Kristen Kish on her new Travel Channel series “36 Hours” and being an out “Top Chef”
Since her exciting Top Chef season 10 win in 2012, Kristen Kish has been very busy traveling and cooking alongside fantastic chefs all around the world. Her new project 36 Hours (Travel Channel) finds the out chef and co-host Kyle Martino bringing the hit New York Times column of the same name to life. The two will be exploring new cities in a short timespan to experience and learn as much as they can about local customs.
Kristen kindly took some time out of her schedule to chat with us about her new show, coming out—and she even appeased my need to talk about Padma Lakshmi whenever possible.
AfterEllen: 36 Hours, premieres tonight. I watched the first episode—it’s a lot of fun! How did you get involved in the show?
Kristen Kish: You know, I had no idea that the show was even being made or that it was even in the works. And one day my manager called me and was like, “Hey, they want you to screentest.” And I was like, “Okay.” And so that’s exactly how it started, it was essentially a call out of the blue and I was just like, “Alright I’ll do this audition process.” And then, that was that. So, really, I mean, very anticlimactic, actually. [laughs]
AE: [laughs] That’s okay! So did you know your co-host, Kyle [Martino], before you began filming?
KK: Basically once they decided on me, I did a little speed date round of potential co-hosts. And we landed on Kyle, and everyone agreed that he was awesome and I adore spending time with him. And just, right off the bat, it was the first time we had met, for our screen test, and immediately, I was like, “Alright, I could be friends with this guy”—and that was the entire goal of casting two people together. So I couldn’t be happier with him.
AE: You guys packed a lot into a short amount of time. Did you have a chance to recover from jet lag before starting to shoot? Did you have time off between cities, or was it really fast paced?
KK: Typically, we fly in the day before we start filming. So, we’ll have a half a day, if not a full day, depending on where we’re going and how the timing works out. So, we get there, and we have a little time. Kyle, will fly from LA and I’ll fly from Boston, so him and I will catch up at some point, maybe grab dinner or walk around. For Berlin, actually, it was great! We got there a day and a half early. Basically we had an entire day before we started filming. So Kyle and I walked around, explored the streets, got lost a little bit, went to the zoo. And took it in from our perspectives without a camera first. And then from there, we do five days of straight filming, and then we leave and go on to the next place.
AE: So your itineraries were built by New York Times editors and contributors, right? Did you get to give any input there?
KK: You know, I was along for the ride, happily, because I’d never been to Berlin. When you have the New York Times and the Travel Channel pulling together your plan, you’re kind of like, “Alright, you guys know far more than I do, so I’m just going to trust you on this.” I think, for me, I like this element of surprise. I like to be able to do things for the first time without having to have done certain things, or maybe not having a lot of information going into something. And the show is not so much of an itinerary. It’s not A, B, C, do this and this is how you’re going to plan your trip. It’s more trying to gather what you can out of a city. I think it’s going to be really cool to see this season play out, because each city, we’re pulling a different story out of. So every single one will be very, very different. Not just visually and aesthetically because we’re in a different place, but the tone of the show will change from episode to episode, which is really cool.
AE: Was there a particular city or episode that you’re most excited for people to see?
KK: I’m super, super excited about Istanbul—it’s obviously visually stunning and colorful. I learned an incredible amount while being there. There are some things that we did in Istanbul that I can’t wait for people to see, and that was exploring this duality of cultures. Berlin is very history driven, as it should be. And then, Boston—I get to explore Boston and show Kyle around my home city, so that will also bring this other tone which is exciting.
AE: So, do you have any advice for people while traveling —how to eat well in these types of places? What types of restaurants to look for, where to search out these types of experiences?
KK: I think a lot of travelers look to different websites and different Google searches, trying to find the best place, with all the five stars, but my recommendation is to stay off of those. I think it’s fine for basic information, but I think the best way to explore a city is to literally get lost in it. And kind of go in having a plan, but not too researched. Just go with the flow. The best thing to do is just talk to people. Everyone is familiar with a visitor, and probably will take you under their wing a little bit. But when you ask questions to locals, they’re happy to answer, because they want to share their city with you and show you the best things. So, obviously, at bars, prop yourself up—a little social lubrication of alcohol, or a snack or something, gets people talking and you can plan your next day by going out the night before.
AE: Did you have a favorite thing that you ate while in Berlin?
KK: Actually, we had so much stuff, and Berlin is such a multicultural city, and we ate food from basically all parts of the world. Off camera, I will say there was this really great place. It was next to the market hall where we went, and it was just traditional schnitzel and sauerkraut, and lots of onions and potatoes and everything, and that was great. But on camera—I can tell you after everyone watches it!
