The Simple Dish That Changed Kristen Kish's Entire Culinary Outlook

Kristen Kish brings a kaleidoscope of cultural influence to the kitchen. Born in South Korea, the Season 10 winner of Bravo-TV's "Top Chef" was adopted as an infant. She grew up in Michigan in a family where a sit-down dinner was a nightly event, even when it was leftovers, take-out or, one of her personal favorites, Hamburger Helper (per NBC News). By age 7, Kish was an avid fan of television cooking shows — the PBS show "Great Chefs of the World" was among her favorites, according to Oprah – already presenting her family with unexpected mash-ups like burgers topped with homemade kimchi. And that was all before she worked with Barbara Lynch at Menton in Boston, won "Top Chef," traveled the world, wrote a cookbook, co-hosted a show on the Travel Channel, and opened her own restaurant.

A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, according to Bravo-TV — her mother encouraged her to apply — Kish worked at Michelin-star chef Guy Martin's Sensing in Boston before joining the culinary team at Barbara Lynch's restaurant, Menton, in Boston's Fort Point neighborhood, as chef de cuisine. That's a fancy pedigree for a chef whose personal go-to favorites are tried-and-true comfort foods.

"I am comfort food through and through" Kish told Eating Well in 2022. "Whether that be meatloaf or burgers or pizza or pastas. If you think of a spicy pickle, you put that on a great sandwich and you're in heaven, or at least I am."

When worlds collide

Loving comfort food and being a classically trained chef is a dichotomy, for sure, but it makes sense given Kristen Kish's personal trajectory. "I found that the greatest success as a chef happened when I got very honest with myself — when I stopped trying to be a chef that impresses everyone and just tried to tell my own story through my food," she told Kalamata's Kitchen. "I stopped thinking about how to create a new dish, and I just did it using inspiration from my own upbringing."

That almost seamless blend of experience and education is evident at Arlo Grey, Kish's restaurant at The Line hotel in Austin, Texas (via FSR). For example, the inspiration for one Kish's favorite pasta dishes at Arlo Grey — a simple but elegant serving of malfaldine (think longer, thinner lasagna) topped with a saucy blend of mushrooms and pearl onions and crowned with Parmesan shavings — is her mother's Hamburger Helper-based beef stroganoff.

The lynchpin connecting Kish's nostalgia for the comfort foods of her childhood to the sophisticated menus that built her career may well be one single meal. In 2019, Kish told Eating Well about an experience at a tasting-menu restaurant in Berlin. "The chef brought over this dish, it was just a spinach juice with a palm purée — really, really silky, technically perfect — and a piece of steamed white fish. That changed the trajectory of my entire career. It showed me that I was overcomplicating things. I was trying to do too much, and I was overthinking. I was going off course from my own food story."