20 questions with 'Top Chef' winner and future Charleston restaurant owner Kristen Kish

Heading South

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Kristen Kish and restaurateur Brooks Reitz are currently looking for a building to open her first restaurant - PROVIDED
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  • Kristen Kish and restaurateur Brooks Reitz are currently looking for a building to open her first restaurant
Look up the definition of triple threat and you're likely to see a photo of Kristen Kish. The Le Cordon Bleu grad, former model, and Top Chef: Seattle winner crushed the competition during her time on the Bravo series. And now she's taking her polished cuisine out of Boston, where she's been chef de cuisine at Barbara Lynch's Menton and Stir, and moving down South. To Charleston, in fact, where she'll partner on a new restaurant with Leon's co-owner Brooks Reitz.

With the news of her arrival on the heels of Bravo's announcement that Top Chef Season 14 will take place in Charleston, we caught up with Kish to discuss her move to the Holy City, thoughts on white tablecloths, and tips for Top Chef: Charleston's contestants. 

City Paper: Hello. Congrats on partnering with Brooks.
Kristen Kish: Thank you. I think I'm more excited than he is.

CP: So, why Charleston?
KK: Part of it looks like it happened overnight. But Brooks and I were fortunate enough to meet nearly two years ago. When I first started coming to Charleston a couple years ago, I was introduced to the city by one of my great friends. She took me around and showed me all the great food places and that included being introduced to Brooks. That's when I first learned about what he was doing and became very grand pals.

The first time I ever came to Charleston, I fell in love with it, but I had other commitments at the time and I wasn't quite ready for a restaurant of my own. Speed up a little after that and I remember going to Brooks and going, "Yeah, I think I'm ready. Let me pick your brain." We started with that and just three months ago, I was like, "I'm ready for this." I've been very patient to try to figure out if Charleston was the place for me to see if A) I could be part of Charleston and B) Charleston could embrace me. It's been an ongoing conversation for nearly two years. Because Charleston is such a small, charming, precious almost town, the last thing I wanted to do was roll in and be like "Here I am." That wouldn't have worked.

CP: How did you get to know the city?
KK: Basically at the time of Top Chef airing, I happened to be in New York with my then-boss and mentor Barbara Lynch. Barbara had cooked at Terri's [Henning] house years prior and they were great friends. I'm with Barbara traveling around cooking and Terri happened to be in New York around that time. It was mid- to late-season of Top Chef. I hadn't won yet. It was still going and that's when I first met Terri. Barbara was like if you ever want to come to Charleston, this is the woman you need to talk to. A year and half later I went for the first time.  

After a long run it only makes sense to stuff my face with a shrimp blt biscuit from @calliesbiscuits #Charleston

A photo posted by Kristen Kish (@kristenlkish) on


CP: Why did Charleston feel like a good spot to open your own restaurant?
KK: I don't think Boston and Charleston are too dissimilar from each other. They both feel like small towns and yet they're packed with so much culture and history and amazing food. But it doesn't feel like New York. It's not this sprawling metropolis. So you're able to really create relationships with other chefs, other restaurant people, mixologists, anyone who is really passionate about the industry, whether they work in it or not.

It felt comfortable to me and along the same lines of how I want to live in a city, which is very intimate, learning the ins and outs of something and feel like I can know that person four blocks down the street and say, "Hello" and know their story or store and use one of their products in one of my projects. It felt really good to me and obviously I've met incredible friends and it started to feel like a second home to me. 

CP: Are there a couple locations for the restaurant that you're currently weighing?
KK: Yes. Brooks is on the front lines right now in Charleston. I'm still traveling a lot. We're in contact and he's hitting the ground running and we're in touch remotely constantly during the day. We're in that stage of once that space happens, that's our next step.

CP: What about housing? What's the plan on that?
KK: I sold my condo in Boston. Technically I'm homeless by the end of April. That being said, I do have a lot of travel on my plate for other work projects. We're playing that one by ear. It's all dependent on finding that space.

CP: Brooks is known for creating unique places, Leon's, and of course, Saint Alban before it closed. He's got an interesting vision, so how are you guys creating your own vision together and can you tell me what we can expect from your restaurant?
KK:The way Brooks and I are operating, we were careful about. I think what Brooks and his partners have done is they've created amazing places, but nothing feels like it's all under one umbrella. They all feel very independent from each other and very separate and all carry their own vibe. Mine will be very different from Leon's and Saint Albans.

I'm going to bring in what I hope is, I don't want to say minimalist, but more feminine touches perhaps. Less heavy, very clean and very similar to my food. It's not pretentious, it doesn't feel fancy or precious, but it feels polished. That's my approach in food. Although something could look very rich and luxurious, you're gonna realize when you come in, it's beautiful, it's aesthetically pleasing, but don't be afraid to drop shit on the floor. 

