When she was five years old, Kristen Kish cooked her very first dish, a dessert. “I made chocolate pudding,” says the Top Chef Season 10 winner. “But I used soy sauce, because it was brown and we didn’t have chocolate. It wasn’t edible.”
That was almost 25 years ago. Kish is now chef de cuisine at Barbara Lynch’s elegant Boston restaurant Menton, but when she won Top Chef, she was working at Stir, Lynch’s next-generation culinary school offering cooking classes, wine tastings and dinners every night. Kish describes Stir as “the front line of cooking with people.” She helped plan menus, but mostly, she taught. “I love when I’m doing something simple like getting a good sear on a piece of fish, because I didn’t flip it too soon, and I can see a lightbulb go on over people’s heads.”
When F&W challenged the 29-year-old to create summer desserts with no more than 30 minutes of prep time, she was unfazed. “Working with home cooks every day, I had to know what ‘simple’ meant.” One such recipe is Kish’s pistachio-flecked financiers, the little nut cakes that she makes with brown butter. Kish garnishes them with sweetened whipped crème fraîche, which she always makes by hand. “My favorite thing to do is whisk,” she says. She also eschews an electric mixer for making meringues and instead beats egg whites by hand for an intense 10 minutes. “It’s very satisfying to do it the old-school way.”
Kish was introduced to dishes like financiers at Le Cordon Bleu Chicago. But her very first lessons came from watching every cooking show she could find on TV while she was growing up in Kentwood, Michigan. Great Chefs was her favorite. “It was so different from Michigan. I was drawn by the accents. Those French chefs, they sounded so beautiful,” she says. In fact, before working for Lynch, Kish cooked for the renowned French chef Guy Martin at Sensing restaurant in Boston.
Kish’s Top Chef win surprised many viewers, since she’d been eliminated halfway through the season (an insubordinate sous-chef helped push her out). Thanks to a new feature on the show, Last Chance Kitchen, she returned for the finale and won the title by preparing an exceptional French-accented, five-course meal, including lavender-and-citrus-cured scallops. For dessert, she made a tender lemon-spiked olive oil cake with fennel pollen; her simplified version here has peaches in the batter.
Besides cooking, Kish has had another job in her adult life: modeling. She signed with Elite when she was 18 and has done runway and magazine work. She prefers cooking to modeling, though. “The thought of a camera in my face for a fashion shoot makes me anxious,” she says. “But if someone says, ‘I’m going to put a camera in your face and you’re going to cook,’ I say, ‘Yes.’”