The secret to replicating the unique, addictive taste of McDonald’s fries at home is to use both salt and sugar.
“So, the first key is that you have to use fine sea salt,” says Chef Kristen Kish. “You hear a lot of chefs saying, ‘Kosher salt. Kosher salt.’ But there’s a specific salt for everything. And so when you need something to stick, especially a french fry, which is essentially a sponge, you have to have super-fine sea salt. If you were to do three big pinches of salt in your fries, you should then add three-quarters of a pinch of sugar. Just enough to make it feel not like that sweet-salty kettle corn, but just half a step below that.” Also: Add the sugar and salt after cooking, not before, Kish notes.
The chef should know. Kish has recreated nearly two dozen fast food items from scratch, trying to duplicate them as closely as possible to their original form in Fast Foodies. Season two of the tremendously entertaining, fully captivating truTV show, on which the Top Chef winner stars with fellow Top Chef winner Jeremy Ford and Iron Chef winner Justin Sutherland, premieres this week, with 12 weeks of casually crazy episodes serving up joyfully funny celebrity appearances by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Nikki Glaser, Reggie Watts, Bobby Moynihan, Natasha Leggero and Joel McHale, who creates his own patented brand of mayhem.
Unlike most TV cooking competition shows, Fast Foodies doesn’t take itself seriously. The chefs are first tasked with recreating a guest’s favorite fast food item — a Sausage McMuffin with Egg, say — and then advance to a remix round, where each tries to reinvent the chosen fast food as a fine dining creation, evoking its flavors in striking new ways.
There’s no prize money, no mystery baskets, no countdown clock, but there is a gilded eyesore known as the “Chompionship Trophy,” a lot of free-flowing booze, and sometimes chaser shots of green food coloring. Each week the “losing” chefs are subjected to “Consequences,” various humiliations of sorts, one of the most hilarious — “The Ice Hole” — occurring early on in season two. Kish laughs when asked about it.
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“I was like, ‘I’m going to go first because I need to get this out of the way so I can be done with it, because this is gross,’” she says. “I also didn’t want to put my mouth on that after someone else. It’s like getting the first bite of a pie so you don’t have to eat anyone else’s spit.”
Kish, a member of the LGBTQ community, has a serious-minded focus in the way she speaks about food, visibly evident in her meticulous preparation of the show’s dishes. She presently runs the restaurant Arlo Grey in Austin, Texas, which after an eight-month COVID-imposed closure, is finally on the rebound. She’s produced one major food tome to date — Kristen Kish Cooking: Recipes and Techniques: A Cookbook (2017, available on Amazon), has co-authored a delightful children’s cooking journal entitled It’s All in the Sauce: Bringing Your Uniqueness to the Table (2021, also on Amazon), and has created dishes for the superb home-delivery meal service Freshly.
In April 2021, the 38-year-old, after being out for only a decade, married her girlfriend, Bianca Dusic.
“I told Bianca in the first month that we were dating, ‘I don’t believe in marriage. Basically F the institution of marriage.’ And obviously, over time, that perspective very much changed for me. Largely in part, obviously, because of my wife. But thinking back to all the moments in which I was so uncertain, and so insecure, and so scared to be who I was, to have that validation of, ‘My love matters’ — it’s a feeling that I can’t physically put into words, because it’s just one of those feelings that you’re like, ‘Oh my God. I’m okay.’ And that means a lot.”
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“I’m very happy that this is a show that highlights who Kristen is,” says Fast Foodies executive producer Michael Rucker. “It’s really, truly a pleasure to work with her. Because, she is as authentic on this show as she is in real life. She is warm. She is passionate. It’s great to have her as a part of the series.”
For her part, Kish is enjoying the show’s lo-fi format, thrilled that it fosters creativity and highlights the joys of cooking without the kind of pressures typically associated with competition cooking shows.
