‘Top Chef’s’ Kristen Kish: ‘Cooking Enabled Me to Explore My Identity’

When I was a kid, food was my escape. After school I’d perch in the kitchen by the TV watching Great Chefs of the World. It took me to faraway places, and I loved seeing the way ingredients and methods changed from place to place. I imagined the day that I would taste all I was seeing.

I was an adopted child from Korea growing up in Michigan, and my parents helped me explore my Korean heritage. We read The Korean Cinderella as a bedtime story and met other adopted Korean kids. Eating meals together was another way my family helped me celebrate my identity. We went to food festivals and Korean restaurants, and there, I found comfort in sharing food.

I may not have known then, but my career path was certainly being formed.

I tiptoed into culinary school and quickly realized that I was good at cooking.

In fact, I excelled, and my success made me think I could skip over the easy jobs and head right to the top, to the coveted chef position. My ego took over, yet I found myself learning over and over that I wasn’t worthy of the job I thought I should have.

As I remained in this cycle of self-doubt and extreme ego fueled by my insecurity, I found a kitchen I belonged in and a mentor who believed in me. She told me I had to compete on Top Chef, and I trusted her more than myself.

But I still spent so much time trying to prove I was good, that I belonged. To compensate, I cooked for the next accolade instead of for the joy and sense of identity I’d discovered early on.

At the end of the day, I found no satisfaction in striving for that type of perfection.

Launching my own restaurant, Arlo Grey, in Austin, Texas, ultimately saved me from that spiral.

While opening a place of your own is no easy feat, I had an opportunity to craft a culinary narrative that was unique to me, leaning into soul and memory and celebration: crispy rice inspired first by take-out crab fried rice and an umami-rich mushroom pasta that hit the notes of why I love Hamburger Helper dinners.

With each dish, I found that the food, my food, is what sets me apart, and I’ve never felt more comfortable in who I am and where I’m going.

—As told to Becca Miller.

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Women’s Health.

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