Kristen Kish Talks Fast Food, Top Chef, And Her Restaurant Arlo Grey - Exclusive Interview

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It's hard to believe that nearly a decade has passed since Kristen Kish earned the coveted title of "Top Chef" on the show's tenth season. Plenty of other titles would follow, including executive chef at Arlo Grey, the smash Austin restaurant she launched in 2018 with the Sydell Group; author of "Kristen Kish Cooking: Recipes and Techniques: A Cookbook;" plus co-host of the Travel Channel's "36 Hours" and TruTv's hit show "Fast Foodies." The show pits Kish against fellow "Top Chef" alums Justin Sutherland and Jeremy Ford in a competition to recreate fast food favorites and put their own inventive spin on each dish for celebrity guests.

And as of April, she can add wife to that impressive list after tying the knot with Standard Hotels executive Bianca Dusic.

During an exclusive interview with Mashed, Kish reflected on the many facets of her life from marriage to filming the second season of "Fast Foodies," and her experience on "Top Chef" as a competitor, as well as her recent return to the show as a guest judge. Kish also weighed in on the sexual misconduct allegations against season 18 "Top Chef" winner Gabe Erales and the steps that are needed to help improve "kitchen culture." 

Kristen Kish offers a taste of the second season of Fast Foodies

First of all, congrats on the wedding!

Thank you. Thank you. Yeah.

What is the cooking dynamic like between you and your wife, Bianca?

I cook. She does cook every so often like meals and full meals and she does most of the baking. But for the most part, I'm pulling together dinner when I'm home.

Does she have a favorite dish of yours?

Oh, wow. I mean, everything I make, I feel like she says it's her favorite, so I don't really know. So all of it.

That's the best answer. You've been busy filming a new batch of episodes of "Fast Foodies." What do you have in store for season two?

I think just like any great TV show, season two, hopefully, it's always a bit better because you know what 24 minutes of TV makes it in and what doesn't. So we're able to more efficiently operate, I think. [In relation to] the behind the scenes aspect of "Fast Foodies" is, we are allotted a little bit more prep time during the day. So our days didn't run super long because in the first season we were cooking everything from start to finish. Now at least for season two, we had a little bit more time where longer processes we could actually do off-camera, which then I think yielded some more creative food because we had more time. So I think some really crazy food is in store. I think some even more weird remixed versions getting into our chef brains. I feel like there's more entertainment and what hopefully season two is going to bring.

On the show and at various events, you've cooked for some big names. Is there anyone in particular who you've been particularly proud to serve your food?

I'm going to give you the cheesy answer of everyone, because everyone is different and they all bring a different perspective and personality and value to each episode, which I think why "Fast Foodies" is so special is that every episode feels different because every episode we have such a unique character person kind of coming in. I think just, here's the thing with chefs and cooking, normally we're like, "This is technically perfect. This is creatively on the mark. This is exactly what it needs to be." But a guest comes on and will be like, "Not you today. I want to pick someone else." I think that's why it kind of diffuses any preconceived notion of what we think we are good at, which I think is actually quite fun and allows us to relax a lot more and lean into the chill nature of what the show is.

I think some particular favorites of mine were Joel McHale, him and I have since become really great friends. He is a true, and I hate the word but I'll say it, he's a true foodie in a lot of ways. Fortune Feimster, I was a huge fan of her from long before "Fast Foodies" even came into conception, so cooking for her, such a pleasure. I think for season two, I'm not allowed to give any names, but we have every, it's not just comics, there's other people that do different things, which is really kind of cool. So we broadened our horizons a little bit.

Why Kristen Kish is an Arby's fan

Has your perception of fast food in general changed since season one?

I don't think it's changed. I think, yes, it's "Fast Foodies" and we're cooking fast food and we're trying to replicate it, but that's kind of where it stops. I mean, all three of us, Jeremy, Justin, and I, all have very strong opinions on fast food. If we start digging into fast food and how a lot of it could be better just in general, not only taste-wise, but why is fast food cheaper than an apple or fresh produce? You know what I mean? But again, the basis of the show is just to take a point of inspiration that everyone somewhat is familiar with and then jump off from there. 

So I think we get through that copycat round and we realized that cooking and replicating fast food is much harder because nine times out of ten, our guests will be like, "Well, this is better than the original." We're like, "Well, yeah, because we're professional chefs. So hopefully we can cook it better." But I think where we all thrive really was just getting into that remix round and just being chefs.

