After Filming The New Season Of Top Chef, Kristen Kish Is Ready For Holiday Cooking - Exclusive Interview

Kristen Kish is no stranger to challenges in the kitchen. She has studied at Le Cordon Bleu, written a cookbook, opened a renowned Austin, Texas-based restaurant, and hosted shows like "Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend" and "Restaurants at the End of the World." More recently, she is known as the new host of Bravo's "Top Chef," a competition that she herself won in Season 10. Within all of these titles and accomplishments, Kish champions a cooking style that is refined while centering on personal inspiration and intuition. She's also an advocate for cooking for comfort, which is just what home cooks and diners alike are looking for at this time of year.

Fresh from the high energy of filming the newest season of "Top Chef," Kristen Kish is turning her focus to a different kind of culinary challenge: holiday cooking. Tasting Table caught up with Kish to discuss a few things about festive fare. She revealed what types of dishes are on the holiday table at home and at Arlo Grey, as well as her favorite seasonal gifts, the best places to eat in Milwaukee, and what viewers can expect from "Top Chef" Season 21. 

Seasonal dishes at home and at her restaurant

What sorts of unique dishes and specials might diners see on the menu at Arlo Grey that celebrate the season?

When I think about holiday menu planning with restaurants, it's one of those things where you have to remain thoughtful and broad, but I still want to hit on the comfort and nostalgia of things that I grew up on. However, everyone has different holiday menus. My chef, Alex [Munoz], and I try to keep it as broad as we can. Thankfully, he comes from a different background than I do, so he's bringing his input. He asks the team what they want to do. Rather than doing a full preset menu and that's the only thing we serve, we keep our full dinner menu — and then we add one starter, one main, and one dessert that are an option [for holidays]. You can do one, or all, or none.

Being in a hotel, we also need to remain neutral in some ways. If someone wants a bowl of the mushroom pasta that we have on our menu that is the classic tried-and-true and has been there forever, people can still get that. You have travelers that aren't necessarily celebrating or are celebrating away from family. We like to give as many options for comfort as we can.

Any specific dishes you could clue us into?

We don't know yet ... Last time I was actually in Austin, he did throw out wanting to do pheasant.

What's a dish that you typically like to make at home that signals the change of a season for you?

Any braise, any soup, anything brothy, warming, like a savory tea ... If it can remind me of a savory tea, that's the vibe that I like. I grew up in Michigan, and I oftentimes ate canned soup for breakfast because I'm much more of a savory breakfast eater than I was a sweet breakfast eater. My mom was like, "Kristen, a canned vegetable soup or something — eat something of nutritional value, please, before you go to school." I always have this nostalgic comfort surrounding pre-made soups, which is a thing. And braises ... Anything you can do in one pot, throw in the oven, forget about it, and come back four hours later, and it's perfect.

Do you have a favorite soup or braise that you like to go for?

When I have a lot of time, any kind of beef stew or beef bourguignon. Coq au vin is beautiful, or it can be as simple as a braised chicken thigh. The recipe I made for Pacific Foods is a braised dish — technically, a braised chicken thigh that cooks for less than an hour.

A sidebar about seasonal gardening

We've read that you're a gardener, so what type of foods are you harvesting during this time of season?

Let me clarify — my wife is the gardener. I am the recipient of the gardened items; I am not the person to keep the things alive. It's not me. She loves going out there every morning, and she loves planting new things. We have a great garden expert who has helped us through our first season this year with our garden.

In the summer, [it's] all the usual suspects. Now, transitioning to winter, we are dropping the garlic so it can lay dormant over the winter. We have Swiss chard currently, arugula, and lots of lettuces, which are — I have a feeling — on their way out as the freeze starts to come. We did cabbages and broccoli. Tomatoes are still going, oddly enough. We're still picking the tomatoes off the vine. This is our first winter with our garden. Some lessons will be learned, I'm sure.

I could spend a lot of time nerding out with you about garlic. I finished planting mine maybe two weeks ago.

Oh, you already did it.

I'm in Idaho, and our season's a lot shorter. We got our first snow recently, and we were rushing to get it in the ground before that.

I do have a sidebar question. When you cure your garlic, obviously, it needs to be a dry environment. We were thinking of putting it up on top of the cage of the garden and letting it hang, but I didn't know if that's ...

Yes, that's all we do as well. There are these antlers in the garage above the fireplace, and we hang the garlic from the antlers. We braid them up and let them dry and cure over the fire like that ... mostly air-drying.

Got it. Sweet — thanks!

Kish's pantry and kitchen essentials

What is your go-to food-related gift to give during the holidays?

I love any kind of general kit because I don't like giving just one item. I find that if you loop it in with a recipe — with something that means something to you — and the tools that perhaps people don't have, that's a more thought-out gift as opposed to saying, "Here's this one thing; do whatever you want." Make it as specific and personal as you possibly can.

Could you recommend an underrated canned item that you keep in your pantry?

There are several. I have a lot — everything from chicken broth to soups to canned artichokes, because I am not going to clean an artichoke just to chill it and throw it in a salad. It's not going to happen. [I keep] anything that takes time on a random Tuesday when I want to make dinner for my wife and I don't have the time to do it. Buying chicken broth [and] buying pre-made soups is a great way to impart "homey" and comfort because you can jazz it up any which way you want.

If we're talking about time-saving tips, do you have any favorite kitchen gadgets or purchases that have helped you out with that this season or in recent memory?

