Kristen Kish Dishes On Cooking With Selena Gomez - Exclusive Interview

"Top Chef" winner Kristen Kish is all over the map these days, in the best way. You can find her at home or at her restaurant, Arlo Grey, in Austin, Texas; on set filming hit shows like "Fast Foodies" and "Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend"; or traveling to remote corners of the earth for her latest project. She's cooking, hosting, judging — essentially a jack of all trades in the world of food media. And recently, she found time to host a virtual cooking session with Selena Gomez.

Kish appears in season 4 of the HBO Max series, "Selena + Chef," which features the singer and actress getting virtual cooking lessons from some of the best chefs in the business. In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, Kish shared all the details from her episode, where she showed off her favorite summer cooking styles. Kish also opened up about her numerous other projects and adventures (including the next season of "Top Chef"), and what's next for the superstar chef.

The difficulties of cooking virtually on Selena + Chef

So it's been a pretty busy year for you, the latest being your episode of "Selena + Chef." What was your experience like cooking with Selena Gomez?

I had obviously heard of the show. it's been on for three seasons prior to when I was able to get on there. And I remember telling my manager, "It looks like a lot of fun. I feel like I want to do it. Can you maybe find out more?" And so then she was like, "Of course." And then all of a sudden it was like, okay, I was on and booked and ready to go. And I think one of the happiest surprises that I had was obviously the charitable donation aspect of it, where the show donates $10,000 to a charity of the chef's choice, which is always a plus, especially when you're a guest on one of these shows. A lot of times they don't pay you nor do they pay it forward. So that was a really nice thing. And that already had made me a fan from the get-go.

I will say that cooking virtually is hard enough, it's hard. It's different than cooking in person and being able to guide somebody. But for whatever it's worth, I was shocked and delighted that Selena, she literally did everything. I was briefed to do a lot of stuff from start to finish and choose recipes that are somewhat challenging, I guess, especially for maybe a home cook, and she did it all. So that's pretty awesome.

For those of us who watched the show from season one, it's interesting four seasons in getting that perspective of how her cooking skills have changed and evolved.

Yeah. And obviously, it's television, so it takes much longer to film than what's actually aired. So if she was like, "Hey, how about you do something that you're not really well versed in, we're going to record it and air it to the world, and I'm going to teach you how to sing in six hours." I'd be like, "Yeah, no chance, no chance at all." And there would be zero improvement. And the fact that she willingly puts herself in a position to be taught, I think is a really cool thing.

Kristen Kish keep it simple in the kitchen for summer

Can you share a little bit more about the dishes that you taught her how to make and why you chose them?

So this is obviously airing in the summertime, and I wanted to do one of the greatest themes I know, and one that I'm always trying to constantly know more about, we all want to know more about — summer entertaining and how to make it easier and simpler so you can enjoy your company, you can enjoy the weather, and not spend too much time in the kitchen.

So a lot of the dishes that I did were focused on being able to do ahead of time. Obviously, we did it straight through, but a lot of these recipes are focused on starting a couple of days in advance and the longer it actually sits, in some cases, the better it gets. And I think that's really the key to general entertaining when you're cooking.

You taught her how to make a strawberry yuzu dessert, carrots and corn salad with smoked yogurt, and chickpea and broccoli fritters. So for those of us at home who do not have you on Zoom to guide us, how difficult would you say it would be for us to try to make this at home?

It's not that hard. I will always say good food often takes time, and time is often a thing that a lot of people don't have, which I totally understand. Making all three might not be realistic for some, but I think even just focusing on one thing — if that's just the smoked yogurt and the corn, or just the strawberries or just the chickpea fried broccoli — I think that's already really great enough to add to your arsenal and some of your own favorite recipes that you already know how to do.

And the strawberry [dessert], for instance, you could start that process two days in advance. And then on day three, when your guests are coming over, it's still perfect. And it's almost better because the strawberries have had time to set. And so, I think cooking is easy for some, not for some others and I recognize that. So start wherever you're comfortable starting.

How Kristen Kish ended up near the North Pole

You're also working on a new show with National Geographic, "Restaurants At The End of The World." What can you share with us about that show and what you've been learning along the way?

