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From the very beginning, there was something about Kristen Kish. Yes, the 28-year-old former model was beautiful, but it was her facility in the kitchen — tough, focused, graceful — that set her apart from the rest of the Top Chef Seattle hopefuls.
Her breakout moment came in a challenge in which she was called upon to do nothing more than make French-fried onions and mushrooms, but her technique was so flawless, she walked away with a win. Her momentum grew steadily after that, and it quickly became clear that she was the one to beat.
That is, until the Restaurant Wars fiasco in which Kish, the team captain, was sent packing, while Josie Smith-Malave, an at-times difficult contestant who many felt sabotaged the challenge, lived on another week. It was one of the most controversial calls in Top Chef history — but thanks to web-only redemption series Last Chance Kitchen, Kish clawed her way back to a spot in Wednesday night’s finale.
Staged Iron Chef-style as a live stadium event, Kish went head-to-head with Brooke Williamson, a challenger of comparable talents and temperament, for a four-course throwdown. Kish conquered, serving up a chicken liver mousse followed by citrus-cured scallop, bone marrow with celery root puree and red snapper with leeks.
Beyond being season 10’s Top Chef champion, Kish is currently the chef de cuisine at Stir, part of Barbara Lynch Gruppo, a Boston-based mini-empire founded by chef Barbara Lynch. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with her the morning after her win.
The Hollywood Reporter: Congratulations! How do you feel?
Kristen Kish: It hasn’t really sunk in yet. Obviously I’m really happy and excited. I’m just trying to take it all in.
THR: Once you were eliminated from the show, did you think it was all over?
Kish: For the first couple of days I definitely thought it was over. I was embarrassed a little bit. But then you get thrown into Last Chance Kitchen and it starts all over again. So I quickly broke out of that “I give up” stage.
THR: A good strategy! Were you thrown by the new finale format?
Kish: It was definitely a new feeling to walk out right out onto that stage, and that was the first time we had ever seen it. Shocking, really.
THR: Did you feel you were able to cook your best in that situation, or do you feel it held you back?
Kish: I mean, walking in there when no one was there and we were told that’s what we were going to do, I was so nervous. But once we started cooking and people starting filtering in the energy changed and I think it worked to my advantage, because I love cooking in front of people like that.
THR: Were you actually cooking for everyone in that audience?
Kish: We had to cook 65 tasting plates and 5 for the judges.
THR: When did you formulate your menu?
Kish: Two days prior to flying out to L.A. I kind of got a chance to start contextualizing and pulling together our ingredients.
THR: Have you spoken with Josie since your controversial elimination?
Kish: I have. We actually had a little bit of contact, text messages and email, after I got eliminated and all those harsh words people were saying about her. I just sent her a note saying, “I’m sorry about what people are saying about you.” I saw her at the finale and we exchanged a few words. It was kind of a whirlwind.
THR: Was there any residual resentment there?
Kish: Not at all. God, there wasn’t even any resentment after the elimination. I think fans and viewers got more upset than I did. I held nothing against her. She did her thing, I did my thing, and if I were to see her again it would be totally fine. We could sit down and have a beer.
THR: You mention in the finale that you thought you were sent home too soon. Do you think it was an unfair call on behalf of the judges?
Kish: I don’t think it was an unfair call. I definitely think it was too soon. But maybe I didn’t say enough or stick up for myself enough. In that moment, I did what I thought was right.
THR: And you still won.
Kish: Yes. So it’s OK now.
THR: What’s next for you?
Kish: I’m going to stay with Barbara for a little bit. Maybe take on another challenge within the Gruppo. I’ll start conceptualizing new ideas with her and see where it takes me. Boston has become my home. My friends, my work, I’ve made family there. It’s where I love to be at this moment.
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