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Kristen Kish On Finding Strength In Identity And Community

Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 20/21, a collection of interviews with leading voices in hospitality, food, media, tech, politics, design, and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2020, or what’s likely to happen in 2021, in the world of restaurants and hospitality. See all stories here.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, and adopted by a Michigan family, Kristen Kish studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago. She worked for Barbara Lynch in her Boston restaurants before competing on and winning the 10th season of Bravo’s Top Chef, becoming the second woman and the first woman of color to win. Kish opened the restaurant Arlo Grey in June 2018, inside the Line Hotel in Austin, which reopened in October following a six-month COVID shutdown. In early 2021, her latest TV show, Fast Foodies, will air on TruTV.

Like a lot of restaurants, Arlo Grey is a tight-knit family. Before COVID, we had 16 to 20 in the kitchen, including dishwashers and stewards, and about 35 to 40 in the front of house. And unfortunately, I wasn’t even in Austin when we had to shut down in March. Imagine having to shut down a restaurant, telling your team, and not even being there with them. That was one of the hardest things.

God, I remember, they gathered the team together. It was HR, and the GM of the hotel, and everyone involved in Arlo Grey on a call. I dialed in, I was put on speakerphone. And our HR director was like, “Do you want to deliver the news?” And I said, “I don’t think I physically can.” So she led with the proper HR verbiage. And it just went silent. And I know where they were all sitting. I could feel every single person thinking like—uuuuh?—but also, they understood. I get teary-eyed thinking about it.

It was so hard. Because I wasn’t there.

And so our HR director asked, “Kristen, you want to say anything?” All I could get out then, just like I can’t get through my words now, was expressing gratitude for the amount of work and time and energy that everyone gave. They all felt it too. But it doesn’t make the feeling any better. And then I got off the phone and I sat on the couch, and I just bawled uncontrollably, and my fiancée was just sitting there and she’s like, “Are you okay?” And I said, “I don’t think so.”

The guilt that I felt was unreal. I know, obviously, COVID is not my fault, but you can’t help but feel like you’re responsible, because that’s just what you do when it’s your place of business and you’re the leader of the team.

And when we reopened in October, it was like opening a restaurant all over again. The team shrunk by a lot. The menu had to change. And my whole goal was to just make comfort food, nothing fancy. It’s still creative. It’s still well done. But I wanted to hit on classics, as opposed to doing what used to be successful, because people are dining out in a different way.

Looking to next year, I think it depends on every market, and it depends on every restaurant in its neighborhood. We’re downtown, we’re housed in a hotel, we have travelers that oftentimes just want comfort food. But if Arlo Grey was in New York or Los Angeles, I’m sure the menu would be a very different thing. You have to fit your market, you have to listen—especially now—and you have to pay attention to what people want.

Communication is really the key. If, at any point, any of our team feels uncomfortable, they’re encouraged to say something. And that’s the only way we’re all going to get through this day by day—because no day is the same. How we figure out how to operate today, going into 2021, it’s going to change, and it’s going to change again, and again, and again.

When we were gearing up to reopen in October and I got to Austin, and we’re going through with my front-of-house team, and they’re asking me like, “Chef, can you talk to the servers about what it means now to tell your story of Arlo Grey through food, but now in this very distant way, through masks, and some people just don’t want you to talk to them at their table?” And I said, “Right now, the only way to define hospitality in a really beautiful, excellent way is just, ‘Hello, how are you, welcome to Arlo Grey,’ and a smile.” You can see people smiling under the mask. And no matter if you spend 1 minute or 15 minutes at the table, a lot can be conveyed in the authenticity of how you say something. We’ve all had a lesson on conveying warmth and hospitality through a literal mask.

Think about when you travel to a foreign country, or you have an interaction with someone on the subway pre-COVID, when you had your headphones in—that nonverbal communication is powerful. Think about the silent protests that were happening during this time. What we oftentimes choose not to say is the most important thing that needs to be conveyed. It’s an exchange of energy, it’s that vibe of how you’re coming together, and I think that’s a really beautiful dance to be had, especially in restaurants.

The way Arlo Grey was—we’ll never go back to that. That is an expectation that I have to manage, professionally. And I don’t want to go back to that. There’s so much that’s working right now, that also is kind of nice. And as we move forward day by day, tomorrow we could decide to add one more table. If it doesn’t work, then we take it away. Six months into 2021, if we add five tables, and it’s not working, I will take those away. We’ve all become so good at the 2020 buzzword of pivoting, and figuring out what works.

I also have this thing, on a very personal level, that my expectations on myself, for the majority of my life, are incredibly, incredibly high. I’m never going to reach that expectation. And when those expectations aren’t met, I get mad at myself. I think less of myself. And then I go into this spiraling self-worth issue, which I manage every single day, to this day. I go into this weird depression, and then I get anxious, because I can’t figure it out.

I need to healthfully think about the restaurant in a way that doesn’t put so much expectation on the restaurant—which inevitably, will be a detriment to me personally, and I’ll be unable to run it. So there’s a lot of managing expectations, there’s a lot of managing the pressures of what I feel I shouldn’t do, and what I need to do.

When Time magazine had a story about “The 13 Gods of Food” back in 2013, and it was like—three women on the list? That started this whole thing about what it’s like to be a female chef. And for a long time, I answered the question. I had my own experiences, some not so colorful, and some that also worked to my advantage, because I had really strong female mentors around me. And some where I was protected and privileged in this little bubble, because I didn’t really have to go through the worst of it.