I'm learning that I'm a little bit more adventurous than what I thought I was. I'm learning that I still hate mosquitoes and hot weather, but I am more willing to step a little bit outside of that comfort zone that I've placed around myself for a very long time. And so it's really just developing a relationship and spending a week with a particular chef or restaurant tour or people of the community, learning who they are, building that trust, and learning as much as I can from them. Because being an adopted kid, I always think about how I could have ended up with anybody. That if it was a different family, my life could look a lot different than what it does now. And so that always has driven my curiosity and love of travel and meeting people. And so as much as the show is about the restaurant at the end of the world, it's really also about creating a relationship and developing a sense of empathy for folks. And that's always something that has made me very happy.

What's the coolest place that you visited for the show?

Oh gosh. They're all so different. I will say the one place that I probably can guarantee you that I would've never gone on my own is a place called Small Bar, which is the northernmost place you can go before you hit the North Pole. It's an island way off the coast of Norway, and it's tucked between mainland Norway and the North Pole. And yes, I did see a polar bear.

Do you find that most of these people are embracing of you coming and bringing a camera crew or are they like "we want to stay at the end of the world?"

I think obviously we wouldn't go, if they were like, "No." And the main reason: Yes, it's a little bit jarring and intrusive probably to bring a camera crew. But we all meld in, and I got to say, the crew, from camera to audio to producers, we're all there to experience the whole thing. And so they are very much a fly on the wall as much as they can be, and it's a chance for people to show off what they do. And I think that's the most brilliant part of it.

Kristen Kish talks Fast Foodies and making your own fast food

Is it too early to ask you about a third season of "Fast Foodies?"

I don't have the answers. I wish I did. It's a great show. I love Justin and Jeremy, and we are currently wishing Justin fast recovery after his boat accident. So we are very proud of the show, and it's a fun thing.

What were some of your favorite challenges from last season?

Every part is a challenge. To have to turn around dishes — and we do unofficially put ourselves on a time limit — and being able to juggle not only a celebrity, but also juggle a fast food and then make it gourmet. It's easy and it's hard at the same time, but I will say it does stretch and exercise that creative part of our brains.

What's been the most difficult fast food to recreate so far?

The ones that are most difficult are the most iconic. The McDonald's french fry. A McDonald's french fry only tastes like a McDonald's french fry at McDonald's. It is what it is. It's so good and salty and crispy, 50% of the time, it's fresh. 50% of the time it's been sitting there for a minute. And then 10 minutes later, you feel like sh*t afterwards. So hitting all those points on why we love McDonald's french fries, that's really hard. And so to make something exact and so iconic is a little difficult.

Is there any celebrity or maybe even celebrity chef that you're gunning to have come on the show?

Well, now I feel like we need to have Selena Gomez.

I love that. Oh my gosh. We've got to put that out there! After two seasons of the show, you're definitely becoming an expert when it comes to thinking creatively about fast food. So what are some of your favorite fast food copycats that you might recommend people try at home?

I feel like Taco Bell's a great place to start, and simply because Taco Bell to me — and some might come for me in the comments — but Taco Bell to me is the same ingredients just maneuvered into different shapes and different textures. So it's the same spice. It's the same meat blend that can go from the pizza to the taco, to the nachos, to the chalupas. You just keep moving it down the line on different forms of the wrap or garnishes. So I feel like Taco Bell's a solid place to start because it's quite simple.

Kristen Kish on her first trip to South Korea and the amazing food she ate

Earlier this summer, you also got the chance to go to Korea for the first time since you were adopted. You've talked about this on social media, it's something that you've talked about wanting to do for a long time. What was that experience like for you personally and as a chef?

I've had so much anticipation and anticipatory anxiety going for the first time, and I think being able to go attached to work was a really good thing for me because it allowed me just to go with a purpose that was outside of myself and go on a little bit of a restricted time limit. And for me, the way I looked at it was I'm going to go, I'm going to eat, and I'm going to soak in what Seoul in particular has to offer. And definitely, it has piqued my curiosity to want to go back and dig a little bit deeper on my personal side. But I think for the first time going and immersing myself into the food and something that I am obviously very passionate about, which is cooking and food and chefs, that was a great starting point for me.