What I love most seeing in households now are ... In restaurants, we use pressure cookers. You want to speed up that time. A lot of people are a little bit scared of them, as was I when I first started using them, but now they make home versions. You can cook a lot of great things in a short amount of time, and you throw it in. I fell in love with a Crockpot in 2020 because I realized we were stuck at home, and I was like, "Well, what am I going to do with this?" A Crockpot or any home version of a slow cooker or a pressure cooker is one of my favorite gadgets.

At home in the kitchen

Do you have a particular meal from this past year that sticks out to you as one of your favorites?

The recipe that I did for Pacific Foods is one of my favorite things, and what I love most about it is that my wife helped me come up with it. When I was developing this recipe, I was like, "Man, I don't know what to do." She said, "Remember my mom's chicken paprikash?" and I said, "Yes."

She made it for me when I was sick, and then my dad also made it — or rather, my dad's Hungarian, and my grandmother would always make this certain dish. I was like, "Hmm. Maybe that's it." As I was testing it, I obviously had to test it several times, and then I got to walk it over.

We have a neighbor at the top of the street that I give all my recipe testing and extra food and different things that we can't eat as a household of two. I got to share it with her. This dish was like this: her mom, my family, then we passed it on, and it went through my lens as a chef, and we passed it on to the neighbor. The neighbor texted me like, "Oh my God, that was amazing." Those are the most memorable dishes, ones [where] you can connect a lot of dots with important people in your life.

Do you have a trick, tip, or part of the process you feel is most important for a good poached egg?

I understand a lot of people use vinegar — either presoaking or in the water, which can lend itself to a prettier poached egg — but when it comes down to a great poached egg, you don't need it. This may be an unpopular opinion, but all you need is water, a slotted spoon, and the right-sized pan.

We've read that your favorite appetizer is a blooming onion. What are the things you should consider when making one, and how would you make yours fancy?

There is no need to make it fancy. You can get creative with what you dust over it or with the dipping sauces, but it's a classic for a reason, so keep it a blooming onion!

What's the secret to making a good chicken paprikash?

Two secrets: Take your time to properly render the chicken thighs and bacon — rendering out all of the fat will yield a less oily final product. And use a delicious chicken broth. You can make a homemade chicken broth or save some time by swapping it out for a boxed broth like Pacific Foods', and it will eat just the same.

Dining out with Kristen Kish

What's your favorite or least favorite food trend of 2023?

Here's the thing with food trends. In the moment, I recognize it as a trend if I'm sitting there and I'm like, "Wow, why are we still doing this?" But when I'm asked, and it's not blatantly in front of me, I'm like, "Food trends are going to come and go. They serve their purpose." Especially now with social media and TikTok, a food trend goes viral in a heartbeat. I'm annoyed with them sometimes, depending on my mood. But otherwise, I find them to be this thing that ebbs and flows in our industry, and that has to ebb and flow in the industry. You take from it what you will. A food trend is an idea, so I don't necessarily look at them like trends.

How about your favorite restaurant meals of the year?

Restaurant meals are great, and I eat them a lot, but the one thing I do miss when I'm working or traveling is having a home-cooked meal — doesn't need to be anything fancy. My wife makes her mother's sarma recipe, which is a delicious stuffed cabbage, and it's one of my favorite dishes that she makes for me.

With filming for "Top Chef" Season 21 in Milwaukee, what recommendation do you have for where people can go for a good bite to eat?

Milwaukee was the bulk of our time. It's so funny when I think about how long I was there. We were in Wisconsin for eight weeks, nearly two months. The amount of time that I actually went out to dinner was not a lot, comparatively — we eat all day. Then, after work, like a lot of people, you want to retreat. You want to say, "I need a minute to recharge and reset for the next day." But some of the standouts ... Certainly, we ate our fair share of custard, as one would.

I know that Wisconsin is not just the custard, but it's so damn good that how do you ignore the fact that they do it really well? And there's a restaurant called Three Brothers. It's a Serbian restaurant, and the chef and the owner and her family's story ... I would highly encourage everyone to know more about her and her family and how they have come to be with this fantastic restaurant. It was a highlight for me.

What fans can expect from Top Chef Season 21

Could you talk about your experience with this first season as the host?

It was all whirlwind, but in a good way. Oftentimes, I found my brain having to catch up with the actual duty of what I was doing. It caught me off guard because it was a surprising job offer. I was not expecting it whatsoever. I had to come to terms with the idea that I was good enough to hold that position.

Now, having gone through it, one of the best parts is I've been the contestant, and I've been the guest judge. But the beauty of being someone that is on from start to finish is seeing the progression and the trajectory of all the chefs, and that's a vantage point that I have yet to have. Being able to watch the growth happen is great because you get a true sense of a chef the longer and longer you try their food and hear their story by way of their food. That was my favorite part of the experience thus far.

What can viewers expect to see in this new season?

The viewers are going to take away a lot of things. There are a lot of great classic things that stick with the show that make the show what they are. The things that make the show so special ... are the things that will remain intact. It's going to be a little bit different. I'm a new face in that role, and viewers are probably going to take away whatever they want to take away — whether they love it or have a hard time developing the love of change, I'm not sure yet. But one thing will always remain true: The show is not about me and being the host. It's not about Gail [Simmons]; it's not about Tom [Colicchio]; it's about the chefs. It's about how they move through this process, and we are the vehicle to help tell the story of the chefs. I truly believe that.

Season 21 of "Top Chef" premieres on Bravo and Peacock in 2024.

This interview has been edited for clarity.