Everything You Need To Know About The New Top Chef Host Kristen Kish

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It was 2006 when the world watched its first episode of Bravo's "Top Chef." Nearly 20 years later, viewers are still tuning in for the program promising edge-of-your-seat competition, inspiring and creative dishes, and up-and-coming chefs with unique stories. One of the many motivating contestants to be featured on the popular reality cooking show over the years is Kristen Kish, who crushed the competition to take the title of "Top Chef" champion in 2013.

In Season 21, Kish will again return to the set of "Top Chef" ... but not as a competitor. This time around, the beloved chef will be serving instead as the show's brand-new host, guiding viewers and hopeful competitors through their various culinary trials. But who is Kristen Kish, really? As it turns out, the cooking powerhouse has had a noteworthy journey to stardom. Before you settle down to catch up on the newest season, here's everything you need to know about the new "Top Chef" host Kristen Kish.

She was adopted from South Korea and raised in Michigan

Though some might assume that Kish's culinary specialty lies in Asian cuisine, this is hardly the case. Although she was born in Seoul, South Korea, Kish was adopted at four months old by the Midwestern American family who raised her. Their traditional American-style dishes have most heavily influenced Kish's culinary development and preferences.

In an interview with Bon Appétit, Kish admits that she had never even tasted Korean cuisine until age seven, when she sampled kimchi at a local food fair. Her first instinct was to throw it on top of a cheeseburger. "I don't know anything about Korean culture," she confessed, "I was raised by a white family in Michigan [...] They are my family, and that's all I know." She further opened up about the common yet false assumptions that she must be an expert at cooking ramen, red rice cakes, or other Korean delicacies based on her ethnicity. "I recognize where my lane is and my lane is not cooking that," she specified. "I love to eat Korean food, but I don't need to cook it. Other people can do it better."

She honed her cooking skills using a tennis racket as a pretend frying pan

Children explore many of their interests through play, and young Kish was no exception. The now-star chef's childhood involved a hefty amount of creative imaginative scenarios centered around — you guessed it — her budding love of cooking. Gaining her original inspiration from the program "Great Chefs of the World" that aired on the Discovery Channel, young Kish began mimicking what she saw on screen using everything she could.

Chopping up random assortments of vegetables from her fridge was part of this process, as Kish practiced the motions she observed on her favorite show. She would take things outside, too, using her tennis racket and a few hefty handfuls of fall leaves to practice turning and flipping foods in a frying pan. 

Her creations were, at least initially, inedible. In one instance, when the family was out of chocolate, Kish utilized soy sauce to mimic the brown color she wanted in her childhood chocolate pudding dish. Thankfully, her mother was supportive, allowing her daughter to experiment to her heart's content until — eventually — she began developing things that started to taste good, too.

Her grandmothers were the ultimate cooking teachers

During Kish's childhood, both sets of her grandparents lived close to her family home in Michigan. Both of her grandmothers, with whom she spent ample time, were extremely active in the kitchen — something the chef considers a huge part of the successful growth of her cooking ability. In her biography on Kalamata's Kitchen, she discusses (with an obvious air of nostalgia) what it was like observing her grandmothers' hands as they formed some of her favorite childhood dishes.

"I was always in the kitchen with them — not really doing anything, but just being there. My grandma Kish used to make Hungarian stuffed cabbage for all of our special occasions [...] I'd stand on a step stool, watching her arrange the cabbage in a big tall stock pot, and just loving how the house smelled like it all day," Kish recalled. Her other grandmother introduced her to the art and science of baking bread and sweet treats. Both women helped Kish to understand and grow her passion during her formative years, setting her up for a successful career in food. "I was very fortunate to have two grandma babysitters constantly perfuming the home with their cooking," she says.

She worked as a model in high school

Though Kish has always had a passion for cooking, she dabbled in another industry before launching her professional career as a chef. As a teenager, she worked as a model after she was noticed for her striking features. In an interview in 2012 with Boston magazine amid her Season 10 "Top Chef" competition, Kish answered some questions about this much-quieter aspect of her past.