“Sometimes you just want to go in there and not have any idea of what you’re doing, because it’s so refreshing to not have to feel like you have to do perfectly,” she says. “We all come from the cooking competition shows where you have to do it perfectly otherwise you’re going to go home. And so I think sometimes you just rebel against that idea, where you’re like, ‘I can do whatever I want.’ I could, I don’t know, take a nap for the first 30 minutes if I really wanted to and then show up and see what happens. Because no one’s going to go home. It’s the biggest thing that frees you of the constructs of a cooking competition.”
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As for her future in the world of cuisine, Kish is still putting her mark on the field.
“I used to have a very specific list of things that I’ve wanted for myself,” she says. “I’ve since shrunk that list to be basically one thing. Yes, I want to be financially stable, I want my family to have health and success, all of these things. Of course, naturally. But at the core of it, I spent so much of my life being unhappy and so unsure, that, for me, being in a space now of true happiness is something I don’t ever want to lose.”
METRO WEEKLY: You were born in Seoul, South Korea, then adopted by a Michigan couple. What do you recall of your early childhood?
KRISTEN KISH: Being a child of adoption, you either remember a lot or you don’t remember a lot — or you care to know more or you don’t. I was adopted when I was four months old. So as an adult, I can certainly look back and realize what in my early childhood has informed me as an adult. For the most part, growing up in Michigan with my family — my mom, my dad, and my brother — was quintessentially perfect from my point of view. We weren’t rich by any means. My mom and my dad worked hard and they took care of us.
It was very suburban — running home after dark, the street lights all turning on at the same time. Disney World for spring breaks as a kid — and driving there instead of flying there. Visits with grandparents. For me, in my perspective of what I felt I went through, it was very much quintessentially perfect.
MW: Did you ever go through a period during your adoption where you rebelled and tried to learn more about your South Korean roots?
KISH: I’ve always known what adoption meant, and what it meant for me is that I looked different. Once you hit your late teens, when you’re trying to figure out everything, all these different things come running through your brain. And without having a complete sense of full frontal lobe development, you’re like, “Yeah. I want to know more. I want to learn more.” And so I went through that period of thinking I wanted it, but then transitioned into feeling like I didn’t need it. And as much as I pay tribute and give a lot of credit to the two people that made me and the decisions that were made to give me a better life, I don’t necessarily feel like I’m missing out on anything by knowing more.
My mother always knew that she wanted to adopt when she was a young girl. You have people that are like, “I know I want to be a mom.” She was that, plus “I know I want to be a mom and I want to adopt.” So I think already coming with that foundation of love, I guess, already set the tone for a lot of things.
MW: You mentioned a brother?
KISH: Yep. I have an older brother. He’s eight years older than I am, biological to my mom and my dad, and he is the protector. He looks out for me. I will never forget this moment — being a cook in general terms, I oftentimes didn’t make the most money. I think there was a little bit of worry about whether I’d be able to take care of myself just as the world grew around me. And my brother — and this paints a picture of who he is — started a bank account and would start putting money in it and basically save money on my behalf. I since don’t need that from him so I’ve relinquished it back to him. But that idea of love and support, no matter what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, was always there.
MW: What an amazing thing to do.
KISH: Yeah. My parents and my brother were all very much in tune with what I was doing and how best they could be supportive.
MW: What was the food like in your home growing up? How important was food?
KISH: Well, I distinctly remember a lot of fast food. [Laughs.] Having an eight-year difference with my brother, there was a relatively short amount of time where we all lived under the same roof before he went to college. So family dinners were really important. No one would answer the phone. We’d all sit at the same dinner table in our same seats. I would get yelled at for tipping back in my chair. Very much like normal dinner conversation. Our meals were a healthy mix of homemade and not. Certainly, there were moments and days that we would go through the drive-through at McDonald’s and pick up dinner because that’s what was easiest with two working parents.
But I also remember weekends at my grandmother’s house where we would make cabbage rolls and chocolate chip cookies. And my mom and my dad would oftentimes do summer barbecues, as good Michiganders do. I love that food to this day. Sometimes if the steak is overcooked or the broccoli is over-steamed, it still sits in a good place with me because it just reminds me of home and upbringing.
