How 'Top Chef' winner Kristen Kish broke free from the culinary world's boys' club

Kristen Kish discusses fame, self awareness and how reshaping the title of chef has inspired her career path.
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/ Source: TODAY

In 2013, Kristen Kish became the first woman of color to win Bravo's "Top Chef" during the show's 10th season. Just a year later, Kish, realized she no longer wanted to work within the notoriously grueling confines of a traditional restaurant kitchen. Though terrified, she walked away from her position as chef de cuisine at Menton, owned by James Beard Award-winning restauranteur Barbara Lynch.

“'I can’t do this anymore,'" Kish recalled telling Lynch, her friend and mentor, at the time.

Lynch looked at her and said, "Then don’t do it — you don’t need it. You have opportunity, go spread your wings.”

Kristen Kish became chef de cuisine at Barbara Lynch's Boston restaurants early in her career.

Kish, now 36, was adopted from Seoul, South Korea, as a baby said she was drawn to the culinary world when she began watching cooking shows as a young girl. Like many people who grew up in the 1990s, Kish saw a restaurant industry run primarily by white men. Chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Mario Batali were often on TV. Despite not seeing anyone who looked like her commanding a kitchen, Kish knew what she wanted to do and, by age 7, she was intuitively crafting burgers topped with homemade kimchi.

Before joining Lynch, first as a sous chef at Stir in 2011, Kish (who attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago) had only worked at male-owned or male-run restaurants.

"I definitely hadn’t been exposed to what it was like to work for a woman. It certainly changed me. My perspective changed,” Kish told TODAY Food. "Until I worked for Barbara, I was struggling with a lot of things — personal or professional.

"She told me, ‘I don’t need to teach you how to cook. You know how to cook. I’m here to challenge the way you think about yourself.’"

Despite working at several prestigious eateries relatively early in her career, Kish said she is the first to admit that it's been a challenge to find her voice. During early adulthood, she struggled with drugs, alcohol and her own sexuality. Though she was talented and earned some of the highest-ranking positions in her field, Kish said she lacked confidence.

"I was insecure, nervous and unsure of who I was as a person. Barbara was the one who told me I had to go on 'Top Chef.' I will never forget her saying that to me: 'We need more women on TV,'" Kish recalled, adding that she was reluctant at first, but finally agreed. She went on to become the second woman to win the award-winning series hosted by Padma Lakshmi.

Life Stories: Kristen Kish

July 14, 201606:03

While braving "Top Chef" and ultimately winning the top prize was a major step for Kish professionally, fast fame brought with it a surprising downside.

"After TV it was interesting. I wouldn't say it was positive," Kish told TODAY.

While the acclaimed chef said people in the media celebrated her victory as the second woman and first Asian American woman to win the show, she faced issues when she returned to work in Boston.

"This is the first time I say it out loud. A particular male chef in the city I was living started running his mouth that I slept with him to further my career. I never worked for him a day in my life and I'm also very gay," Kish said. "It's a way of making woman feel less than. It's just so disappointing — can't someone just be happy, rather than taking the thunder? That was the first hit of major reality."

After “Top Chef,” Kish, who came out as a lesbian in 2014, still struggled to fit into the role of what she had long thought a traditional chef should be — loud, brash, tough talking, working long hours and constantly enduring high-stress situations. After working so hard for something she thought she had always wanted, Kish finally realized she had the power to determine what success in the culinary industry should look like for her.

In 2014, Kish walked away from Lynch's kitchen and now promotes the idea that a chef can be anyone who innovates, leads or creates through food. She also wants everyone, particularly groups who are currently underrepresented in the culinary industry, to know they can be a chef in whatever way the apron fits — and that doesn't necessarily mean taking the traditional path through school.

Kish also uses her platform to be an advocate for female voices in the kitchen and in the media. Currently, she's promoting "A Woman's Place," a Hulu documentary produced by Vox Media in partnership with KitchenAid (Kish is a paid spokesperson for KitchenAid), that began streaming Monday. The 30-minute story highlights the challenges female chefs continue to face in the industry.

The film is a follow up to the widely discussed statistic that in 2014, women held just 7% of executive chef roles in the United States, despite accounting for 50% of culinary school graduates. In 2018, women accounted for 22% of the nations' chefs and head cooks, according to data from the Census Bureau collected by Data USA. Male chefs also reportedly earned $11,150 more, on average, than women in the same roles.

Since leaving the Menton kitchen, Kish has written a cookbook, hosted a Travel Channel series and later opened her own restaurant, Arlo Grey, in 2018 as chef and partner. At her eatery, which Kish lovingly refers to as “Arlo Gay,” she leads a team that is 60% women and actively works to keep a balanced dynamic among her diverse staff members.

Now a mentor herself, Kish said she would never have gained the confidence to break free without winning “Top Chef” — and she certainly wouldn't be the woman she is today without Lynch's life-changing advice.

"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."