Rare is the chef who’d admit that her Riesling- and vinegar-glazed sweetbread recipe was inspired by a childhood fondness for chicken nuggets drowned in sweet-and-sour sauce, but Kristen Kish is often the exception.
She became only the second woman to win Top Chef, in the juggernaut’s 10th season; she did so after being told to pack her knives and go, only to battle her way back from the single-elimination gauntlet known as Last Chance Kitchen. In the finale, she was declared the winner before dessert was served, thus becoming the first chef-testant Cinderella story, if the palace ball were a sweaty kitchen and the prince were Padma Lakshmi.
For now, Kish has opted out of restaurant life in favor of a nomad’s existence — she cooks here and there, but you have to sniff her out. However, with the release of her cookbook-meets-autobiography, Kristen Kish Cooking, you can conjure a taste of her magic at home.
The book emphasizes technique while also offering a revealing introduction and anecdotal headnotes alongside each recipe — “It’s important to understand a cook on a personal level to better understand their food,” she said — and while they frequently reference whimsical childhood inspiration, they are not child’s play. With a scholarly reverence for the 101s, gymnastic knife skills, and the vision and steady hand of a presentation perfectionist, Kish creates food marked by sophistication and, frequently, surprise.
Still, even the most highbrow dish is grounded by the South Korean adoptee’s memories of a quintessentially Midwestern childhood. Sweet corn cappellacci is introduced with an evocative tale about picking up fresh corn from roadside honor stands, and then spending the afternoon shucking, and eating, the spoils.
Nods to kiddie stuff abound: Chickpea-battered broccoli with lomo and mornay is introduced via homage to cheddar-broccoli soup; Kish compares her béchamel to Velveeta. She summoned deviled ham and pimento cheese’s “delightful tackiness” to arrive at the ham-and-comté appetizer she first made at one of Questlove’s food salons. The kataifi-wrapped burrata with date syrup and radish? Nothing more than a gussied-up mozzarella stick! (Lest the down-hominess taste contrived, consider: Asked what she most craves after a long night in the kitchen, she replied, “Chicken fingers, grilled cheese cooked by someone else, High Life beer.”)
Also included are exquisite little numbers whose bloodlines reach back to the famed kitchens in which Kish worked. From Barbara Lynch’s Menton, there’s rabbit loin with époisses and mustard (emulsifying cheese into sauce in lieu of butter to up the funk is textbook Kish) and char with black truffle sauce, inspired by the decidedly first-world conundrum: Whatever will we do with these leftover truffles?
Dishes that earned her kudos on Top Chef and that are lifted from her sojourns as cohost of 36 Hours make appearances, too, although the dish she shared from the latter’s Montreal episode is not gastronomic in nature. “I landed after five days in Singapore and shot the interview the next day,” she said. The interviewee? Justin Trudeau. “If anything will pull you out of jetlag, it’s him.”
What’s next for Kish remains to be seen, but for now, “I’m excited that [my story is] out there in cookbook form.”
Kristen Kish will sign copies of her book Thursday, November 16, 4:30 p.m., at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort (633 E. Cabrillo Blvd.), where, the following day, she’ll take part in the James Beard Celebrity Chef Tour. See independent.com/kish for tickets and kristenkishcooking.com.