MW: I remember my mother’s idea of a salad being iceberg lettuce, sliced cucumbers, and a mealy tomato.
KISH: And a gallon of ranch dressing with maybe some shredded carrots if we’re feeling fancy!
MW: We didn’t get that fancy. Did either of your parents work in the food industry?
KISH: No. My mom taught early childhood development and child psychology for 39 years. She was a teacher. And my dad was a packaging engineer. They’re both retired now. My brother is a mechanical engineer and develops transmissions for concept cars.
I do remember my brother having a college job. It was at Pizza Hut, and he would recruit me to come and fold boxes for him because each employee at every shift had to fold “X” amount of boxes. And so I would go in there and fold boxes. I’d stack them against the wall. I feel like enough time has passed where they can’t go after my brother for child labor laws or shut down the store or something, so I’m freely speaking about it now. Anyway, that’s where I learned about stuffed crust pizza. My mind was blown to know it was essentially just string cheese wrapped in the crust. That was the earliest food industry memory that I have.
MW: What was the trigger point for you to pursue food as a career?
KISH: When I was five years old, there was a show — it was on Discovery Channel, I think — you can find clips of it on YouTube now. It’s called Great Chefs of the World, and it would basically just be one camera person and this great voiceover woman from the deep south — she’s got this great accent, so charming. And you just watch these chefs from all over the world cook. Very low budget. I couldn’t really stay focused on a lot of things, especially on television, unless it was cooking. And that show just sucked me in. Ever since then I have always been fascinated by the food world.
It wasn’t until my first year of regular university where everything started to collide. The fact that I was completely depressed and anxious about life, and the fact that I was still holding a secret that I was gay, and the fact that I was pursuing a career in corporate America that I did not want. My mom saw the sadness in me and basically was like, “Well, you’ve always loved cooking. Why don’t you try culinary school?”
And that did two things. One, it obviously pushed me into a school that I felt I was interested in. And two, it got me out of Michigan and into Chicago, a relatively bigger city. I feel like I really needed to just step away from my old life so I could somewhat start to come to terms with who I am and what I wanted to be.
MW: When did you come to terms with who you are?
KISH: There are so many different arenas of that. When I came out — we’ll start there — I was 28. I’ve known that I was gay since you realize you start having feelings and interest in someone else. But I came out when I was 28 because I had met my first girlfriend. This was right after Top Chef — I met my first girlfriend and fell in love. And for me, I definitely needed to have a partner or a reason to come out. That was my reason. Without that, I don’t know if I would’ve come out, to be honest. Because from my perspective, it was so much easier to say, “I’m gay and I’m in love and I’m happy” as opposed to, “I’m gay.” I needed a little extra sentence after that.
So life started to come together. And it’s funny, when you think back to these moments you’re like, “Man, I still didn’t know myself even though I was X, Y, and Z.” So for the sake of finding contentment in each year of our life, at 28 I was feeling really good. As a 38-year-old now, looking back on it, I’m like, “Wow, you were still really kind of a mess.” But I will give credit to my 28-year-old self.
MW: It’s only 10 years ago.
KISH: I know!
MW: Did the family take the coming out well?
KISH: My God, yeah. Outside of, of course, motherly concerns of, “I want you to be protected and I need the world to treat you fairly.” It was very much “Are you sure? Are you okay?” More asking the realistic mom-dad questions and then very shortly transitioning to — I think my mom said, “Well, we already knew.” And then that was it. Within the next month they had met my first girlfriend.
MW: Has it been a challenge to be out in your industry?
KISH: You know what? I’d say overall, no. That being said, it’s always an interesting question that I get: “How do you feel being gay, or being Asian-American, or being a woman in your industry has impacted you?” And a lot of the time my answer is, “You have to ask the people around me and get a very honest answer from them.” Because if they weren’t different to my face, I don’t know what they were thinking.
