Hustle Hard Interview Project: Kristen Kish



To celebrate my 32nd birthday, I started the Hustle Hard Interview Project. Each month, I’ll be interviewing a Hustler who embodies a skill or a quality I admire. I hope to uncover some gems that bring me one step closer to being a fully-formed adult.


My general attitude towards cooking has always been I Don’t Know. I Don’t Care. Not My Problem. Because this outlook occasionally causes problems like hunger, I’ve learned to keep several loaves of white bread handy. Eat a slice as-is out of the bag, and it’s a light snack. Compress two into a dense ball, and it really transforms into a meal. I’m confident that having a basic knowledge of food preparation would have prevented that kitchen fire several years ago, but I don’t want to dwell on the incident. The flames only affected one very small area, and no one was severely injured.

Top Chef: Seattle was the first competitive cooking show I ever watched. At first, it wasn’t by choice, but we needed a new family activity, and watching television together met both of my requirements: easy and cheap. Although I made an impassioned plea for Hardcore Pawn, I was outvoted 2-1. I couldn’t even muster up disingenuous excitement as we sat down to watch the first episode together. And then Kristen Kish happened.

I am fascinated by people who keep it real. But so many people use honesty and awareness as a license to be cruel with their words and actions. Not only does Kristen stay true to herself, but she has found a way to keep kindness king without compromising her integrity. As the season unfolded on Top Chef: Seattle, Kristen inspired me to seek self-awareness and to embrace my whole story. And, as the winner of Season 10, she has taught me this very important lesson: When dealing with basic bitches, stay on the high road. Good karma always wins.

EJL: For a limited time, anyone can put on a front. I got the impression, though, from watching your journey on Top Chef, that you’re not one of those chameleons that change who they are based on the people around them. You’re self-aware and confident. And I like that you don’t get flustered easily. Have you always been that way?

KK: I used to make decisions based on impulse, but I’ve spent a lot of time going through questions in my head and asking, “Why?” I can take advice from a lot of different people, but I needed to go through the process of defining who I am based on self-discovery. I used to care so much about what other people thought about me, but it kept me from doing what I wanted to do.

EJL: You’re only the second female winner in ten seasons of Top Chef. Your culinary skills and French-influenced cuisine were clearly a standout during the competition, but the show is so much more than just cooking. When so many different personalities collide in an intensely competitive environment, things can get…rough. Even when you could have spoken out against a fellow competitor, you didn’t. You were No Drama, No Bullshit. Uh, can you give me some tips?

KK: I didn’t need to bash anyone because I can get my point across in a way that doesn’t involve cattiness. Some people play it up for the camera, but actions always speak louder than words. I had to bite my tongue a few times, but my parents taught me to be kind and to conduct myself with integrity. Everything I’ve done, I credit to my parents.

EJL: Damn. I really need some parenting tips from your folks. You were adopted from South Korea as a baby and raised in Michigan. On the show, you mentioned plans to visit South Korea. What’s your interest in going?

KK: I want to see where I came from. Not necessarily who anymore, but where. I thought I was supposed to meet my birth parents, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. But it’s my upbringing that defines me and not just where I started.

EJL: Life can be defined as a series of before and after moments. Is winning Top Chef that moment for you professionally?

KK: It’s opened a lot of doors, so I see it more as opportunities rather than validation. I’m cooking the food I love to cook and learning along the way. Working at Menton and having Barbara [Lynch] as a boss has taught me a lot. Every chef, regardless of what they’ve done in the past, has to prove themselves in the kitchen, and I’m willing to prove myself. When I started, everyone had to like my food. But now, I know that people can choose not to like your food, but maybe they’ll appreciate what you do. I’m not going to change the way I cook. My standards have gotten me this far.

EJL: I started a kitchen fire once trying to make spaghetti. Can anyone learn to cook?

KK: [long pause] Everyone can learn to cook something.

EJL: Keeping kindness king, I see.


P.S. Want to waste time at work? I can help.

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photo: Andrew Wang for Lux & Concord

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