a nomadic chef
I certainly now am doing something different every single day. For me right now, this is working and it’s keeping me inspired and I’m learning an infinite amount, even just being able to cook in other people’s kitchens for one night only and having to learn someone else’s kitchen and team.
I find it happily challenging. Going into a kitchen and not knowing what it looks like or not understanding the equipment and then to try to create a menu that yields the best results given the space and the number of cooks you have and whatever it may be, I find that exciting.
On setting goals
I don’t look beyond. I always say that I’m irresponsibly responsible. For much of my life, I put so much pressure on hitting these marks. Every time you miss a mark because of these expectations you put on yourself, it becomes defeating. When you’re aiming so intently on this one goal, of hitting this one task right in front of you, you miss all of the other stuff on the sidelines, which could push you in a different direction. So I remain responsible in the sense of what does my overall life look like and my overall goals and what that means, but the specifics of it all, I let myself relax a little bit on that.
This originally appeared in culture‘s Spring 2018 issue. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.