Monday, March 4, 2024
Food & DrinkTravel

Out chef Kristen Kish is blazing a trail for queer Asian women

Since winning Top Chef and coming out, the world has been Kristen Kish’s oyster, with the latest demonstration of her many talents on display as co-host of Netflix’s Iron Chef: Quest For An Iron Legend.

In 2013, Kristen Kish became the first woman of color to win Bravo’s Top Chef during the 10th season — and she came out as gay shortly after.

“Honestly, when I came out, I was terrified. I came out, I was 28 years old and I’ve always known that I was gay. And so to come out and to feel like I was terrified because I didn’t feel like I would be accepted, I didn’t feel like I would belong anywhere, I was just scared to be me. … And so when I when I came out publicly [on Instagram], the amount of encouragement and support right from the get go… And honestly, I have never felt more loved and it was our community that made me feel safe, that made me feel seen, that is really giving me confidence to even do the things I’m doing today.” 

(Photo Credit: Natalie Engel)
Photo: Natalie Engel

Kish also always knew she wanted to cook. She had grown up watching cooking shows on TV from the age of five and experimenting in her adoptive mom’s Michigan kitchen by spicing up Midwestern burgers with kimchi — a staple in her birthplace of Seoul, Korea.

Despite a lack of representation of women in the fast-rising genre of food-centric TV, Kish paved her own path toward her dream with pivotal and formative years spent being mentored by James Beard Award-winning Boston restaurateur Barbara Lynch — who saw something remarkable in Kish before even the young chef did.

Kish is, by anyone’s standards, funny, charming, beautiful, and smart. But there is a refinement to her knowledge of cuisine and the simple art of doing something right — like cooking the perfect steak — that goes beyond the kitchens of commercial restaurants. Shortly after winning Top Chef and coming out, Kish knew she didn’t want to cook in that high-pressure environment anymore. She left her position as chef de cuisine at Menton, owned by Lynch, who encouraged her to go on Top Chef. Lynch, who had been Kish’s first female boss, believed the opportunity would strike a blow for women in the profession.

(Photo Credit: Natalie Engel)
Kristen Kish | Photo: Natalie Engel

So in 2014 Kish walked away from commercial kitchens and some of backlash that came for her TV win, and wrote an acclaimed cookbook, Kristen Kish Cooking: Recipes and Techniques. She also opened her first restaurant, Arlo Grey, in Austin, TX, where she leads a team that is 60% women and actively works towards diversity, equity, and inclusion.

While opening Arlo Grey, Kish met her future wife, Bianca Dusic, who was overseeing the beverage program for the hotel, and they married in 2021. Kish continued her TV run as co-star of Fast Foodies on TruTv and as co-host host of Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend where she pairs up with Alton Brown, and as has been noted, outdoes him with her dapper, ultra-gay suits.

“I never thought I’d be able to impact more than just the circle around me. The amount of messages from the LGBQT community, the Asian American community, the Asian American adoptee community, from kids struggling with their sexuality, drugs and alcohol. That was me,” Kish said. “It empowers me to talk about it more. Most rewarding is that people know it’s OK.”

Kish is at the top of her game at just 38, and she’s been working hard and traveling the world (when we speak she is exploring her birthplace, Korea), so it’s little wonder when I ask if she has big plans for her 40th birthday, she laughs.

“Oh, man. Honestly, with the amount of travel that I’m doing and that I do for my job — and I love bouncing around the world — I gotta say that there’s nothing better than being home in your sweatpants, whatever, eating something your partner makes — my wife makes me delicious food. So honestly, I’d probably have to just stay at home.” 

Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend. (L to R) Alton Brown, Kristen Kish in episode 104 | Adam Rose/Netflix © 2022

In her current role on Iron Chef: Quest for the Iron Legend, a new side of Kish has emerged as she observes and interacts with the frantic chefs competing on the floor of Kitchen Stadium; she also helps facilitate the judges’ varied reactions to miraculous dish after miraculous dish. If Kish ever wanted it, she could have a second career as a journalist.

“You know, it never crossed my mind until this exact moment,” she says, “But my career is a combination of just saying yes to a lot of amazing things and letting it guide me down the right path. So you never know. I could be reporting news and weather one day.”

Kish acknowledges the atmosphere between the Challenger Chefs and the Iron Chefs can be “intimidating” but since she knows most of them, her empathy in a high-pressure environment runs deep, and she pulls off her hosting role with aplomb.

One of the pleasures of the series is seeing her interact with one of the world’s true top chefs, Dominique Crenn, who is also out and proud and a friend in real life. (Chef Crenn is the first female chef in the US to receive three Michelin Stars and in 2021 was the recipient of the World’s 50 Best Icon Award. Her partner is Maria Bello.)

Kish won’t be drawn on who is her favorite Iron Chef (Crenn? Curtis Stone? Marcus Samuelsson?) “I think about that question a lot because I’m like, okay, what if I had to choose one? Honestly, my job is to eat the food of high caliber chefs, Iron Chefs, Challengers Chefs, to sit there and basically get a free meal. Because I can’t get into some of their restaurants. At this point of my career, it is probably the greatest kind of schooling and dining experiences that I will ever have in my life. So I will I will take any and all of them at any point in the day. It’s just a spectacular place to sit at that table.”

I ask Kish what it’s like being married to someone who is so familiar with the world’s top restaurants — her wife Bianca was formerly the Standard International Hotel’s Vice President of Food and Beverage.

“You know, she has since transitioned out of the food and beverage corporate world,” explains Kish. “But yes, it’s how we met. … So, when we do dinners at home, I handle the food, she handles the seating … I leave it to her to make the most beautiful dinner setting with great water glasses and flowers and layering like that. But quite frankly, nightly dinners at our house are typically sitting at the kitchen island, not even in the dining room. So it’s very simple.”

(Photo Credit: @KristenKish on Facebook)
Photo: @KristenKish on Facebook

There is a connection between how Kish helped transform the traditional kitchen by representing women of color; and how she feels she broadens the meaning of marriage, also through representation.

“Women, and women of color, and gay women have been running kitchens for a very long time, some would argue, probably before the white male chefs kind of took over and started to find our culinary space. It’s something that I never really thought of as I was growing up. You know, I don’t walk into the kitchen like, Okay, I’m representing, you know, a gay Asian woman of color or whatever.

“But I will say, now that I’ve put myself out in a public space on television, social media, all that stuff, I’m far more aware of how people see me because at the end of the day, representation matters in order to find somebody to relate to. Everyone wants to feel like they belong in some form. We are uniquely us. But at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to feel like they’re safe? It’s something I’m more aware of and I feel honored to represent that space.”

And while there has always been a perfectly valid argument for queers not getting married (heteronormative patriarchal institution and all that), Kish says getting married, for her and Bianca, “solidified our Pride together. And it’s now being able to say, I represent a married couple and it doesn’t always have to look and feel a certain way. And it’s a way of saying, This is how marriage looks and this is why we’re proud. And so to be able to say that — it feels different, but it also feels like it has so much more weight and value because we are able to represent what a marriage looks like.”

Follow Kristen Kish here.



Merryn Johns

Merryn Johns is the Editor-in-Chief of Queer Forty. She is an award-winning journalist, as well as a broadcaster and public speaker. Originally from Sydney, Australia where she began her career in journalism in the 1990s, she is based in New York City where she became the editor-in-chief of Curve Magazine and wrote for a variety of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Slate, and more. Follow on Twitter at @Merryn1

Merryn Johns has 138 posts and counting. See all posts by Merryn Johns

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