There’s one particular job where it was very difficult and I chose to leave after nine months. As hard as it was, that’s what propelled me into being self-employed and setting the road for where I am now. And so I can’t hate on that but it definitely was difficult. Overall, I haven’t personally experienced “to my face” discrimination.
Now, could there have been reasons why I did not progress or get paid maybe as much as a counterpart of mine? Sure. But unless someone actually physically admits that, and they were that person sharing that discrimination to me and with me, I can’t say. Victimizing myself doesn’t make sense when I don’t actually know.
MW: I recently watched a documentary on Julia Child, and it delves into how, when she was coming up as a woman who wanted to learn the cooking ropes in France, she was initially met with resistance. Women were not permitted into the restaurant arena at that time. The restaurant world was very male-dominated. It has improved considerably since, but do you still see hurdles for women within the industry?
KISH: Do I think it’s gotten better? Absolutely. Is it still a male-dominated industry? Absolutely. The perspective that I have from my restaurant is that by the nature of who I am, I got a lot of queer people applying. I got a lot of women applying. That made me feel really good. But that’s not always the case when someone opens a restaurant or a chef is starting to do their training and staffing. You have to be someone that already feels like a safe space to come to. So you find someone that’s already like-minded. It’s a certainty thing.
How do I say this? We’re doing better. I wish there were more women just in my day-to-day. Especially sometimes even in the TV world, I wish there were more women, for sure.
MW: You won Top Chef in 2012, so it’s been a while. But that’s no mean feat. Really, truly how difficult is that show?
KISH: It’s very hard. It’s hard to win for everyone. But it’s hard. It is a hard show. It’s weeks-long competition after competition. And if you are someone like me, who was already a very socially anxious person before going on that show, it throws you for a loop. You certainly learn a lot, but it was a lot of pressure. I remember I was just so nervous every single day — not nervous about winning or losing, but just nervous to perform, especially on television.
For me, in the back of my head, one, I wasn’t out yet and I was still trying to figure out who I was. And I was still working for someone else. All this stuff. And in my brain I’m like, “Oh, my God. I can’t disappoint anyone. What if I embarrass myself? What if someone says that I’m stupid?” I don’t know. All these things. When you open yourself up to a world of people beyond TV screens, it’s terrifying for someone that already was feeling so judged primarily by themselves. But I will say it was a turning point of my career and it was monumental in changing the trajectory of not only my professional life but my personal life.
MW: Do you remember how you felt the moment you won?
KISH: I do. It was completely overwhelming where you almost go numb and block it out. You hear the words “You are a Top Chef.” And it almost… I don’t know. It didn’t feel like the host was saying it to me but she was. And what really made the entire thing so special was the fact that my dad, my brother, and my best friend were there. That was everything. The win was great. It was even sweeter because they were there.
MW: Let’s talk about the new show, Fast Foodies, which is entering season two. It’s a fun show. I’ve watched so many cooking competition shows and I’ve gotten bored by the almost mechanized, fill-in-the-blanks routine of them. This, however, feels different than any other cooking show on TV. It doesn’t take itself seriously in its portrayal, and yet it does take itself very seriously within the context of the food you’re creating. It’s almost a cooking show for people who don’t like cooking shows.
KISH: It’s a cooking show disguised in comedy and great editing of funny, quirky little moments. Yes, we have food as the connective tissue of it. But what it really is, is just hanging out with three people and them inviting a friend in every single week. So it’s what you and your friends potentially would do whether you cook or you don’t. Getting together, having fast food, having a few drinks, and seeing what happens. And that’s what it is. So I feel like it’s already relatable even if you do not like food or cooking.
MW: But everybody likes fast food.
KISH: Everyone may not like it, but everyone is familiar with it.
MW: There’s more playfulness than in season one. More casualness. Were you more comfortable going into season two? Did you feel more assured?
KISH: Definitely. The first season of the show was the first time that Justin, Jeremy, and I were all in this arena together. And so season one was figuring it out. I think what was the most helpful, particularly for me, was being able to see how season one came together. I live my life off of efficiency, and going into season two, we all became more efficient because we are aware of what went into making the show. We film 10 to 12 hours a day and it gets cut to 24 minutes of television. So within those 10 to 12 hours, there’s a lot of obviously real stuff.
