(Not) Home for the Holidays
For working chefs like Kristen Kish of Austin’s Arlo Grey, the tickets don’t stop coming in on Turkey Day. Unable to travel to her family this year, Kristen brought Thanksgiving to her restaurant.
Kristen Kish has a clear memory of her first Thanksgiving on break from culinary school. She came roaring into her family home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to find a partially frozen turkey that no one had thought to brine. This was no match for the indefatigable confidence of a young cook, of course, and Thanksgiving was saved—at least that’s how Kristen remembers it. Her mom, Judy Kish, remembers things a little differently. “You threw a fit about the brine, and I think you tried to cook the turkey overnight in the oven,” Judy says, fact-checking the memory even as her daughter insists she’d never do that to a bird. “Well,” she shrugs, “you were very sure of yourself at the time.”
For a lot of families, this is a familiar Thanksgiving scene: the old-growth disputes about the way things were, the eye rolls and inside jokes, the quips and jabs passed swiftly around the dinner table like a bowl of hot rolls. But for chefs, who are often working in their kitchens on the holidays, family time is a rare luxury. For a few years now, Kristen has been one of the lucky ones. After winning season 10 of Top Chef, she was named chef de cuisine of Barbara Lynch’s celebrated restaurant Menton in Boston, where she stayed until 2014. In the years that followed, she was busy staging pop-ups and writing a book (Kristen Kish Cooking: Recipes and Techniques)—but she always made a point of seeing her family on holidays.
Then, in March, Kristen packed up her life in the Northeast and moved to Austin to open her first restaurant, Arlo Grey, inside the new Line Hotel. With an ambitious menu that skips confidently from handmade pastas to a rococo burger, and workdays that often begin at dawn and end well after midnight, the chef plunged back into the taxing realities of restaurant life. Thanksgiving at home would not be possible this year, so instead the chef did the next-best thing: She brought the holiday to her, inviting her parents, Judy and Mike; her brother, Jon; and two of her closest Boston friends, Kim Baccari and Stephanie Cmar, for a Thanksgiving meal in the dining room at Arlo Grey.
Far removed from that first holiday as a nervy young cook, Kristen’s menu this year took a knee to the family staples she grew up eating, mashing up multiple traditions with a few of her own flourishes thrown in. Judy’s mom was from Michigan and would always make white bread stuffing; her dad was from Texas and preferred to do it with cornbread. And so for her recipe, inherited from her mother, Kristen uses both. Her bean and beet salad also combines a few memories: the pickled beets Kristen’s grandmother would always have on her table and the three-bean mix Judy liked to serve. Other dishes are more evolution than homage. Kristen’s cranberry- orange relish is a nod to her grandpa’s favorite Jell-O salad, which was sweetened with 7UP and topped with Cool Whip. The turkey is a classic golden-skinned number with butter tucked beneath its skin. (“Mom didn’t really do salt, and we grew up on margarine,” Kristen remembers.)
Gathered at a round marble table beneath a chain mail chandelier at Arlo Grey, the family dynamic swings wildly from sentimental to snarky. “Jon got drunk last Thanksgiving, and we were all very proud of him,” says Kristen, before sharing a sweet story about late-night games of euchre with her grandpa when he was still alive, with the wishbone drying on the windowsill, Dad rinsing the big pots in the kitchen, a Simon & Garfunkel album looping somewhere in the background. Judy recalls an intense period a few years back, when both kids were dealing with breakups and Kristen came out to her family. “They were trying to figure it all out, and I worried about my babies,” she says. “Becoming your own person is not an easy thing. You have to do the work yourself.”
The day winds down, the food comas take hold, and everyone needs a nap—but Kristen is feeling some feelings. “When you’re growing up, everything just seems normal, like white noise. Then you become an adult and realize that all of it is yours, your culture, your family,” she says. “I’m realizing that the reason I even have a story to tell through food is because of these people.”