I talked about all that for a long time. But then at a certain point, I hit this threshold. I thought the more I talk about it, the more we just keep bringing awareness to the fact that I’m a female chef. So I stopped talking about it, thinking maybe I’ll stop getting asked the question. Why is it top of mind to ask me about being a woman in the kitchen? But it’s how we talk about it. It’s not about talking or not talking about it. When it’s less about question and answer, and more about conversation, the momentum will continue—because we can all sustain conversation. We can’t sustain being preached at, but we can sustain a conversation between people and states and different walks of life. Not question and answer, not teacher and student, because now we’re all just fucking students and we all need to be okay with that.

For a long time we were taught not to see color. But now it’s important to see it. There are things that we need to relearn, and it’s allowing us to view things differently. I’m far more aware of color when I scan a room, when I film a TV show, or I do a photo shoot. I’m far more aware of ensuring that it’s not just a sea of white men. Top Chef, if you look at all the seasons—it’s always been a diverse group. Every color, orientation, different family upbringings, everything. But sometimes there were moments when I said something and I spoke up—not because anything was really wrong, but I felt like it could have been better. I think we’re all responsible for holding each other accountable.

It’s a responsibility of people that are in the spotlight to introduce other people. I had a very strong female mentor in Barbara Lynch in Boston, for many years. I did Top Chef eight years ago, and I was only 27. Barbara was the one who was like, “Kristen, I gave them your name, because they asked me if I had anybody.” I was terrified. I was the girl who, if I had to cook in front of an audience of 10, my hands would shake so bad using a knife that I would cut myself.

So when Barbara was like, “You’re going,” and I said, “I’m not going, I can’t, I don’t think I can physically get through it.” She replied, “Kristen, you have to go because we need more women on television.” And I was like, “Shit, I never thought about that.” But she saw it.

I had someone to give me a little push, saying, “I see your value and your skill, and I think you’re gonna do great. You have more capabilities and skills than you’re seeing in yourself.” Barbara is well-known within the food community, and she’s someone of importance in my life that I trust. And that’s all it took.

Now, when we do special events off-site, I make sure to rotate through the cook list. A white guy to a Black woman, it doesn’t matter, everyone deserves the opportunity. I do try for diversity. It’s not favoritism. I don’t know what the right word is, but I do see women, especially women of color, and minority women, in a way that I want to push them forward—because I feel like that was done for me.

I see myself as more of a cook than anything else. For a long time, I didn’t have a restaurant, and I would travel around and cook. I would do pop-ups. I feel most at home in the kitchen. But there were a couple TV shows that I was passed over for because I didn’t have a restaurant, because apparently having a restaurant proves you are a chef. I think now we’re realizing that you don’t have to have a restaurant. There’s a lot of chefs now that don’t, but it doesn’t make them any less of a chef, or make them any more or less knowledgeable on what it means to be in this industry. If you cook, and you know what you’re talking about, and there’s a level of skill, then call yourself a chef.

For example, I fucking love Ina Garten. I think she’s the queen of life. Does she cook in a restaurant? No. But is she still a chef? Absolutely. There are a lot of people that learn from her, and how she cooks, in a way that they could never learn from me. What does Ina Garten do—does she wake up in the morning and be like, “Hi, I’m Ina Garten!” No! She’s just a person. She wakes up, she goes to her beautiful garden, she probably has a beautiful cup of coffee on her gorgeous veranda with the sunlight, and Jeffrey, and thinking about making a roast chicken. And then she’s probably like, “Why the fuck is everyone trying to DM me right now?”

When people put me in the category of “celebrity chef,” I cringe a little bit. For me, the term carries a negative connotation. I don’t call anyone else a celebrity chef. I don’t like what it means to me. It feels slightly undeserved. Who am I to judge what people deserve or don’t? Why does the word “celebrity” have to go in front of something? Can’t you just be a chef?

I get defensive when people are like, “The Kardashians are celebrities, and they’re famous for being famous.” No, actually, you know what? They created a fucking business. We should all be so fucking lucky to have created a multi-billion dollar business by being who you are. That to me is a celebrity. They are well known, and they’re public figures. But they’re also business people, just like fucking Jeff Bezos of Amazon.

When I go on TV now, it’s a business decision. I have a show coming out in February, for TruTV. It’s me and two other chefs, and then we have—there I go, using the word—a celebrity guest. And we get to cook. I didn’t take the show because I’m like, “Ooh, I’m on TV.” I took it because I get to cook with very little guidelines in a fun, non-competitive way. That, to me, is joy.

But I do understand and I am very aware of what television did for me, and what it’s done for my career. And when I came out—holy shit, the entire gay community was like, “Welcome,” gave me a giant internet hug, and pushed me into the spotlight of being in the gay community. And same thing with being Asian American, and adopted, and a woman in the industry, and a chef. Each individual community gave me a platform. I struggle with my identity, especially being an adoptee. I sometimes forget that I’m Asian. I’ve been constantly reminded by my communities that I deserve a place in those communities, which is a really beautiful thing.

People say you should never bring your personal life into work. I wholeheartedly disagree. I get being professional. But I also believe that if we try to turn parts of ourselves on and off on a daily basis, when we work so much, and our life and our work coincide and commingle so deeply, it becomes confusing. We’re human beings, and we want to be seen, we want to be heard, and we want to feel our worth is being met by other people. I’m no different.