This Kristen Kish interview contains very minor spoilers for Iron Chef: Search for an Iron Legend
In my home, when Kristen Kish appears on TV, it’s like Christmas morning. We never know when it’s going to happen. Maybe she’ll show up and judge an episode of Top Chef, which she famously won in 2012. Maybe she’ll be on the Travel Channel, exploring foods from around the world. Maybe she’ll pop up on the Food Network, competing again. One time I caught a glimpse of her while I was clicking through channels, and stopped in my tracks to watch TruTV’s Fast Foodies, which I’d never even heard of before. Kish is a world-renowned chef, and she’s also a ubiquitous presence on food TV. She’s charming as heck, she’s endlessly generous, she’s got a quick wit, and best of all, she is just so enthusiastic about food. And that energy is contagious.
Kish, who came out nearly a decade ago after winning Top Chef, is currently the co-host of Netflix’s new incarnation of the three-decade-old classic, Iron Chef. She joins longtime host Alton Brown in their QUEST FOR AN IRON LEGEND, which has already rocketed to a top ten spot on the streamer chart in only a week. She recently took some time out of her incredibly busy schedule to chat with me about her new co-hosting gig, the welcome shift in conversation around fine dining, and yes, her impeccable Iron Chef fashion.
Heather: Let’s just jump in and talk about the best part of Iron Chef: Quest For an Iron Legend, which is your suits. You are a queer fashion icon. My wife and I are as excited to find out what you’re going to be wearing every episode as we are about the Iron Chef secret ingredient.
Kristen: You know, honestly, I was really excited about this. During the preparation for the show, they’re like, “You’re going to have a stylist. Can you send us some of your clothing options to see what we’re working with?” I was sending stuff and I guess I didn’t fully understand it either. I couldn’t see the full picture that it was going to be me in these suits. I thought I was just going to wear my bomber jacket and a t-shirt. I’ve always wanted to weather a power suit, but I just never have.
Heather: Right, you already have so many other supremely gay looks in your pocket.
Kristen: Exactly — but when I started trying on these suits, my heart was so happy. It was everything I wanted it to be. Being on a show like this gets you to step out of your comfort zone with your choices. I was like, sure, let’s wear a pink blazer with stripes! I don’t know if I would ever have picked that out on my own, but Bre Fleming, who is our stylist, did a phenomenal job.
Heather: You do look powerful. You look like you. Isn’t it so cool to wear a suit and just feel like yourself?
Kristen: Yes! Just looking at yourself, feeling so good. Out of all the suits, there was only one jacket that I owned, that was out of my own closet. They were like, “This is great!” One jacket out of my entire closet! I was like, “Thank you… I guess?” I did wear my own pants because getting pants to fit the way you want is very difficult. And I wore my own shoes. But Bre just crushed the rest. And now I’m wondering, if there’s a second season, could I even up my suit game?
Heather: I can’t wait to find out if that’s even possible. At this point, you’ve done it all. You’ve won Top Chef, you’ve been on Iron Chef as a contestant, you’ve judged so many cooking shows, including the Top Chef finale in the most recent season — how does hosting something like Iron Chef feel different than all that?
Kristen: It was a full-on learning curve, for sure. I’m confident — well, “confident,” even though my anxiety is crazy high when I competitively cook — but, you know, cooking is what I do. I can talk about food in a way that feels judgey, but being able to host is hard! And it was new, learning how to do that, especially on a platform like Iron Chef, next to a guy that’s been doing it for 15 years by himself. The beauty of it is that I basically get to observe. I get to be excited about it. I don’t even have to feel nervous. All I have to do is convey what I’m feeling and seeing. And I don’t have to judge, which — god, that is so nice to be able to just sit at that table. To sit there and eat beautiful food and not have an opinion on it? It’s a dream.
Heather: You and Alton Brown seemed to have such an easy, natural chemistry.
Kristen: We have to give credit where credit is due. Tom Keller, who is kind of the driving force who paired Alton and I up, he saw something in us. Alton and I had met one time when I was a contestant on Iron Chef. And of course I watched him growing up. He’s very gracious. When I met him, he was like, “Oh I remember you too!” And I was like, “Sure okay, probably not” — but I’ll take it.
I don’t know how they knew it would work, but as soon as we started that first episode, we started developing the chemistry, and I was like, “Wait a second!” It was like the feeling of working with an old friend, and by the second one, we just started to click. As the episodes go on, we get more and more playful. We talked a lot about how we were learning to do the dance, together. After the first rehearsal, we asked: What can we do for each other? What can we do to make each other’s jobs easier?
Heather: I loved how, as the season progressed, you seemed to get more comfortable coming out from behind that desk and just charging down into Kitchen Stadium.
Kristen: From the beginning, there was kind of an expectation that I would go down there. For the first few episodes, I was nervous. I was talking to the producers in my mic like, “Can I go? Can I go? Can I go now? Now can I go?” But then I did just start sort of charging in there. And they were like, “Kristen, wait! We’ve got to get a camera on you!” But I couldn’t wait. I was so excited. I just wanted to be down there and get in it because it’s so much fun.
