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My Angel, this is for you, for me, for honesty and learning from our mistakes.
From her success in TOP CHEF SEATTLE (shown in Manila in ETC channel) Kristen Kish is a picture of talent, skill and composure. She got to Filipinos’ hearts not just with her Asian roots/looks but her culinary skills. In terms of looks she’s a shorthaired version of Filipina Beauty and movie star Kim Chiu. Beyond that there was never a real opportunity to learn and find out about the latest TOP CHEF winner.
In a speech she gave for the Women’s Leadership Forum last March she was able to reveal a lot of her own personal struggles. Because of her exceptional and sometimes brutal candor about herself, her mistakes as well as her successes, she becomes even more relatable. When she talks about finding her own identity as a Korean adopted by a Caucasian couple, all Asians, perhaps all immigrants identify with that. When she talks about her insecurities with her looks, everyone can identify with that.
One of the more surprising revelations was her struggle with cocaine. Who hasn’t had some form of substance abuse or addiction at some time in their lives? But even when you’ve never had similar experiences specifically we can all relate to that search for meaning and not having all the answers in our lives. Her humility, gratitude and courage in sharing the most trying times in her life are an inspiration to everyone who heard the speech.
Thank God, the Ad Club, which organizes the Women’s Leadership Forum, posted the video of the speech on You Tube. The link and video can be viewed on this page. Included below are the transcripts of Barbara Lynch’s introduction to Kristen. Lynch is a James Beard Award-winner and Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef and is regarded as one of Boston’s and the country’s leading chefs and restaurateurs. She’s also Kristen’s discoverer and most influential mentor. I took the time to transcribe the video because it was something we could all learn and benefit from. Reading the speech makes it easier to review the words and life lessons that Kristen so generously shared.
Introduction by Barbara Lynch
I hired Kristen Kish 3 years ago to cook at STIR. It’s my demonstration kitchen and cookbook store at the South End. It’s a very intimate spot. It only seats 10 people. So when I’m doing a class I’m really working closely with that chef. It’s completely different than being on a line in a restaurant. The first time I worked with Kristen I noticed right away how enjoyable it was to cook with her. I would tell her once how to do something and she never forgot or asked a question and she did it perfectly.
She was clean organized and precise in her cooking all great attributes in a chef and a necessity in my kitchens. But she also had soul and she had passion. Those are also the two things you can’t teach somebody. Passion for what you do and let your soul come out. You can always teach them the mechanics of cooking but you can’t teach passion.
Kristen’s food is beautiful, its precise and the flavors reflect the love of food that she’s cooking. Her cooking makes you want to eat more of it. As I got to know Kristen the person, I got to know her as more than a talented chef. She’s beautiful; she’s a person of integrity and a fantastic sense of humor. We laughed a lot and we still do. And the fact that she can actually laugh at herself, I mean, that’s a great sign right there.
So I had no doubt she would bow them away in Top Chef recently. And whether Kristen stays with me for 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, I’m just so excited to see what the future holds for her. I know she will continue to blow minds wherever she goes and does and that makes me so proud. Its an honor and pleasure to work with her and I’m pleased to introduce to you Kristen Kish.
Kristen’s struggle with identity and Self Esteem
Wow anyone else nervous? My stomach’s in knots, thank you Chef and thank you to the Ad Club for inviting me to be here, I’m truly honored. When I think about how I got to where I am today and everything that has happened to me, I go back to a singular event that happened when I was 4 months old, changed my life forever in many amazing ways and in some more challenging.
In 1983, I was born in Seoul Korea. Four months later, I was adopted by a couple and I was brought to Michigan where I grew up in a predominantly white middle class suburb. My parents are loving, supporting, generous, always very honest a bout the adoption, even before I could understand the concept. Despite being blessed with incredible parents I still grew up filled with insecurities. I had no real sense of who I was and therefore had no faith in myself.
I think many girls in their early years wonder, who am I? For me that seemed to be amplified because I really didn’t know. I don’t know my birth mother. I’d never seen her picture. There is a history, a culture, a language and a lineage that I was completely disconnected from. Because I struggled with my self-esteem I never trusted my feelings or my instincts. Instead I became focused on being perfect, on being the person I thought people wanted me to be. I remember as a kid wanting to meet my birth mother because I thought that’s how I was supposed to feel.
Scouted for Modeling
For a long time this fixation of fitting into this imagined mold guided all my decisions. For example at 13, a scout approached me in a mall and suggested I consider modeling. My parents were apprehensive and honestly I didn’t want to do it either. But I said ‘yes’ because I thought that was the right response. And if I became a model that would validate some of my insecurities about NOT looking like everyone else.
