It's been quite a year for Kristen Kish, winning Top Chef: Seattle in February and swiftly earning a promotion from chef de cuisine of demo kitchen Stir to chef de cuisine of Menton, the city's only restaurant with Relais & Châteaux status. She started learning the ropes in June and debuted her first menu earlier this fall, catching up with Eater soon after to chat about how things have been going. Read on to learn about the inspiration behind her dishes, her favorite thing to eat when friends are cooking, the one thing she tells her team every night, and more.
Does it feel like it's been a month since the debut of your first menu?
No. Not at all. Not. At. All. I mean, even before the preview dinners, I had already gone through a couple menu changes, so it feels like I've been there since June.
How's your schedule different at Menton than it was at Stir?
I work more days and longer hours. There are just more things to take care of, and there are more important moments, aside from just the cooking and everything—there are schedules and payroll and all that, all the stuff that has to get done. My day-to-day at Stir, I was prepping and washing my own dishes and then executing and cooking everything myself. At Menton, I have an amazing team who's so talented, and they do that kind of stuff. So, a little bit less cooking and more managing.
Aside from the added time and managerial responsibilities, what has been the most difficult aspect of the change from Stir to Menton?
When I first started, it was definitely leading and inspiring a team. I have about 15 people, and to get to know each one individually, to learn exactly what they want to get out of the job and how they learn, the style that they take to, takes some time to figure out. And getting to know them on a personal level takes time, but it's probably one of the more rewarding things.
Do you have any approaches or techniques that you've carried over from Stir to Menton?
At Stir, because I was by myself, I quickly had to learn exactly what my style was. And being able to take that to Menton and then have a clear vision of exactly what I'm looking for, that was one of the bigger things that I took from Stir to Menton.
Can you speak to some of the inspiration behind your menu?
There's always an inspiration behind every dish, whether it be childhood or inspiration from one of my cooks or an idea that they threw at me, because I'm not oblivious to the fact that because I like to change the menu more often, I can't just keep pulling things out of thin air. I look to them for inspiration. So really, it comes from a million different places. The beef dish [with rösti] was inspired by my dad and our Sunday dinners of potatoes and steak. Something that's homey and satisfying and comforting—but then just making it a little bit more elevated for our diners at Menton. And then of course the pecan sandies, because they're my favorite cookie. Ever.
What's been the biggest surprise for you so far at Menton?
Maybe not a surprise but an adjustment is not being able to see people eat everything I send to them. At Stir, I got to get to know each individual, and I think that added to the experience and the intimacy, so that's something I miss a little bit. But that being said, I also get to feed many more people. And with that comes the fact that some people may not like what I do, and that's totally fine. Not everyone needs to love every single thing I put in front of them, but I just hope that they can appreciate the effort and the time and the hard work that it took to get that food to them.
What's your favorite part about working at Menton?
The team. Front of the house, back of the house. During the day, Drink and Sportello are downstairs...there's a sense of a really large family. And with that comes learning to work with that many people. It's probably one of the more brilliant feelings, just to feel like you have so many people supporting you, and then in turn, I try to support as many people as I can as well.
Did anything you experienced on Top Chef help you prepare for Menton?
It comes down to getting to know and working with people that you don't know anything about. Especially right off the bat. I walk into a kitchen on Top Chef not knowing anybody, and then you're spending all of your time with them. Kind of the same journey at Menton where I knew of people, but I walked in the first day not knowing anybody, not knowing anything about who they are as people. And then getting to know them as cooks as well.
What's your favorite ingredient to cook with right now?
We are in fall, so aside from the obvious answer of squash and pumpkins and heartier root vegetables, I'd say my favorite ingredient is...wow, there are just so many. It's kind of like trying to pick your favorite dish. I like to work with things that I haven't really worked with before. Getting to know something new, something I maybe haven't seen before or ever worked with. Or trying new techniques on something as simple as squash, but trying to do it in a way I've never done it before. I like to challenge myself, and I like to challenge the people around me.
Do you have much of a chance to cook for yourself at home?
No, never. Never. Never, never, never. At all.
Is that something that you miss?
I never have. I've never been the one, especially while working in professional kitchens, cooking for myself at home. I love when people cook for me. Going to a friend's house and they make something simple, like a hot dog from a package—that's my favorite.
Do you think some people are intimidated to cook for you?
I don't think so. I think my friends don't give a shit. And a lot of them are in the restaurant industry, so they know how to do this. And it's more about...not them cooking for me, it's about spending time with people and kind of getting out of that work mode. It's so hard for me to cook for people in their homes, especially if it's just for a casual night, because I can't shake that mode of just me cooking in a kitchen. There's always that kind of work drive. It's hard for me to cook casually, especially at someone's house. But I love to do it.
What's your signature casual dish?
If I'm cooking for someone, I love to make homemade pasta. It's comforting, it's different. And it's something maybe they haven't seen before, so it becomes a learning experience, and then we can do it together. I just think it's not hard, but it's also casual. It's comforting.
Any surprises or changes in store for the coming months?
Especially moving into fall, I want really awesome game birds, gamey meats. Wood pigeon, guinea hen— it's the winter proteins I'm really excited for.
Anything else to share about how things are going?
I try to tell my entire team this every single night, and I always try to end the evening with "thank you." With thank you comes so much more than that. It's this feeling of gratitude that I have towards them that I don't know if they necessarily hear all the time or take it the way I intend it. But it's truly one of those moments at the end of the evening, whether it be a tough service or a really great service or anything in between—they work so hard, they work so many hours to help me do what we all want to do for this restaurant.
· All coverage of Kristen Kish on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All Eater Interviews [~EBOS~]