Heather: Do you find it hard not to coach when you’re in that position? Not just as a chef, but as someone who’s had so much success cooking competitively?
Kristen: Oh no, it’s very easy. I go in there fully knowing those chefs are so dialed in. I feel comfortable cooking, especially in my own space, but when you’re around that caliber of chefs, you’re like, “I’m not messing with any of this!” I’m just curious about what’s going on, I’m learning with the audience, these techniques and the way these flavors are developed. There were so many things I saw while hosting that I’d think, “I cannot wait to try this!” I’m there to be excited to watch my friends — because a lot of the chefs are my friends — do what they do best. And that is to just cook.
Heather: That’s such an awesome way to think about your role. I want to talk a little bit about this thing we’re seeing on Iron Chef this season, something we’ve been seeing on Top Chef the last few seasons, and that’s a real push to bring these shows into conversation with what’s happening in the broader culinary dialogue. We’re seeing more POC chefs on these elite shows, and we’re also seeing more freedom from POC chefs to explore all the facets of their identity when it comes to creating food. We hear it all the time now from POC contestants, that the food from their different cultures has always kind of been dismissed from the “fine dining” conversation, has always been looked down on because it’s not classic French cuisine, and now the door has been thrown wide open to really reimagine what we think of as “fine dining” food.
Kristen: God, it’s such a relief. It’s beautiful. Food, at its core, is storytelling. It’s storytelling on the part of the chef who’s cooking it, and a story all the way through to the person who’s eating it. Now we’re understanding that it’s acceptable to play with all kinds of genres of food, to think about where we’re from and where our families are from, and express ourselves more fully. We’ve all wanted this for a very long time. It’s kind of like coming out, right? You want to do it, but you’re afraid, and you think maybe you’ll just do it later — but when you finally really do it, you can just be your authentic self. There’s so much freedom there. Freedom to fully be exactly who you are. The storytelling of food is getting, literally and figuratively, more colorful.
Heather: Yes, and we saw that play out in so many moving ways on Iron Chef this season.
Kristen: Right, like Marcus Samuelsson cooking a Swedish and Ethiopian mash-up, and elevating it without losing any of its heart and soul. These foods from around the world, they’re delicious, they’re nuanced, they’re stunning. Also we have to rethink “fine dining.”
Heather: Talk about that more.
Kristen: Quite frankly, fine dining is, to me, food that is simply done really well. Period. I don’t care if it’s a bowl of curry. I don’t care if it’s Jollof rice. I don’t care if it’s Dominique Crenn’s Michelin-starred cooking. It can all be beautiful. Take care of the food, do it well, and that is fine dining.
Heather: Have you found more freedom, personally, as these conversations have shifted?
Kristen: Absolutely. I think maybe it’s a combination of my surroundings, my maturity, my age. Or, well, maybe also because I try not to give as many effs what people think anymore. But I do feel like I have more permission to be who I am, to experiment with who I am and what different foods mean to me. What feels right to me now might be different in a week. That’s what life is. It’s constant growth. It’s ebb and flow. We’re allowed to change. I’m going to cook what I cook and then tomorrow I might experiment with something completely different.
I took Midwestern comfort food and elevated it to a place where I can serve it in my restaurant. I’m currently in Korea. I imagine I’m going to come back and start playing around with those flavors, and I’m allowed to do that. I’m not scared of that anymore because we’re finally understanding that’s what people want. They want to experience your story through your food, whatever that story is, even — maybe especially — if they’ve never heard it before.
Heather: You were one of the first celebrity chefs to come out. You did it on Instagram back in 2014. Have you seen attitudes shift around queer people in kitchens since then?
Kristen: Definitely. 100%. I mean, here’s the thing: We were probably watching a lot of gay people cook before we knew they were gay, right? Before we even knew it, they were here.
Heather: For sure. That’s true in all areas of history.
Kristen: Right — so, like with everything, at first there’s a kind of panic or people getting triggered by gay chefs — but then it becomes the norm, like it is now. Gay chefs are everywhere and we’re not in some other category. It takes just a few people coming out, and then more and more chefs feel comfortable, and then we get to where we are today. Queer chefs are the norm.
Heather: Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs — or even artists, any kind of storytellers really — who exist at the intersection of marginalized identities? People who may not have been given the same opportunities, or who are worried about the kind of oppressions or struggles they might face if they pursue their dreams?
Kristen: The culinary community is very broad, we have a lot of different avenues. When you’re trying to find that in, you have to find like-minded people. Sometimes it does take a little bit of research to figure out where you’re going to place yourself. When I announced that I was hiring for my restaurant, I very naturally attracted a lot of queer people and people of color. It just happened. You have to find your crew. You have to find your people. When you do that, there’s a level of empowerment, a level of safety to try new things. Find someone you admire who’s already doing what they do — and that’s always a good place to start.
Iron Chef: Quest For an Iron Legend is streaming on Netflix right this very second.