AE: Got you. So, obviously you’re not a stranger to being on television. How did this experience compare to Top Chef? I’m imagining it was less stressful, but who knows.
KK: Oh my God! Actually, as much as it seems that I do television often, it still terrifies me. It makes me nervous, it’s not my natural thing. But Top Chef, you know, I was able to cook. I didn’t really have to talk a lot—I could just keep my head down and work. So I think 36 Hours is far less stressful in some ways, but then a little bit more stressful, because I’m tapping into a different side of me. That means eating while talking, or talking while cooking, or just trying to get to know people in a very, very fast way. So I’ve challenged myself, and I’ve learned a lot. I’m very grateful for that experience, because I think it’s going to help me in the long run, in all areas of my life.
AE: I know you came out, at least publicly, about a year ago, so congratulations!
KK: Thank you!
AE: How did coming out change your career, if at all? What was the reaction when you did come out?
KK: When I did, publicly I guess, come out, it wasn’t a calculated move. It was, “Hey, I just had this one year with my girlfriend, and I’m going to put it on my social media.” I had no idea that—I’m still shocked that people care so much, you know what I mean? Or that it’s a surprise. It shouldn’t be, it’s like anybody sharing a relationship. As we’re progressing forward with the LGBT movement, it will be less and less of a surprise. That being said, the outpouring of support and love and excitement for me just to be happy was really, really inspiring for me. I didn’t know that was going to happen. So, I was happily surprised. And career wise, I think it’s helped me more than it’s helped my career. It’s helped me because I’m able to be freely who I am and not feel like I’m hiding one aspect of my life. So it let’s me open up and do a better job for this show.
AE: Awesome. So you’ve been mostly traveling around as a guest chef. I was wondering if there were any upcoming opportunities for our readers to try your food in different areas?
KK: Yeah. I’m doing a dinner in Boston, unfortunately it’s sold out already, but hopefully I will continue to do more. Stir, where I used to work, is very kind, and lets me come back and do certain things. So fingers crossed that I get to do that a few more times, at least. I have a dinner coming up on September 28, in Manhattan Beach and I believe tickets will go on sale publicly soon. I’m doing a charity event in New Orleans with Emeril. I have some more coming up. The best way to keep in touch and keep up with all that is on social media.
AE: And in the future, do you think you’d want to open your own restaurant?
KK: Absolutely. That’s no questions asked—yes, absolutely. That, for me, is my end goal. I say this often, and I think it’s important for me to reiterate as many times as I can, is a lot of times you see these chefs and they go on TV, and then they have an empire of restaurants and that’s just what they do. Which is great. It’s not for me. This whole TV experience is a learning experience, and for me to see the world, and eat amazing food, and meet amazing people. But at the end of the day, when all this TV stuff is done —whenever that is going to be, I don’t know—I’m going to cook. I’m going to be in my restaurant, and once that happens, I’m not going to travel. So, I’m trying to do that all now.
AE: What kind of restaurant would you open up?
KK: My plan for a restaurant changes every day with things that I see. I can tell you that I need an open kitchen. I need a very intimate space, I don’t want—I’m not the person that wants eight restaurants, 500 seats. I want one restaurant, very small, and I’m able to cook every day, is essentially what my plan is.
AE: So, when I finish off interviews, I like to do a series of rapid fire questions. So just say the first thing that comes to mind.
AE: Favorite color?
AE: You can only cook one dish for the rest of your life. What would it be?
AE: What is your favorite season for fresh produce?
KK: Oh god! Springtime.
AE: Do you prefer wine, beer, or liquor?
KK: Beer. Cheap beer—like real crappy beer. [laughs]
AE: What do you like to do when you’re not cooking or traveling? Any hobbies?
KK: Oh god, what do I do, actually? I just like to spend time with the people I love, because it doesn’t happen often.
AE: Current favorite song?
KK: Oh my god, “Hold my Hand!” Who sings it? Jess Glynne, “Hold my Hand,” it’s awesome.
AE: What fancy kitchen gadget could you not live without?
KK: I could live without all of them. Fancy kitchen gadgets aren’t my thing. [laughs]
AE: Did you have a favorite challenge when you were on Top Chef?
KK: The berry festival because we actually got to cook outside and interact with a lot of people, and not just stick behind a booth and dole out portions. We got to walk around and see everything.
AE: And lastly, I have a very strong and undying love for Padma—can you describe her in one word?
KK: In one word? I can give you two: Intelligently sultry.
AE: Intelligently sultry? Wow, that’s just what I wanted to hear. That’s awesome. [laughs]
You can catch Kristen tonight on 36 Hours (Travel Channel) at 8pm EST.