I can only imagine what the food experience was for you there.

Outstanding. Even if I wasn't Korean and I wasn't going to my birthplace for the very first time, just Korea and Seoul in general – the food, it's something special.

How Kristen Kish got her selfie with Iron Chef Morimoto

Prior to that trip, you finished filming the first season of "Iron Chef" on Netflix. Earlier this summer you posted a selfie with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto from the set. After getting over your first interaction with him, what was it like filming with him and working with him?

So Alton [Brown] and I, we sit on one side of this giant round table and then the judges and our guest judge sit on the opposite side. And he's to my right. If I'm looking across the table, I'm looking directly between Andrew [Zimmern] and Nilou [Motamed], and then he's off to my right a little bit. And my eye just kept glancing over.

You know when you get scared because you don't want to catch someone in their eye? That's what it felt like, but out of pure admiration and respect, because I watched him on the original "Iron Chef." I followed much of his career. No matter what he does, he is always going to be Iron Chef Morimoto to me. And he is intimidating in all the right ways.

And so I just kept looking over at him, and when I had to address him, I don't know. I think I said it with a little hesitation in my voice. You start to second guess everything and how you're behaving in front of someone so iconic. But he was nothing but glorious and insightful and kind, and just being able to listen to him was a true honor.

And down to earth enough to take selfies.

Exactly. I was like, "Can I take a picture with you?" and he was like, "Yes." I was like, "Okay, cool." It took me a lot of courage to ask for that picture.

Will Kristen Kish appear on the next season of Top Chef?

Your food TV career has become quite multifaceted since you first competed on "Top Chef." You've competed on "Fast Foodies," you're hosting, you're guests judging on shows, cooking lessons with Selena Gomez. Among all of this at this point, where do you feel most in your element?

At home. And it's something I consciously think about. So much of our lives are defined so much by our careers, and whether we want it to be that way or not, I think oftentimes it does. And so when I have so many things going at one time, professionally speaking, I think it's important to be able to step away from it and be just as confident and comfortable in just the normal everyday life. And so when I'm home and I'm not traveling and I get to have dinner with my wife and see my family, that's when I still feel most myself.

At this point in your career, what would you say is the focus of your platform as a chef and as an influencer?

I think I'm happily able to say I don't know the complete answer to that. I'm doing me. I'm doing the things that excite me, things that challenge me, the things that bring a lot of joy. Being able to cook with Selena Gomez, which I would've never, ever thought in my entire life that would be happening, things like that and taking it all for what it is and sitting with it.

Because again, like you were saying, my life changed just 10 years ago or something like that. So a relatively short amount of time ago. And so being able to have these experiences and not tie it to an expectation of okay, I'm going to be this TV host, and then I'm going to do this — it's like, I'm doing the things that make me happy, and I'm doing the things that introduce me to really fantastic people.

So with that in mind, what else can we look forward to from you this year?

That's a great question. If you know, please tell me.

I'd love to know if we're going to see you on Top Chef season 20.

That's a no, I can tell you that. That's not for me. Competing, for sure. It does not bring me as much joy to be in that amount of pressure, for me. My anxiety levels cannot handle it.

Maybe we'll see you as a guest judge or something?

I don't know. Who knows? If they ask, I will happily go. I will always support and feel honored to be part of a large franchise. I don't even know what to call it. Franchise, I guess?


Empire of "Top Chef," because it's really what completely kickstarted my career into being able to do things like this.

Kristen Kish highlights the Ali Forney Center on Selena + Chef

Tell us a little bit more about the charity that you chose to highlight in your episode of "Selena + Chef."

So I did the Ali Forney Center, which is based in New York City. It focuses on LGBT youth. And I think for me, growing up, being a very closeted gay kid with not a lot of resources and not a lot of information about where you can go to be just maybe even around people that are like you or to find resources ... And for those who need a little financial help, there's things that you can become a member of and be a part of and to feel supported. And I think that's really a lot of what we're all looking for is to feel like we found our tribe and our people and to feel like we aren't completely alone. That's why I focused on Ali Forney Center specifically.

New episodes of "Selena + Chef" Season 4 are now available to stream on HBO Max.