Today marks the opening of the restaurant Arlo Grey at the new Line Austin hotel, at the site of the former Radisson on Lady Bird Lake. At the helm is a newcomer to Austin and to Texas, 34-year-old Top Chef winner Kristen Kish. Born in South Korea and adopted as an infant by an American family, Kish grew up in Kentwood, Michigan. She attended Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago and eventually ended up in Boston, where she worked in several high-profile restaurants, including several headed by James Beard Award–winning chef/restaurateur Barbara Lynch. Kish’s breakout moment came in 2013, when she won season 10 of Top Chef. Since then, she’s written a cookbook, Kristen Kish Cooking: Recipes and Techniques, and has co-hosted the Travel Channel TV show 36 Hours. We talked to chef a few days before the opening of Arlo Grey, which, during its opening weeks, will serve dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily by reservation only.
Patricia Sharpe: You went to Southeast Asia earlier this year. Was that a longtime dream of yours?
Kristen Kish: No, it was a six-day whirlwind, not really planned. I had the opportunity, and I took it. I was there in February, in Thailand and Cambodia. It was a pretty amazing trip.
PS: You wrote an Instagram post in which you said, “[The Cambodian city of] Siem Reap . . . has completely captured me. Not because of the temples or pretty hotels, the food, or the “things” you have to see . . . but its people. The stories behind their eyes . . . No words are spoken but so much is shared . . . [I was] Completely and gloriously enamored in less than a day of being here. All you have to do to unlock it is smile with present eyes from a heartfelt place.” Is meeting people important to you when you travel?
KK: Always. Any trip that I go on, I try to connect in some way to the people, to try to understand through human interaction.
PS: Cambodia is a long way from Michigan, where you grew up. Talk about that. Were you interested in cooking as a child?
KK: I would get home from school and go in the kitchen and watch TV shows and cook, mimicking what I saw on television.
PS: Who did you cook with? Your mom?
KK: I actually cooked solo a lot. But as a kid, I did help my mother with pudding packs and different things like that. And I learned from my grandmother, who did all the traditional dishes like snickerdoodles and chocolate chip cookies, plus she made these great stuffed cabbage rolls.
PS: As an adult, did you watch Top Chef?
KK: If it happened to be on, I would watch it, but I had no interest in going on it whatsoever. It was my former boss and mentor, chef Barbara Lynch, who is one of my dearest friends, who recommended me. I was working at one of her restaurants, and she told me, “I put your name in for consideration at Top Chef.” I was like, “Wait a minute!” She said, “You can do it!”
PS: Why did you hesitate?
KK: The thing that was keeping me from jumping into it head-first was fear that I couldn’t do it. But, actually, for me, that is all the more reason to go for it!
PS: Did you find out something about yourself that surprised you?
KK: Yes, that in fact, I was capable of doing more than I thought I could. I also learned that it was okay to be myself.
PS: At Arlo Grey, will you be doing food you’re familiar with, or are you trying to incorporate Texas influences?
KK: I’m not a Texas-bred person, and there are plenty of people in this town who do barbecue and other Texas dishes far better than I do. Yes, I will pull in things like smoke. But I’m not trying to do regional food. I will cull a lot of things from my own childhood in Michigan. It will be essentially the story of my life, rooted in French technique and execution.
PS: So you’re sticking with what you know?
KK: I want my food to be simple and classic. And, yes, based on my life, my food experiences.
PS: Your restaurant at the Line has an unusual name: Arlo Grey. Where did that come from? Did you think it up?
KK: Yes! I had been talking to a good friend about having children. I really enjoy kids, but I’m not sure they’re for me. And it just suddenly popped into my head: I’m going to give my restaurant the name I would have given my first child.
PS: Why Arlo Grey?
KK: I like those two words. I didn’t do any research. It’s not the name of any particular person. I just like the flow (laughs).
PS: Anybody who meets you can see that you are into tattoos. Are you thinking of getting a tattoo in Austin?
KK: Yes. I especially love line tattoos. The bar napkins at the Line hotel will have a single squiggly line on them, which represents the river the hotel is located on. A tattoo like that would be a really good way to mark my time here in Austin.
PS: Are you up for a lightning round?
PS: Do you snack?
KK: I don’t snack. But I do taste.
PS: Biscuits or bagels?
PS: Cake or pie?
PS: Flour or corn?
PS: Ribeye or tenderloin?
KK: Ribeye, specifically the ribeye cap. Technically that’s the muscle known as spinalis dorsi and it’s fabulous.
PS: What do you have for breakfast?
KK: Water and coffee. I have to hydrate and caffeinate before my appetite wakes up, in about three hours.
PS: What about junk food?
KK: Ohmygod, I am the first to admit that I still love junk food to this day, everything from Doritos to chicken fingers to gummy bears.
PS: What is your greatest extravagance?
KK: I will always spend money on a great backpack, boots, and denim. And I do get my shirts and aprons and kitchen pants custom-made, because I live in those every day.
PS: What is your most treasured possession, material or spiritual?
KK: It’s difficult to express, but I feel that I am moving toward a place of genuine, honest authenticity, toward being a hundred percent myself and growing to love exactly what that is.
PS: Do you have a personal mantra or motto?
KK: Yes. Wow. Gosh. I feel like there are so many, but at the end of the day for me, being a chef, food always equals love.