The 'Top Chef' Season 10 winner Kristen Kish knows her way around a kitchen.
She learned to cook at a young age, then studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago to perfect her craft. After working as chef de cuisine at Menton, Chef Barbara Lynch recommended her for the hit Bravo cooking competition Top Chef. After being eliminated during the Restaurant Wars round, Kish competed on Last Chance Kitchen, beating five contestants in the process. She won the finale against Brooke Williamson to take home the honor of Top Chef.
To celebrate Macy's Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Kish—who was born in Seoul, South Korea—made an appearance at the State Street store.
Windy City Times: You were originally adopted in Michigan?
Kristen Kish: I was born in Seoul, and went to Michigan at four months old where I was adopted. I was raised in good ol' white suburbia. I had an all-American brother—the whole nine yards. I moved to Chicago when I was 19 years old.
WCT: I read you modeled in high school.
KK: A little bit. I was scouted when I was 13 because I was tall, Asian, and skinny. I came to Chicago when I signed with Elite, a modeling agency. It was very short lived. I was doubling at culinary school at the same time.
WCT: Did you always want to cook?
KK: At 5 years old, I was watching TV shows with cooking. I didn't realize it could be a career. I could watch a chef cook something then know how to use the knife. If I see something done I can do it.
I didn't know what went together as far as flavor until much later. That is what culinary school taught me.
WCT: What happened after school?
KK: Chicago holds a special place in my heart. I love it. It feels like home. It is also here I struggled realizing that I was gay, but not accepting it yet.
I was having identity issues. I wanted to be a chef with a big name but had forgotten what it was like to be a cook.
When I was in Chicago I got into the partying scene way too much. I woke up one day and decided it was not for me. I moved to Michigan to find myself. A lot of it was from suppressing myself being gay.
I grew up with an amazing family accepting everything, but this was my own struggle being different.
WCT: Where did you meet your current girlfriend?
KK: I am sort of dating. I did have a long-term girlfriend, but we haven't been together in a while.
WCT: Talk about coming out.
KK: That was interesting. I was dating a woman. She lived in New York and I lived in Boston. We met in Charleston for our one year anniversary. I posted a picture to share the moment. It was not my goal to come out. The floodgates opened. A day after that a New York Times article came out that had done a profile on me and my former boss. It casually mentioned my girlfriend.
It was crazy! I didn't think that people cared. I had already came out to my close friends and family, so that part was fine. I received nothing but amazing messages. That is when life takes off, when you can openly be who you are.
WCT: You weren't out of the closet on Top Chef?
KK: No. I didn't talk about anything. The only time I mentioned our relationship was saying, "I just got out of a relationship.'
WCT: Being gay on Top Chef is usually mentioned so casually because the theme is focused on food. How were you cast on the Bravo show?
KK: My former boss, Barbara Lynch. She was a guest judge on the season before. They had asked her if she knew any chefs, primarily female, that she could suggest for Top Chef. She came back and told me she had put my name in.
I was happy and cooking back then. I had no desire to go on that show. I was scared. I had watched the show before and saw how critical it was, so didn't want to go. She made me go.
WCT: Was it stressful winning yourself back into the competition through Last Chance Kitchen?
KK: A little bit. I was so tired and needed a break. Once that wore off I wanted to win. I got a little fire under my ass and did it.
It actually took off a lot of stress, cooking in that environment, because it was one dish. I only had to focus on that one thing against one person.
WCT: How did you spend the prize money after winning?
KK: I bought a house. I have now sold it. I invested some of it. I paid a lot to the government. [Laughs]
I did stuff that I thought I never would. As a cook I never thought I would buy a home with that salary. I lived paycheck to paycheck before winning.
WCT: How was being on Duels for Bravo after?
KK: I had sworn off cooking competitions, but then they put me against Stephanie Izard. I thought, "If I lose, then I want it to be against her." We were friends also so just a fun one-off thing.
That was a close one. I lost by one vote.
WCT: you were on something called 36 Hours?
KK: That was last summer, where I traveled and saw the world on a Travel Channel show.
WCT: Did you have a favorite city you went to?
KK: Istanbul was pretty spectacular. We did Berlin and Barcelona. Any place that is out of my comfort zone I love going to.
WCT: What is your latest dish to cook for yourself?
KK: I don't cook for myself.
WCT: What do you order the most for take out then?
KK: Chicken fingers!
WCT: I am surprised you don't cook at home.
KK: I am never home. I am on an airplane every four days.
WCT: How did get involved with Macy's?
KK: Being Asian, they reached out to me. I wanted to support. It was a chance to celebrate any bit of who I am and things that are important to me, such as female empowerment of chefs, or being adopted. I think we should celebrate who are anytime we can.
WCT: I was adopted. Did you find your birthparents?
KK: No. There is no record.
WCT: Future plans?
KK: I have a book coming out. It is everything from how I cook at home, to things that were on my tasting menu. I have perfectionism in me. I have a lot of heart and story. It comes from experience and reinventing things I used to eat in my childhood. I will have a lot of personal stories intertwined in the book.
It is on pre-sale now and will be out in October. Chicago will be one of our stops on the book tour so we can meet up again!
Reported by Windy City Times.