Do you have a current fast food go-to?

My favorite fast food always is Arby's. So Arby's is very specific, it's very regional. Chicken fingers and curly fries are by far the greatest fast food I think that is out there.

Not the roast beef? It's the chicken.

Not the roast beef. The roast beef is, I mean, I can get down with a beef 'n cheddar for sure on the onion roll. But for me, it's just chicken fingers all day, every day, no matter what fast food place I go to, I always gravitate towards the fried chicken of some kind.

Do you remember any discontinued fast food items that you wish would make a comeback?

Growing up I would eat, the fast food that was always around was Arby's in Michigan and McDonald's. I hit up a couple of Taco Bells, but Taco Bells didn't come into my life until high school, when you're on your way home from a party and it's 3 a.m. and it's the only one open. Discontinued items. I don't know. But I hear a lot about this whole Mexican pizza being discontinued and people are outraged. I personally have never had it before. In terms of McDonald's, I'm not a secret menu kind of person. I'm a purist, in the sense of what's on the menu, I will order whatever is on the menu. I don't know if Burger King still, you know the long chicken sandwich? I don't know if they still have it, but that is fantastic. It's long. It's just a sesame seed bun, but the chicken is, it looks like a track field, perfectly shaped. So I think that's probably the most off-center I go from fast food choices.

How Hamburger Helper inspired the signature dish at Arlo Grey

Another "Top Chef" winner, Mei Lin, is getting a lot of buzz for the Szechuan hot chicken sandwich at her fast-casual restaurant daybird. Have you thought about doing a fast casual concept? If so, what would your dream menu item be?

Wow. Okay. I adore Mei Lin. I think she's probably one of the greatest chefs anyone has ever seen. She's like a magic unicorn and also happens to be a wonderful friend. I've never thought about doing it. That being said, I've also not really put any time or effort into even a second restaurant with everything else that's happening in my life and having Arlo Grey. For me, if I'm going to open up a place where I serve food, I need to give it 120,000%. If I'm not capable of doing that in this point in time, I probably won't do it because I'm not one to just throw a restaurant, stamp my name and not give it any time. So for me, having Arlo Grey is good for now. I can give it adequate amount of time and give everyone that works there time, know everyone by name and have a family and create a family. But never say never, but just not right now.

Is there a dish that you served at Arlo Grey or maybe you've served in the past that you think would fit well in the fast casual space?

You know, Arlo Grey is certainly not fast casual. But I try to lean heavily on an elevated experience but with familiar food just done really, really well. So a lot of the food that we serve at Arlo Grey is all stemmed from maybe a less than glamorous food item, so there's always something where it comes from. One of the pastas, the bestseller and the signature dish, I would say at Arlo Grey, is house-made mafaldine. We use Texas grains from Barton Springs Mill. We wash mushrooms and dry them and dehydrate them and rehydrate them, build them into a sauce, but it's all stemming on my love of Hamburger Helper out of a box. So that umami, salty, goodness that's super craveable and homey, I just elevate it into a place where, obviously you can charge money for it and call yourself a restaurant.

But a lot of that comes from wanting and needing, I think, for food to connect to people, whether or not they know who you are, what your style of food is. So if you can give familiar without feeling pretentious or off-putting, there's got to be one flavor profile that relates to somebody, someway, somehow, right? So for me, that's what makes a restaurant a neighborhood restaurant and not just [a] special occasion. It's what makes a story come full circle. It's what connects me with potentially all these different strangers coming into the restaurant and then being like, "Oh, I think I get it." So yeah, it doesn't happen every time, but so long as I can give it the old college try, I'm going to do it.

What happens when Top Chef contestants reunite

You've been spending a lot of time in Los Angeles, which is sort of a hub for "Top Chef" alums. Have you been hanging out with anyone from the show and having some good times together?

Yeah, I mean, so obviously we were filming "Fast Foodies" in Los Angeles. We were there for about three weeks. Then prior to that, I was there for a project that I cannot yet talk about, but also there for three weeks. But we went to, Jeremy, Justin and I, we all went to Stephanie Izard's friends and family for Girl & The Goat LA. I always see Brooke Williamson, she's like my family, at least once or twice, whenever I'm in Los Angeles. I got to see Mei Lin and Gregory [Gourdet]. Gregory's there also filming a TV thing. Mei obviously lives there. So we all connect and try to, I guess have time for one another whenever we can.