At the age of 18 I signed with ELITE, which seemed like a really big deal. Again this wasn’t about passion or excitement, it seemed impressive. My agent sent me to Chicago to do runway work with other models. To say I was intimidated was a huge understatement. On the first day I remember walking into the office. I just stared at the all the composite cards of beautiful faces that lined the walls wishing to be any of the girls up there. I was afraid to be myself. I was quickly escorted to a hallway to walk. I had no idea how or what that even meant. I showed up in flip-flops when every other girl knew to bring high heels. I was miserable and I was uncomfortable.
High school and College
Whatever positive feelings came from impressing others was immediately cancelled out by how out of place I felt. School wasn’t much easier. In high school I had a teacher ask what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. What a daunting question for a kid who didn’t even know who she was. I told him I wanted to be in business and finance. He paused and gave me a painful, painful look and said, “You? Are you sure? You know that’s really hard.” And yes he said this in front of the rest of my classmates. I never forgot that moment or how it made me feel. And I suppose now I can tell him ‘Thank you’.
After high school I ended up going to college in Michigan to study just that: Business. My first year was horrible. I hated the traditional college life, zero interest in aspiring to date the football player or go to any Halloween frat parties dressed as a sexy kitten. It happened twice, same out fit repeated. In a few days into the semester I knew I made the wrong choice. I gained the dreaded freshman 15 and that coupled with the fear this was it. This was the kind of life I was apparently going to have. I began to hate myself. I felt like a failure. I became extremely depressed and didn’t want to admit it to people who could help me in fear of appearing weak.
Le Cordon Bleu School Chicago
Thankfully my mother saw how unhappy I was and suggested I go to culinary school in Chicago. She pointed out that I love to cook and I love Chicago. Seems so obvious when she suggested it but I had no idea, Stupid. I was a stupid kid. And I immediately put that plan into action and was so excited. I don’t think I could have done this without her encouragement or her approval. I needed those things to motivate and believe that I could do something. I was YEARS away from what I wanted, to identify and then going for it.
My time in Chicago turned out to be one of the best and one of the worst periods of my life. Culinary school was an outlet for me to be creative. I also quickly learned not everyone was there for the reasons I was. I sorted through the other students and tried to surround myself with others that were there to begin a serious career.
My first day included a knife skills class. I picked up my knife and started to cut a head of cabbage. My instructor came over, smiled and said, “You’ve done this before.” And that’s all I needed. I now knew this was where I was supposed to be. I really felt I had something to prove now. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I had to pull it all together and show everyone how successful I could be.
Despite feeling I belonged in culinary school I still struggled with self-image, self-confidence and managing the pressures that I put on myself. Ultimately these struggles took a really unhealthy turn and spun out of control. I started staying out late using lots of drugs. I wanted to keep up with my friends. Go out and socialize, feeling good about myself, using cocaine was the only way I knew how to do this.
I finished culinary school and essentially partied all the time. Looking back I was an immature spoiled brat who had no idea how lucky she was. I was also 21, incredibly unhappy, petrified to be myself and to live an authentic life.
Despite all the fun I was pretending to have, I was still in search for that perfect chef job. I was only interested in Executive Chef titles, a position I was wildly unqualified for. No decent restaurant would have or should have hired me and I was turned down by many. However, I finally convinced a restaurant owner and give me this job and make me executive Chef when I was so high.
He had a new restaurant in downtown Chicago. And for a few months I’d go hang out at the bar every night. I had all this confidence thanks to the drugs, talked to the owner and told him, basically sold him in what an awesome job I can do. To be clear this confidence had nothing to do with the restaurant’s reputation, culture or level of execution. I saw a guy who’d give me the job I wanted.
For someone incredibly insecure and immature and desperately trying to prove herself, this is what mattered most to me. The ironic thing is that despite my delusions and all my insecurities there is this small authentic piece of me that knew somehow I could do it. Because the kitchen was the one place I had faith in my abilities and in my worth.
Of course being an executive chef means more than just being a good cook. I never worked in a kitchen or really worked on the line. Looking back I’m not sure I was good at any part of that job except thinking I was good at that job.
As you might imagine based on their hiring practices it wasn’t a well run operation. (Audience laughs) Obviously! Pretty soon my paychecks were bouncing and after 9 months I left. Now that I was unemployed my parents gave me an ultimatum. If I didn’t find a job they would stop paying my rent. But I didn’t get a job right away and they didn’t stop supporting me.
