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Cooking With Heart: Kristen Kish on Growing up and Putting Yourself on the Plate

Nov 12, 2021

After winning Bravo’s Top Chef in 2012, breakout star Kristen Kish, known for her masterful takes on comfort food, took a non-traditional route. Instead of opening her own venue, she opted for masterminding pop-ups, writing a cookbook, traveling the world, and taking up co-hosting duties on truTV’s Fast Foodies. After a few years, Kristen finally decided to lean into her motto of “keep saying yes until you don’t want to anymore” and agreed to head what is now the highly popular and stunning Arlo Grey in downtown Austin.

For her dish for Freshly, Slow-Cooked Red Wine Beef Brisket, Kristen has combined the technical finesse for which she is known with the stick-to-your-ribs goodness of the Midwest, for a love letter to her Michigan upbringing. She talked to Freshly about her love of parsley as an ingredient, what it was like to write her restaurant’s very first menu, and how she finally learned to fully put herself on the plate.

Freshly: How did you find your way into the kitchen?

Kristen: I fell in love with the idea of cooking, of something holding my attention, around age five. I would watch cooking shows. It was one of the parts of my life where I felt the most ease with who I am, not fully understanding all of the identity struggles that I was dealing with at five. Retrospectively, I realize that when I would watch cooking, all the noise shut off.

So was it a direct path for you to culinary school?

No—as I got older, cooking was never at the true forefront. I loved it, it was a hobby, but I didn't think it was going to ever afford me the opportunities in my head that I was driving towards.

"And so that was a whole messy section of letting go of the traditional ways of what success and happiness looked like. So it's not getting married to a man at 25, it wasn't having a child by the time I was 35. I had to learn what exactly it was for me."

Eventually I did find my way to culinary school, to living in a city, and finding a mentor, finding the right people surrounding me, going on Top Chef...

Favorite childhood dish?

I think it’s my mom’s beef pot roast. Or, my dad would make chicken fingers. Or, store-bought chicken fingers dipped in broccoli cheddar soup. Or, french fries. Pauses. I think that’s it.

Do you make any of those yourself now?

Absolutely not. Because then what happens is you get sick of them. And then I’m going to try to fancify it. Fun fact and a secret that will no longer be one: the one thing I cannot cook, my body will literally not cook it, is a meatloaf. I tried once and it was an absolute disaster.
Go-to late-night snack?

Chicken fingers, french fries, mayo, ranch dressing.

If you could do it all over, what would be your dream job?

I wish I could sing. I cannot. Let me sing you Happy Birthday. Intones Happy Birthday haltingly. I had a couple of missed notes in there. Ok a lot of missed notes. Laughter.

Kristen Kish adds herbs to a dutch oven filled with aromatics and vegetables.

Unsung ingredient that deserves a bit of press.

Oooohhh OK so my favorite ingredient, whether it be raw on a salad or chopped up to finish off a really hearty dish, is fresh parsley. I think it gets a bad rep because back in the early 90s fresh parsley was sprinkled on everything, you know it was on the rim of white plates. It was this thing that got stuck in your teeth and became really annoying. But fresh parsley, when a dish really screams for it, or in a beautiful fresh salad, is this pop of amazing flavor that translates to any season, to any kind of dish from light to heavy. I think it’s a beautiful ingredient.

Tell us about the roots of your dish for Freshly.

This is a love letter to my childhood. I grew up in Michigan, so in the winter it was very much hearty, stick-to-your-ribs eating. So we’re taking beef brisket and braising it in this beautiful red wine sauce, finished with a touch of red miso. We’re using a classic ingredient list of beef stew. We’re pairing it with, basically, mashed potatoes with butter and heavy cream and then for the acid (sees a plane flying overhead, points)—oh that must be my parents, from Michigan, hello!—we’re doing the Romano beans, roasted caramelized mushrooms, and tossing that all in a fried garlic-oregano vinaigrette.

The vinaigrette is key—Mom would buy a three-bean salad, it's pickles in a jar, and serve it in summer picnics. I didn't realize as a kid why I craved it so much—when you're having meat and potatoes, or a heavy Michigan potato salad with a gallon of mayonnaise in it, that three-bean salad and that punch of acid on your plate helps everything. The beauty of a dish like this is that you don't need instructions on how to eat it. Mix it all together or eat it separately, I don't care. Do you.

Kristen Kish in her kitchen, tossing fresh Romano beans in a skillet.

What music would you pair with the dish you did for Freshly?