So if we notice we're all there, we're probably going to get together. When I say "we're all" meaning, "Top Chef" is one big family and there are so many chefs and contestants that have gone through that show. But I think we all come away with it with the five or six that you're just like normal adult friendships, right? You gravitate towards those four or five, six people, and then you always remain in touch. So yeah, I mean, I think one of the best ones was when Stephanie was opening up Girl & The Goat in Los Angeles and Justin, Jeremy, and then our friends and partners, we all went. So that was pretty awesome.

Who's the best late-night hang of the crew?

Oh God, I guess I'd have to be part of a late-night hang in order to know who the best one is.

Do you tend to tap out early in these situations?

Yeah. For me, I work so much. I also got that way out of my system early, early, early on in my career. But it depends on how we define late-night hang, perhaps. If it's like hanging out, sipping a tequila, talking about silly things, and being in sweatpants and pajamas at someone's house, me and Brooke probably can do that all night long. If you want to go out to a party you're going to hit up Jeremy or Justin. After we got done filming, I would always go and go to sleep. I don't know what anyone else does.

Why returning to Top Chef was stressful for Kristen Kish

You were a guest judge on the last season of "Top Chef." Returning to the show, does it bring back happy memories of winning, or are you reminded of the stress and anxiety from the competition?

I think it's both. I mean, my season was, I don't know how long, a while ago now, right? So life has transitioned from Kristen Kish "Top Chef" being the only thing that was recognizable to my name to speed up now where I've done several other things. That being said, you're always aware of what "Top Chef" did and the experience that it provided, and also how it made you feel. So yes, I had the joy of being able to say, yes, I won. But I will never forget what it felt like to go through the process during that point of time in my life and understanding who I was and not being completely full circle or confident with the direction I wanted to go and who I actually am. So I think it's less about being stressed out because of the actual happenings of what was going on.

It was that paired with the fact of that point in my life was also kind of in limbo. So it takes you back to a point in time, personally, not just professionally. So yes, for me, it does create a lot of stress only because that's just who I am. So I remember, when I first stepped foot as the guest judge to introduce Restaurant Wars and I was so nervous, not because, I mean, I've done TV, right? I've stood next to people. I've delivered lines. I know what to do, but there's something about it where it immediately takes you back to being my 28-year-old self and being so unsure of my abilities. Then you just kind of revert back into that space. 

So I remember [telling] Padma [Lakshmi], I was like, "I'm so nervous." I can't hear myself because my anxieties and everything is super high right now. She said, "Do I always make you nervous?" I said, "No, no, no, no." I said, "No, we've hung out personally as friends, several, many, many, many times over the past 10 years or whatever it is." But it was standing with her in that moment, delivering that challenge. I was like, "No, no, no, no, you don't make me nervous. You just make me nervous right now." It's just because you go immediately back to the space, of the point in time, where you actually were competing.

Kristen Kish weighs in on the allegations against Gabe Erales

I'm wondering if you can offer your thoughts on the controversy surrounding "Top Chef" season 18 winner Gabe Erales. Did you have a chance to read his Instagram apology?

I don't know a lot about him. Yes, he's in Austin and as am I. But I don't follow his career. I knew of the restaurant that he was working at. I don't know him well enough to, I feel, publicly speak on his specific incidences or alleged, and I don't even know what to call them, whatever. All I know is that I am a firm believer of kitchen culture, and what it looks like, and what it needs to be, and what it used to be, and how we're able to push our industry forward by being great leaders. Yeah, he proved himself not to be a great leader. I think that's all I can really say on it because I don't know the full story. It's a lot of, he said, he said, between the parties, so I'm neither one of them. But all I know is that I do not support behavior like that. I actively do my parts within my restaurant and the people that I have the ability to reach to make it known what kitchen culture needs to be today.

Kristen Kish discusses what it means to be a leader in the kitchen

Can you speak on how your previous restaurant experiences informed your approach as a leader in the kitchen of Arlo Gray?

I think there were a lot of reasons why I didn't want a restaurant. After I left working for Barbara Lynch in Boston, I did everything except open up a restaurant. I cooked, but I didn't have one specific place with my name on it where I was in charge of anyone. For me, I think there was a lot of fear. One, I didn't want to screw it up. I was scared that I wasn't good enough to open a great restaurant. I was scared that people wouldn't come. I was also unsure of how to actively be the leader that I wanted to be based on what I went through that I never wanted to put anyone else through, right?