From the outside things looked good, really good which was really my goal. I lived for free in a beautiful high-rise apartment in Chicago. I went out all the time. I had no real worries or responsibilities but inside I was so twisted, so empty and miserable. And I didn’t care because my priority was how others perceived me and my life. I could not have been more detached from myself.
Starting over in Boston
One morning after 4 months of constant partying, the sun was coming up and I hadn’t gone to bed yet. I found myself alone. I had no more drugs to keep me going and was forced to deal with myself and my thoughts in the harsh reality of daylight. I thought what am I doing with myself, with my life? Suddenly this sad reality of being perfect or how I defined perfect became brutally transparent. What did I have to show for this perfect life? And how happy did perfect make me?
In that moment I made the decision to pack up and start over. I stopped using drugs. That was the easy part because I never really wanted that anyways. And I moved back to Michigan to gather my thoughts and construct a plan. Then I moved to Boston. I didn’t have a job or know a soul. So I’m not sure how I picked it. It just felt right. Thankfully my parents were stricter this time around and told me I had 3 months to get a job. This meant no big fancy apartments or ridiculous job searches for positions with inflated titles.
I lived in a room of a friend of a friend of a friend with 2 suitcases and 2 boxes. Of course old habits die-hard so I applied for Sous chef position at the TOP OF THE HUB. Starting at the top. I was turned down for that but they offered me a job on the line as a cook. I thought about it for 3 days and took the job. I was on my way to becoming a real chef. The line at TOP OF THE HUB was massive. While the food may not be my style I learned a lot about working in a professional kitchen. I also saw ways I could do things better and realized that if someone taught me something I could do it.
Learning from the Best
I really did have faith in myself. Not being good at a kitchen job simply was not and is not an option for me. After some time I was offered an executive chef title at another restaurant. Lured by the title, I took the job. It wasn’t a well-run restaurant but I felt more prepared than I did in Chicago.
Fortunately that experience was a wake up call. My next two career choices were based not on ego or superficiality but on opportunity and education. I got a position at Michelin star Chef Guy Martin’s BOSTON OUTPOST restaurant, his SENSING restaurant. Here I discovered this was the type of kitchen I wanted to be in. This was the level of cooking I wanted to learn and I wanted to master. Work required focus, dedication and skill that I knew I innately possessed. I also knew I could spend many years learning and refining.
Meeting Barbara Lynch
After 2 years it was time for a change. I was persuaded by a good friend to work at STIR for Barbara Lynch. I actually met Barbara Lynch at STIR before I even considered applying for a job. I went over to help my friend Steph, the Sous Chef at the time prep. I was really hoping I’d see or meet Barbara. Sure enough she was there sitting in the island reading a cookbook. I was working quietly beside Steph when Barbara asked for a snack: celery and peanut butter.
I found both and just as I started spreading the peanut butter on the celery, Steph leaned over and said, “Peel the celery first”. I said,“Shit! Of course”. The first thing I thought was this was a woman who knew what she wants exactly how she wants it. And I loved it. I also immediately realized her commitment even obsession with a certain level of precision and attention to detail. That even the smallest, most seemingly basic tasks require that same discipline and detail required for prepping complicated dishes for guests. I admired this. I realized how much I could learn from a woman like this.
Later once I applied for the position at STIR and was hired, I had my first opportunity to really cook for Barbara and her Wine Director Cat Silirie. They were leading their class on a favorite topic of theirs: Birds and Burgundy.
Barbara gave me free reign with the menu, I was terrified. But I did the menu and I did all the prep. That night with Cat and Barbara leading the class and doing their thing I cooked and they both approved. Later Barbara told me that after she saw the menu and tasted the food, she knew immediately I would be ok and do good.
Now it’s getting personal. Getting to know Barbara personally and professionally has been amazing. I’ve learned about passion not just to be excited about something but to become completely dedicated, always curious and truly connected to the cooking.
I’ve learned about warmth. First, talking fearless as Barbara is. I hope she doesn’t mind me saying this she talks about heart. And how there is always a place for the personal in cooking, for emotion in cooking. Without this heart, this emotion and this soul I’d still be riding the perfection wave and only be about technique and mechanics. A brilliant dining experience and amazing food memories need more from a chef than textbook execution. Barbara is the first mentor I’ve had and has made a profound difference. I’ve never been so proud to have someone so proud of me.