CP: Ha. Can you give me any idea or a word of to describe the genre of your the cuisine?
KK: It's playful, it's a little whimsical, but at the core, it's all based on classic technique and perfectionism. Trust me, I dip my spoon into a sauce a million times and I look at it two inches from my eye to see how the grains are settling. Those are the little details I like to pride myself on. But as a guest and a diner, you're not going to necessarily know I did that. I don't want you to because then it'll make you feel like it's too fancy. It's those things I take pride in, that fuel my creativity, and make me very happy at the end of the day.

CP: White tablecloth or not?
KK: No. The table itself will be very beautiful, there will be no tablecloth covering it up.

Second stop.. Always a favorite. #Charleston

A photo posted by Kristen Kish (@kristenlkish) on


CP: If you don't mind, I'd like to pick your brain about the fact that Charleston is getting Top Chef. What do you think of that? Is it like, "Man I just got away from all that?"
KK: At the end of the day, anything that brings the spotlight to an incredible, special place, and showcases chefs and the food and the culture to people who have never been or might not ever come, it's a learning experience. Top Chef, when they go in, they film and then they leave. But it's amazing to then watch it from someone else's perspective. 

CP: You're known as being the badass on that show and crushing it —
KK: Ha, I don't know who coined that...

CP: ...well, what's your advice to whoever these competitors are that are coming to the city and will try to survive the Charleston season?
KK: When you go on that show, you've got to have a really strong cooking identity already in place. Then, once you know that, to not get caught up in the TV aspect of it. You have to go in and completely forget about that. If you're going on TV just to go on TV, well, hate to break it to ya, but sometimes that doesn't always work out. 

At the end of the day, you're going to go on this show and you're just going to cook your heart out and cook exactly what you know how to do within your constraints. Stay completely focused on what you already know how to do and not try to pull out these weird things out of fucking hats that you've never done before, then you're gonna do just fine. 

I don't know how many chefs they're going to have this year, on average 15, and already getting to that point, you've always proven yourself. So don't over try to prove yourself even more because then it comes off being weird. 

CP: What made you decide to go on Top Chef?
KK: Honestly, the TV thing and being in front of people, I have major anxiety. What it came down to is Barbara had done a guest chef stint on the season before mine. So she came back and the producer had asked if she had any chefs in general who would be good for the show and she said, "I'm gonna put your name in." And I was like, "Oh shit. OK." At that point, I was like, "Fuck it. Why not?" One step will lead to another to another and another and if at the time they come and are like, "Hey, we want you on the show" I still have a choice to say no. 

If Barbara wouldn't have presented it to me, I would have never gone out on my own and done it. 

CP: I guess that means you have yourself to thank, of course, but also her to thank.
KK: 100 percent. 100 percent. She saw something in me that I didn't.

CP: Do you have any predictions of what they'll do in Charleston having lived it?
KK: I mean, gosh. There's so many surrounding areas outside of Charleston proper. There's obviously incredible product in the farms and the seafood and different, I did read potentially they're gonna do something on Kiawah, which might be Tom's connection...I don't know. I remember reading something like that. So many different things. The chefs they've focused on for quite sometime like Jason Stanhope, Mike Lata, Jill Mathias from Chez Nous, and XBB guys and so many people, other chefs, I'm not introduced to yet. 

CP: Is there anything that makes you anxious about your move here? And what makes you excited?
KK: I think the normal anxiety thing is wanting to do good and add to a city as opposed to stand out too much in a city. Does that make sense? That's kind of exactly why I've really been thinking about this for nearly two years before making that decision, I didn't want to be this chef from Boston who is just gonna come in and open a restaurant. I want to be this chef who really adores Charleston, who has created some form of life there already, is going to come add to the city. The last thing I want anyone to ever think is it was just like a sudden jump. That was not the case. 

What I'm most excited about is continuing to learn about the city. Two years, obviously I don't know everything about the city and I don't think I'll ever know everything about the city. But I'm excited to watch and see everything outside of my project to grow as well, and hopefully be a champion and the biggest cheerleader for all the amazing things Charleston is going to go through.


On Wed. April 20, Kish will join Amalia Scatena (Cannon Green), Emily Hahn (Warehouse), Katy Keefe (McCrady's), Jill Mathias (Chez Nous), and Rebecca Wilcomb (Herbsaint) for a James Beard dinner at Cannon Green. The dinner starts at 6:30 p.m. and tickets are $150 (inclusive of wine pairings, tax, and gratuity). To purchase a seat, contact Cannon Green at (843) 817-7311.

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