"Yes, I did," she answered frankly in response to the interviewer's inquiry regarding her modeling career. "It's not something that I really like to talk about. Well, I don't mind talking about it, but I try to make sure that they [cooking and modeling] don't cross paths too much. Only because people assume things about you." She went on to explain that she was 13 years old when she was first scouted by a modeling agent, and that (at least in 2012, when she gave the interview), she still had an active representative in the fashion industry.

She attended Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago

Kish attended East Kentwood High School in Kentwood, Michigan, graduating in 2002. She then headed for Chicago, but not for a traditional college campus. Kish was on her way to a place where she could develop the passion that had been steadily growing within her since she was a little girl: culinary school. This was not just any culinary school, but Le Cordon Bleu.

Le Cordon Bleu, which first opened in Paris in 1895, has since grown to become the largest system of culinary schools in the world, with over 35 locations sprinkled across the globe. Though all the school's U.S. locations shut down in 2017, due in part to financial woes and tighter federal regulations on for-profit career schools. Kish's Chicago class was ahead of this mass closing. This was a pivotal step in her professional career, as she was instructed in the classical techniques that would aid her later in both her restaurant and television cooking endeavors.

Her career kicked off at a restaurant called Stir

After receiving her formal training as a chef, it was time for Kish to officially enter the restaurant industry. She found work at a rather unorthodox eatery — a demonstration-style restaurant in Boston called Stir, where she excelled and quickly earned the title of chef-de-cuisine.

"During the day, we sell cookbooks from noon to six which is when I'm also prepping for that evening's dinner," she explained in her 2012 interview with Boston magazine. "But we do demonstration-style dinners every night. The menu changes every night. There are different themes. No one really knows what they're walking into, they don't know the menu, they don't know the wine. They just have an idea for what kind of theme or cuisine we're going to offer. Then everything is cooked in front of them, and we're here as an open forum to answer questions or chat food." 

Kish declared that this unique business model, which required a high level of adaptability, helped immensely during the high-stakes environment of "Top Chef." However, she also joked that because she was so well-practiced in putting together large varieties of dishes, "your mind just kind of goes crazy" with the possibilities, alluding to the stress of competition.

She was the first woman of color to win Top Chef

Unbeknownst to most, it was the owner of Stir and Kish's boss, Barbara Lynch, who pushed her to go out for "Top Chef" Season 10 in 2012. Kish initially resisted the suggestion "I was insecure, nervous and unsure of who I was as a person," she admitted in an interview with Today. "Barbara was the one who told me I had to go on Top Chef. I will never forget her saying that to me: 'We need more women on TV.'"

While going for it may have felt like jumping off a ledge into the unknown, the risk ultimately paid off. Kish battled it out in the on-set kitchen and took the $10,000 prize, earning herself the title of "Top Chef" winner after presenting the judges with a mouth-watering and unforgettable French mushroom entree. She became the show's second female winner and the first woman of color to take first place — an exciting step toward greater diversity in the culinary industry.

Attention came with her win ... and it wasn't always positive

Perhaps the number one perk of winning a cooking competition as an up-and-coming chef is the sudden rush of publicity that comes with it ... right? Well, not necessarily in the case of Kish. Though it was an incredible step for her career, Kish's "Top Chef" Season 10 win brought a slew of attention when she returned to her regular restaurant job in Boston. Unfortunately, not all of this buzz was positive — and some of it was even downright offensive.

In her interview with Today, Kish recalled the uncomfortable weeks after she returned to work in the city post-television. "After TV it was interesting. I wouldn't say it was positive [...] This is the first time I say it out loud. A particular male chef in the city I was living started running his mouth that I slept with him to further my career. I never worked for him a day in my life and I'm also very gay. It's a way of making women feel less than. It's just so disappointing — can't someone just be happy, rather than taking the thunder? That was the first hit of major reality."

She's built a career as a celebrated TV host

Kish's role as a contestant on "Top Chef" may have been her first time on television, but it was just the start of her growing media career. Since her 2012 win, the celebrated chef has hosted many different television shows, including "Fast Foodies," "36 Hours," "Restaurants at the End of the World," and Netflix's "Iron Chef" reboot. Her "Top Chef" gig means that she replaces Padma Lakshmi as host of the show on which Kish appeared as a competitor over 10 years ago.

