We spoke with the celebrity chef about keeping up a healthy eating pattern on a busy schedule, why kimchi is an important part of her cooking, and the most pivotal dish of her career. Plus, why she'll be dining out for Thanksgiving this year and one of her favorite casseroles for the holiday.
Chef Kristen Kish

You know Kristen Kish as the winner of season 10 of Top Chef, as co-host of 36 Hours on Travel Channel and co-presenter with Alton Brown on Netflix's Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend. You may have even been to her restaurant Arlo Grey in Austin, Texas. EatingWell recently sat down with the multi-talented chef to get a glimpse into her busy life, including her partnership with Jongga Kimchi. The brand is launching its Generation Preservation campaign, to preserve plant-forward foods, health and wellness through the power of fermentation and the environment by helping people eat in step with the seasons and minimize food waste.

During our conversation, Kish shared how she's spending Thanksgiving and how a trip to Korea broadened her love for kimchi, plus the quick and easy, gut-healthy soup she's now obsessed with.  

EatingWell: What does eating well mean to you?

Kristen Kish: I use the word harmony over balance in most of my life, whether that be work, food, play—all that stuff. So for me, eating well is about finding a harmony in which I am happy, satisfied and fulfilled. I'm taking care of myself. That's something I learned much later on in life, thanks to my wife who noticed my unhealthy habits. So, fried chicken once a week instead of like seven times, is the main idea. 

EatingWell: What other foods are you striving for harmony with?

Kish: Well, here's the thing: When I was opening my restaurant [Arlo Grey], I ordered takeout every night for two years. I had access to a full kitchen and I could make anything I wanted, but that's not what I wanted to do. I didn't want to cook for myself. I was living in a hotel, so the only other option I had was to get something delivered to me. 

I don't find joy in cooking for myself. I just don't; nothing tastes the same. It's like cooking Thanksgiving—after three hours of prep, that's the last thing you want to eat because you've been smelling it and tasting it along the way. Food is a love language of sorts, and therefore cooking for myself brings me no pleasure. I need to be able to cook for somebody, to give that gift of food and love to another person. 

EatingWell: Speaking of Thanksgiving, what does your Thanksgiving look like?

Kish: Well, every Thanksgiving has been very different because I've been in different scenarios and different parts of my professional life. Sometimes I'm working, sometimes I was opening a restaurant, sometimes I was filming a television show—all the different things! But, I think this year we will be in Australia, where they do not celebrate Thanksgiving, so I'll be going out to dinner. I mean, I'm a big fan of green bean casserole, honestly. But if I'm being completely honest, it will be really pleasant just to go out to dinner.

EatingWell: Being so busy, how do you keep up a healthy eating pattern?

Kish: That's really hard. I wish I had this great, amazing answer. Some days I'm really good at it. I don't go for a donut, I'll go for a protein bar or I'll get something like a salad or vegetables or something more well-balanced. And then some days I'm just awful at it. So again, it's about finding that harmony, bouncing back and forth. But I do believe wholeheartedly that our bodies tell us when they're not doing great. So that way, when I start to feel sluggish or down or I just don't have the energy that I'm hoping for, I know it largely isn't part of the choices that I'm making in my food.

EatingWell: Tell me about your partnership with Jongga Kimchi. It must be rooted in your love of kimchi? 

Kish: So many people love it! For most of my life I've eaten Korean food. I've always eaten kimchi. Working with Jongga was about creating recipes and sharing how I incorporate the number one kimchi brand worldwide into my cuisine. It's something that I didn't know I could do, being an adoptee and having an interesting relationship with Korean culture and food—it's something that is so me but also not me at the same time. It's a complicated relationship to have. After my recent trip to Korea, I was inspired to say, alright, well, I don't need to cook Korean food. I just need to learn how to incorporate things like kimchi into my cuisine. Once I gave myself permission to do that, I was really excited. That's why I was thrilled to work with Jongga.

EatingWell: What are some of your favorite ways to use kimchi?

Kish: I grew up in Michigan; I am comfort food through and through, whether that be meatloaf or burgers or pizza or pastas. If you think of a spicy pickle, you put that on a great sandwich and you're in heaven, or at least I am. So, it's about taking something that I love, that's familiar, and just swapping out the things where you need that hit of acid [from kimchi]. One of the recipes [I developed for Jongga] is ham and cheese in a caramelized onion puff-pastry roll, which is kind of my ode to pigs in a blanket [pictured below]. When I grew up, my dad would make honey mustard and we'd dip it in that. 

Jongga Kimchi and Ham Puff Pastry Roll
Jongga Kimchi and Ham Puff Pastry Roll
| Credit: LegendPR

EatingWell: You have five minutes for lunch, what are you making?

Kish: Oh my god. Okay, so this is the thing I became obsessed with in Korea. I went to Korea with a fellow Korean, chef Esther Choi, and she took me for breakfast at 7am—there are so many breakfast places that are open 24 hours. She said, this is a traditional breakfast: It was this pork neck but in a kimchi stew with bean sprouts and great vegetables and just hunks of pork neck on the bone. It was heaven! So, when I have five minutes, this is honestly my new thing—take chicken, beef or vegetable stock and Jongga kimchi with all the juices and yumminess and dump that into a pot, add whatever vegetables you have, soft tofu, a little bit of whatever kind of protein you want, and make your own kimchi soup. You can make that in five minutes, using pretty much whatever is in your refrigerator.

EatingWell: Is there a certain dish that was pivotal to you in your career?  

Early on in my career, I was in Berlin at a tasting-menu restaurant, sitting at the counter. At that point, I was cooking very, very fancy, fancy fancy food. The chef brought over this dish, it was just a spinach juice with a palm purée—really, really silky, technically perfect—and a piece of steamed white fish. That changed the trajectory of my entire career. It showed me that I was overcomplicating things. I was trying to do too much and I was overthinking. I was going off course from my own food story. My mom would make a piece of fish, mashed potatoes and throw some steamed spinach on the side. But he made it into this technically luscious, perfect dish. That was a really nice and necessary reminder that I was just overthinking a little too much.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.