The timing of everything just kind of worked out where yes, Arlo Grey came to be and we started hiring. I didn't get it right, right off the bat. I mean, Arlo Grey has certainly always been a family. There's a mix of so many different kinds of people in and out of the kitchen. So when we were hiring, I always was very aware of hiring women in leadership positions.

That being said, whoever is hired, regardless of your gender needs to perform in order to complete a job. So where it is now, it just so happened that these amazing women wanted to come back after we had closed for COVID for eight months. So they were the ones to come back. My chef Alex [Munoz] was the only male culinary person in the kitchen, he came back. So they kind of chose their way back. I did not hand-select anyone. I did not specifically say, I want these four women to come back with me. 

But for me it was about, again regardless of gender, there was an expectation set on day one to say these stupid, somewhat harmless, but the seed of where things can grow into bigger issues, somewhat harmless little passing jokes, it's not going to be tolerated. You're not going to do it. I don't care if it offends nobody, you're just not going to do it period. So, that was always the expectation. I think that I didn't have to teach these people how to be good humans. The ones that are with me right now, they just are. That's where I say they helped. And they really defined the everyday kitchen culture that they want to be a part of. So for me, I think that I've worked in primarily all-male kitchens, none of them where I felt threatened, but a lot of them where inappropriate things were said. Assumptions were made of why I was excelling faster than they were, or why I was getting a job that they felt they wanted, or taking credit for things that I did or demeaning my accomplishments.

So those are the things that I was like, that's not going to fly. I'm not going to do it and none of that behavior will be accommodated whatsoever. So kitchen culture behavior, so many things out there show the ugly side. We talk about the s*** that's wrong, which we do need to talk about, but I'm really proud now. I get to talk about how amazing we are and my team and what they've done. So yeah, I mean, I'm incredibly passionate about making sure that narrative also is met. Not only with all  the bad stuff that we do need to talk about, because we're bringing awareness, but also it's met with "let's showcase all the amazing people doing great things too."

How Kristen Kish seeks to improve kitchen culture

As a whole, do you think that there's been a major cultural shift over the last few years? Or do you still think that there's a ways to go to improve the industry?

Oh, there's a ways. There's a ways. I mean, we're seeing it now with, even now for instance Gabe, or chefs recently being called out and women are coming forward because they were harassed by these men. There's a ways to go. Do I think it's getting better? I don't know because I don't know every other restaurant, so it's so hard to competently say, "Oh yeah, it's getting better." While meanwhile in, I don't know North Dakota, it's not great at all. So for me, I can't say if it's getting better, but I do know that we, as people in general, we're getting better about talking about it, which I think is a good start, I guess, or a good place that we can be right now.

From your experience at Arlo Grey, what would you recommend to other restaurants in terms of instituting policies that would help improve kitchen culture?

That's hard. You know why? Because there's so many people in charge that are the problem. So you can say, these bosses can put in these policies, but these policies have to be enforced and held accountable by these people. I think that regardless of who you are and what position you hold in a restaurant or whatever your workplace may be, restaurants certainly aren't the only ones that are full of sexism and harassment. But I think that regardless of who you are, what position you hold, if you are uncomfortable, you have every right to say something. I remember on my day one, day two, and so on and so forth telling the people that worked at Arlo Grey, if you feel uncomfortable, you have to say something because otherwise, no one is going to have any idea.

Whether you come to me, whether you go to a co-worker, whether you go to human resources, I don't care where you go, but if you don't feel comfortable, you've got to say something. Then the people in play can start to hold the people that aren't doing great things accountable and take the necessary steps to remove them. The words of wisdom and the advice is not necessarily for the leaders. It's for everyone involved to say, if you see something, if you don't feel right ... Quite frankly, if you are ... let go because of you saying something you don't want to be there anyways. Goodbye, just get out of the s**** situation. So yeah, you've got to speak up.

What the future holds for Kristen Kish

Beyond "Fast Foodies" and the mystery TV project, any other projects we can look forward to from you?

Oh my gosh. There's quite a few. Ask me in four months or just it'll be on my Instagram sometime. But yeah [I'm] working on a lot of yeah, "Fast Foodies" and then a couple other really great television projects. One is a huge passion project that I've been working on for... for many years. That starting to finally take some forward momentum where we're actually going to, the fact that going to happen and then [I] may or may not be working on more written things, I could say.

If you're in Austin, be sure to stop by Kristen Kish's critically acclaimed restaurant Arlo Grey and keep an eye out for the debut of the second season of "Fast Foodies" on TruTV.