Part of Kish's success in television can be attributed to her easy presence on-screen. Chef Alton Brown, who co-hosts Netflix's version of "Iron Chef" alongside Kish, told ABC News that Kish is a natural at filming. He insisted that there was no need for the two of them to develop any on-air chemistry due largely to Kish's abilities. 

As for her newest job with "Top Chef," many viewers can't wait to see what she brings to the upcoming season. "I was skeptical of any former contestant replacing Padma because Padma's presence dominated the show," said one Redditor. "Now I'm feeling much better about it [...] I adore Kristin and hope she enjoys her new job."

She came out in 2014 and married in 2021

Despite the air of confidence that Kish projects, this hasn't always been the case. The early stages of her adulthood were fraught with confusion, much of which stemmed from her sexuality. Part of finding herself in the years following her newly-found "Top Chef" fame was accepting who she was. In 2014, she did just that by officially letting the world in on the fact that she was, indeed, gay.

The announcement was done subtly over Instagram with a photo beside her then-girlfriend. "Happy 1 year love," read the description beneath the lovebirds taking a helicopter ride over Charleston, South Carolina (via On Top Magazine). "You've made me incredibly happy." 

Although this relationship eventually ended, in 2019 Kish announced her engagement to Bianca Dusic. The Australian Dusic works for Standard Hotels, helping direct the food and beverage sector for the corporation. Previously, she worked for Soho House as chair of food and beverages. Someone so ingrained in the culinary sector sounds like an effortless match for Kish. Two years after their engagement, they were wed amid the COVID-19 pandemic with friends and family watching via Zoom.

She published a cookbook in 2017

Publishing a cookbook may feel like the ultimate achievement for a chef, and in 2017,  Kish entered the ranks of published authors with her first cookbook, "Kristen Kish Cooking: Recipes and Techniques." Laced with beautiful, bright photography and recipes that bring together the unique details of Kish's story as an adoptee, restaurant chef, and food competitor, the book was accepted warmly by readers.

"Excellent approachable gourmet recipes," reads the title of a positive review on Amazon. "Recipes and Techniques is an apt name for this cookbook. Not only does it have delicious recipes but there are a lot of explanations about the techniques that make it a cookbook for a home chef to up their game. [...] All of them were easy to make and incredibly tasty. There are a lot more accessible recipes that I am planning to try." This praise is echoed across the board, with home cooks lauding Kish's compelling storytelling and her challenging, yet manageable recipes.

She holds a particular fondness for fried foods

What is it about battered foods cooked in hot oil that makes them so much more delicious? Whatever the reason, it's clear that fried foods have captured the taste buds of people all over the world, including Kish. Though the winning chef has prepared seriously show-stopping, high-end dishes in her day, her idea of the perfect cheat meal is something much less fancy. "Fried chicken, French fries, ranch dressing, mayonnaise," she told Bravo regarding the ultimate indulgence of her dreams. She explained that this would be followed up by a dessert of creamy strawberry sponge cake and a dollop of whipped cream.

This is hardly the first time Kish has declared fried poultry or smooth white mayo her favorite. In her bio on Kalamata's Kitchen, Kish wrote that she was known for "My love of mayonnaise" and that one of her favorite comfort foods was the kid-friendly classic of chicken fingers.

Kish calls her cooking childhood on a plate

When it comes down to it, all dishes are a culmination of who the person is who has crafted them. From the choice of cuts, flavors, spices, and ingredients, a chef draws on their own personal knowledge and unique life experiences to make decisions in the kitchen and develop their signature style. Kish is not blind to this fact. In fact, she specifically refers to her cooking as inextricably linked to her childhood foods.

"I stopped thinking about 'how' to create a new dish, and I just did it using inspiration from my own upbringing," she explained on Kalamata's Kitchen. "That's when things really started taking off for me. My food story now is basically my childhood. Not a recreation, but an homage to the things I remember, delivered through my own creative lens and a very focused, honed technique." 

She noted that one of the most successful dishes at her restaurant — Arlo Grey in Austin, Texas — was influenced by none other than Hamburger Helper. "Once I figured out that the magic sauce was just being me, my life really came together," she wrote.