I Ate Shabu-Shabu with Kristen Kish

Originally published on vice.com in May 2014

Though Kristen Kish is arguably one of the most prominent rising stars in the culinary world today—in my opinion—you would never know it upon meeting her. At 30 years old, there is a distinct maturity, relentless honesty, and complete lack of ego about the Top Chef: Seattlewinner that is uncharacteristic of both chefs and TV personalities alike.

Since her Top Chef days, Kristen has been busy working with Barbara Lynch in Boston, most recently as chef de cuisine at Menton. After getting wind of her recent intentions to quit and embark on a well earned “self-exploration phase,” I sought to check in with Kristen over a mountain of food and drink to try to uncover any specifics on where she’s headed next. When selecting the appropriate venue for such a thing, I remembered that she often spoke of her affinity for a shabu-shabu restaurant called Kaze in Boston’s Chinatown, an invitation she enthusiastically accepted.

I was instructed to “show up hungry,” so I arrived at Kaze appropriately ravenous. Kristen was running late, so I asked to be seated in advance at a table for two. The minute I got situated into my chair, I got a text from Kristen instructing me to “get a big table,” but for fear of looking like an asshole, I decided to let her handle that when she arrived. Of course, when she did, the entire staff went out of their way to greet her and we were immediately ushered to a much larger table without hesitation.

Kristen, who possesses a seemingly boundless energy, informed me that she “usually does this kind of eating alone, especially when I’m hungover.” She assured me “not to be offended if I talk a whole lot less once the food gets here.” Great minds think alike.

It’s somewhat inspirational to hear Kish describe her diet of beer, Japanese whiskey, junk food, and cigarettes, a way of life that would permanently adhere lesser humans to a couch.

Shabu-shabu, the Japanese hot pot-style of cooking (where diners warm their own food in a cauldron of simmering broth on the table) is one of my favorite hangover cures. At Kaze, there are several choices of said broth, and Kristen opted for a split pot of miso and spicy tom yum before proceeding to order a heaping amount of beef, vegetables, dumplings, and vermicelli noodles to throw into it.

As I ordered up a round of beers and sake, Kristen told me about her experience at Menton. As a chef, Kristen’s  more formal in her approach, favoring classic French techniques while integrating flavors from both her childhood and her travels. All of her dishes tell a story of a specific time and place for her, or as Lynch has described her food: “beautiful” and “the kind of cooking that you always want more of.” Barbara does not lie. Though her stint at Menton was short-lived due to a desire to travel, along with the distractions of fame, Kristen insists that restaurant life is irrevocably in her blood. “I don’t want or know how to do anything else: I need the long hours, the adrenaline, the camaraderie, and the creative process. It’s all brilliant, and I need it,” she told me as she dunked a mushroom into the cooking broth.

It would suffice to say that Kristen has joined Lynch amongst the most influential female chefs in the country, and there were no hard feelings whatsoever when she decided to move on from her post.

Kish had ordered up a pile of crunchy, salty fried shrimp. As we quickly decimated them, she admitted, “I have no idea where the hell these come from, probably Sysco, but they’re so delicious who cares?”

As she instructed me on properly garnishing the soy-based dipping sauce with chilies, sesame, and ginger, she spoke to the significance of shabu-shabu in her life. “I like this kind of interactive cooking, as it doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything difficult yet it keeps me busy while I’m consuming large quantities of food,” she said. Though she can certainly appreciate a thoughtfully prepared tasting menu, when she’s hungry, it’s all about “Needing everything to come at once so I can pick and choose and get as much food in me as humanly possible. The faster I eat the more I can fit down!!”

It’s refreshing and somewhat inspirational to hear Kish describe her diet of beer, Japanese whiskey, junk food, and cigarettes, a way of life that would permanently adhere lesser humans to a couch. She actually considers shabu-shabu to be a “health food” of sorts, citing it as a perfect opportunity to fill up quickly so she can carry on with her day, unlike “eating a burger and fries where I might need a nap. I feel great when I leave.”

Though I kept trying to push her to drink more sake, Kish admitted that she had to be at an event later that day that prohibited her from “Showing up hammered,” so I happily consumed her share of booze while she ordered up green tea mochi ice cream for dessert. The lady can eat.

When I asked about her plans for the future and what exactly “self-exploration” entails for her, she shrugged. “I truly do not know yet. I’ve got a lot of things in the works, mostly involving travel, in an effort to find out what it is that I’m actually craving.”

“Ultimately, I have to cook. Period.”