Kristen Kish: learn how to be yourself

The coronavirus pandemic has shown that for restaurants, community comes first – including staff, guests, and professional peers. Operators are quick to stand in solidarity and share struggles and successes. As part of OpenTable’s partnership with Top Chef’s Restaurant Wars, we tapped into that spirit of generosity, asking chefs to tell us about the ups and downs of their careers: lessons learned, mistakes made, and their personal evolution along the way. Hear their stories, get inspired, and find resources to help in uncertain times here.

After attending culinary school in Chicago, Kristen Kish moved to Boston, where she hit her career stride as Barbara Lynch’s chef de cuisine at Stir, a demonstration kitchen. It was Lynch who urged Kish to audition for Top Chef, where she took home the top title in Season 10, becoming the second female chef to win the competition. 

After Top Chef, Kish led the kitchen at Lynch’s Menton before making her way to Austin, where she opened her first restaurant, Arlo Grey, in the LINE Hotel. Here, she opens up about the personal and professional growth that led to her success.

What was the best advice you received (cooking or otherwise)?

Just to learn how to be yourself, which is a novel idea. There’s a fine line between looking to someone for advice and inspiration, or forgetting who you are to become somebody else. It’s something that I personally struggled with for quite some time. 

It seems like the industry is changing so fast that there might not necessarily be a model for what you want to achieve. 

Also, you don’t have to have the answer right away. All the small decisions that we make in our lives can guide us on the right path. We’ve put so much pressure on figuring out what’s next. It’s one of the questions that a lot of chefs get asked after they open a restaurant: what’s next? Well, I’m going to figure this out. 

You mentioned the best advice you’ve received is to be true to yourself. Is that the same advice you’d give to another chef starting out?

100%. Then you have to take that consideration in the context of your city. You have to remain aware that the markets are different, and balance that with not giving up who you are. I made a lot of changes along the way that fared better for the business. 

Probably the least concerning thing on my plate is saying, I need to be the best. What I’m concerned about is creating a healthy culture and creating a family within our restaurants that support one another and strive to be better.

Arlo Grey was the first restaurant you opened on your own. What was the transition like, going from chef to owner?

As much as this is my first “independent” restaurant, it comes with a huge arsenal of talented people. To say that I was alone in the journey and put myself in the box of “independent” restaurants – I wouldn’t. That being said, in the sense of stamping my name on something as a chef-partner, that was a very new thing for me and definitely was nerve-wracking. 

You’ve also said that it was intimidating to open a restaurant in a hotel, where you have breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service, and all these different elements that you hadn’t been exposed to before. Has that format been a net positive?

That was the most terrifying thing I ever committed to and also the most rewarding. It made me feel like I can do the hard stuff that I never thought I would be able to.

I think a lot of people have the notion that chefs they see on TV, who have what appears to be a successful career, have all the answers. We have a confidence level of a million. For me, that couldn’t be more untrue. But sometimes you’ve got to turn off the brain and turn on instinct, because you know how to do it. 

What has been the most exciting moment in your career so far?

The most exciting moment of my career is yet to come. For me, the unknown is exciting – the unknown people and opportunity and different points of view. If I think about seven years ago, how my life went from A to B very quickly and it’s still ever-changing, it’s mind blowing.  

Was that the Top Chef moment, when you won Season 10, when that big transformation took place? Or was it more gradual?

Top Chef was the jumping-off point. I was going from working six days a week and running someone else’s restaurant to all of a sudden having a multitude of different opportunities in other avenues, whether speaking or writing or doing pop-ups. Every small thing after [Top Chef] continues to build on this crazy life that I look back on and think, holy shit. I feel very, very grateful. 

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career?

There have been a lot of mistakes. The biggest one was for so many years, during my professional career, lying to myself about who I wanted to be as a chef, what I wanted to cook, and who I was on a personal level. Those are the most important things, so long as you listen to them and learn from them. 

What were some of the most important things you learned working for Barbara Lynch? How did her mentorship inspire or guide you?

When I moved to Boston, for many years I did not choose to work for her because I was terrified of not being good enough to be part of her chef arsenal. Eventually, a lot of different roads led me to her. Barbara did not try to change me or who I was – she gave me a space to figure it out myself. Barbara gave me permission to make my mistakes, and she was there to make sure I didn’t completely fail, but she didn’t tell me how to do things. 

I told her before I told my mom or dad that I was dating a woman. She was the first person I would tell things to – a complete family figure, best friend, and professional mentor. 

What was it like making the transition from Stir, a demonstration kitchen, to running a traditional back of house at Menton?

The culture at Stir was basically friends hanging out and cooking together. It was something special, unlike any “kitchen” I ever worked in. There were a lot of things that I did not take to at Menton, but the one that I can personally own is that I was not ready to be a leader. 

The best thing I took away was realizing what I did and did not want to do in my future kitchens. Without that experience I would not have been able to develop the team we have at Arlo Grey. I’ve never been more proud of a group of people in my entire life – it’s the healthiest environment I’ve ever been a witness to. 

How do you as a leader cultivate that?

I think 50% is up to me, and the other half is up to chance, [finding] the right group of people. I’m hiring based off of gut feeling on personality and character. If I hire all the greatest cooks in the world, it’s not going to be what it is now. It takes a good person. And then once you put all these people in a room, you have to hold them to a continuous standard and expectation that there is no room for anything less than exceptional – anything less than what you’re capable of being.

Photo Credit: Arlo Grey images by Alex Parker; headshot by Timothy Patrick Clancy

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