Oh my god that’s easy. The music I would pair with the Slow-Cooked Red Wine Beef Brisket from my childhood is Van Morrison. Any song from any album. It reminds me of my dad.

Tell us how Arlo Grey, your restaurant, came to life.

I always said I didn't want a restaurant, life was going really great after Top Chef, I was doing everything, TV and pop-ups around the world, traveling, writing a cookbook, all without the stresses of having a restaurant. Why would I ever add that onto my plate?

"My whole philosophy on life is basically say yes until you don't want to say yes anymore."

When the opportunity for a partnership with a restaurant came, I was like, "Fine, I'll entertain your call!" And I went in with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I could’ve passed up the great partnership that I have now.

Kristen Kish reaches for her golden-seared brisket to transfer it to the braising liquid.

One flavor for the rest of your life. What do you choose?

One flavor! Salt! I don’t know if that’s the question being asked but I’m going to go with salt. Or savory foods.

You talk about finding yourself through food. Can you give an example of that?

So when I wrote Arlo Grey’s very first menu draft, it was so contrived. It was all from the heart, it had technique, and this beauty to it. But the thing that was missing was the soul. I was too scared to put myself on a plate fully at that point. So I had to learn very quickly what it meant to be uniquely me. I leaned into the idea that cooking has to have heart to it. Slowly, I started to add comfort and relatability through technique and beautiful food.

"You gravitate towards people that are real and make you feel comfortable and seen and heard and everything like that. So my job through my menu was to do that through the food."

Whether or not you've ever had Hamburger Helper, I'm sure you've had some form of boxed, comforting dish. So as long as you can hit one small flavor profile that feels relatable, that gives someone that idea to just settle in and just enjoy themselves. I do it in a way that's cheffy and excellent.

What does comfort food mean to you?

Comfort food means familiarity, memories, and ultimately a feeling of a warm hug. It feels like home!

So this approach to cooking is both a return to the tastes of your childhood and also your realization of being a grown-up chef.

Yeah, I used to cook that flashy way because it was an ego thing. And then I realized cooking never had to be that hard. You have the likes of restaurants and chefs that certainly do these mind-bending, crazy, crazy things, which definitely we need as a point of inspiration. And that's how their brain works, that's just not how mine works. So once I realized that, I had to just slip into my ease, life became a lot better, and I figured that out later on in life, but eventually I did figure it out.

First dish sent back—how did it make you feel?

Oooohhh, that hurts. As chefs we’re like, “it doesn’t matter,” but every comment, every review, every indication that a guest doesn't like something, it hurts as if you’re insulting my child. I know food is subjective and I can take the criticism, but that doesn’t take away the human element. It’s a constant driver for change.

A final plated shot of Kristen Kish's Slow-Cooked Red Wine Beef Brisket for Freshly.

Different foods touching each other on a plate: discuss.

I don't mind when all my food touches. If the parts can't talk to each other, then don't put them together on the same plate. Even as an adult, I prefer a bowl and a spoon because it's more like a trough and a shovel to get the food in your mouth. For me, that's how I like to eat!

What about working with Freshly appeals to you?

I hate eating my own food. The last time I went to Austin for nine days, I ordered UberEats 14 times. And I was like, "I gotta knock this off." You guys at Freshly sent me some meals, which was a lifesaver: I ordered less, and I ate better. A lot of times when you think of convenience, you automatically think unhealthy, right? The convenience store, the gas station, fast food—I love fast food...But for everyday purposes we need to take care of ourselves and make good decisions. That said, it doesn't need to be a salad, you know what I'm saying? It can be good food. I grew up eating, by choice, a healthy choice meal that my mom would have in the freezer as part of her various diets. The meals were delicious. And I remember I would heat up two or three, and that would be my dinner. It's homey, convenient, and healthier than fried food, multiple times a day...I need something that I can eat standing up. At my restaurant I just stand and shove food in, so I can get on with my day.

Kristen Kish constructs the perfect bite of her dish.

Where have you enjoyed the best food of your life?

If you had asked me five years ago, I would have replied with the name of one of those fancy restaurants in the middle of nowhere. Honestly, now it’s just food that has not been cooked by me, and I don’t care where it comes from. It could be from a box at home or on an island in Greece. Food is happy, food is love.

Want Kristen Kish’s “cheffy and excellent” version of meat and potatoes? Get it here.

Launched on the Freshly menu in November 2021, Chef Kristen Kish’s Slow-Cooked Red Wine Beef Brisket returns for a limited time only alongside all four of our Celeb Chef meals.

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Cooking With Heart: Kristen Kish on Growing up and Putting Yourself on the Plate