I used to sometimes wonder what it would be like to compete in TOP CHEF. But didn’t really think I had what it took to do something like that. I remember Guy Martin used to say, “There’s something special about you.” But at the time I didn’t see what he saw. I still don’t see what he saw.
When a real opportunity to try out for TOP CHEF Season 10, it was Barbara who encouraged me. The fact that she believed in me made me believe in myself. I had no idea what I was getting into. But I was afraid that if I didn’t go for it I might miss out on something great. SO I went in nervous and curious. In the first episode Emeril asked me if I think I can win TOP CHEF. I quickly reply, “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t THINK I could.” In truth I barely believed it. I was going dish-by-dish, competition-by-competition. But I thought that’s what a winner would say.
Processing TOP CHEF
About halfway through the season after winning several challenges I got voted off. I obviously felt defeated like I had let myself down. But I was also OK. I was at peace with the person I was when I lost. I had been strong at the judges table and hadn’t thrown anybody under the bus. During a moment of high stakes and judgment I felt good about the person I was and that got me through my initial disappointment.
LAST CHANCE KITCHEN was a total surprise. I was psyched to still be in the game. Obviously I didn’t want to stop. My goal was to win it never went away. Winning TOP CHEF was and still is so surreal. I’m still kind of processing it. I wonder all the time, why all these amazing things are happening to me.
In my mind I am simply a person trying to do right by my family and my friends, trying to do a great job at work and trying to be truly happy. I still have the same old insecurities. They don’t magically go away. But what I’ve found is that experience and maturity have tempered them. Finding something I’m passionate about and willing to work hard at and make sacrifices for has made me a better, more grounded, happier person.
And I think these insecurities have helped me to take risks, work harder and push myself not at all bad things. I’ve been asked what I’d do after winning TOP CHEF. The first thing was to go back to work. The second was to plan a trip to Korea, my first visit back after 29 years. I will say I’m excited for the future. I’m still growing, learning and changing.
When I was younger I was incredibly impulsive and made decisions based on what I thought other people wanted me to do. Now, I am more deliberate in my actions. I examine each opportunity and ask myself questions before making a decision so that I am clear in what is exactly motivating me.
Many people who don’t know me expected me to leave my job immediately open up a restaurant or travel the world. And had I won TOP CHEF 5 years ago, I would’ve done that in a heartbeat. Not because I was ready but it would’ve satisfied my ego and seem like the thing to do. Thankfully, I’d like to think I’m more mature now and better at making these types of big decisions.
Now I’m thinking long term about relationships, about building a career and bettering one’s self. I want to be the best and that means learning. I think many in similar circumstances would opt to do their own thing some are truly a success. I fell really good about going a different direction. Not just because of the lessons I’ve learned from the last several years but because I realize the power and the value of having a great mentor in Barbara.
In June I will become the Chef de Cuisine and Menton, Boston’s only rated Chateau property. I see this as a huge opportunity to learn, to lead and to contribute. And I am confident about what I can do and what I can bring to the table. I know that if I didn’t take this position and learn as much as I can I would regret it the same way if I passed on TOP CHEF.
Where I Came From
So the other thing I’d like to do following the TOP CHEF win, is to go to Korea. I don’t think I was ready to embrace my past and go back to Korea before now. I’m very happy with where I am professionally and first my time in Chicago, I feel I have made my family proud.
Going back to Korea is not necessarily about who I came from but where I came from. I don’t need to find my birth mother to be complete. But I do want to experience the culture. I want to see the village and the clinic where I was born. And know exactly where I came from. For years I’ve ignored that void I felt because I knew how good I had it. I was blessed with an incredible family and friends and a career that I love. And these things in my life count for so much. But if I stop and I am quiet there’s still a void. I feel strong enough now to acknowledge it and pursue it. I think it will make me feel more complete. But really who knows?
Maybe it will make me want to meet my birth mother? Maybe it will make me feel angry or more lost? I don’t know, but I know I can handle it and I know I have to find out. I spent many years having absolutely no idea who I was and trying incredibly hard to be the person I thought I should be. Thanks to a career that is endlessly rewarding and mentors who saw things in me before I was capable of seeing them in myself and growing in self awareness. I feel like I’m right where I should be.
For me life is about having no regrets and having the strength to go after things even if you’re not sure how they’re going to pan out. I realize I always said yes to a lot of things for all the wrong reasons. Now when I say yes it comes from a truer more personal, more authentic place. And there is a power and peace in that knowledge. Thank you.