We’re all hanging out. There’s an hour lunch break, and that’s really the only downtime you have. But within those working hours, for me, I’m paying attention to the fact that you don’t always have to be so “on” all the time because that’s exhausting and it really is difficult to stay in that. Instead, you just need to understand what the show is about so you can show up when you need to. So I think that generated more energy to give to each episode. We all stopped caring — in a good way — about what this camera’s going to catch and this and that, and we focused one, on the food, and two, on the conversation.
MW: How many cameras do you have following you around?
KISH: They’re everywhere! They fly above the ceiling. There’s like a GoPro that’s attached to this dolly that just goes up and down the line, which is pretty cool.
MW: They do a good job in these shows of hiding the cameras. There’s an art form to that. So each episode takes about 12 hours to film, or do you do multiple episodes in a day?
KISH: No. We do one. Would we all love to work shorter hours? Yeah. But we want to produce great food, and that ultimately just wins over anything. Collectively as a group, Justin, Jeremy and I are all chefs at the core of this. We are doing this thing on TV but we all cook for a living essentially. And the food comes first in our brains. So, whatever that takes.
We have a great culinary department who helps us do ten-hour stocks if we need them. But for the most part, cooking takes time. And we all collectively agree that at the end of the day the food quality is not going to be sacrificed. Because when you have a guest there specifically to be cooked for, you want to do the best possible job that you can, and oftentimes that involves time. So could we shorten it as chefs? Sure. But do we want to? I don’t think so.
MW: And that’s another difference between this show and so many others. There’s no apparent time limit, no countdown clock.
KISH: Well, it’s still a TV show and we need to make sure things run on time, not only for ourselves but more importantly the crew. So for the Copycat Round, it’s like, “Let’s all aim to keep it under an hour. Right. Great.” And then for the Remix Round, ideally it’s ninety minutes. Most of the time we’re pushing to two hours. But what we learned and what I learned going into season two is that I personally don’t need to sit down and have a lunch break. I’ve been eating so much fast food. So by day two filming, Justin, Jeremy, and I were all in the kitchen doing the longer prep items. The things that look boring on TV. Like we’re starting a stock and it’s just going to boil for three hours.
So being able to have moments like that of preparation really is a true testament to the show and the show’s producers and network to say, “We want you guys to produce the best food that you feel you can and we’ll work around it.” That’s always been the mission statement. We’ve been given a lot of freedom in order to produce something that we’re very proud of.
MW: I love the fact that you all get to eat each other’s dishes together.
KISH: My God, me too! It’s the best! It is the best because I’d never had Justin’s food and I’d never had Jeremy’s food until these moments. And what’s cool about this is that we all have our style, but we all go left of center sometimes of our own styles. So we surprise not only each other, but we surprise ourselves with what we can do.
MW: One interesting thing that happens in the first episode of the season happens with recreating McDonald’s fries. Everyone else cuts their own but you go for the frozen fries. Was that an unfair advantage?
KISH: The beauty is that this really isn’t a competition and no one actually wins anything. So we can have those lazy moments because quite frankly it doesn’t matter. We’re not competing for hundreds of thousands of dollars. We’re not trying to walk away at the end of this with the crown. The whole point of it is to have fun, like you’re hanging out in a friend’s kitchen. Sometimes you use frozen fries and sometimes you’re inspired to make your own. And those are the decisions that we can make freely without many rules put upon us. It’s why this show is so great.
MW: You used a fortune’s worth of Wagyu beef at one point. What kind of food budget do you have?
KISH: That’s a great question. I don’t know. We have to submit recipes. Obviously, there’s preparation involved in as much as we are cooking. And when I say plan, it’s no more than 48 hours in advance because you have to get your grocery list to the culinary department.
What’s funny about that episode, in general, is that I had short ribs planned and I had my pressure cooker ready and was ready to go, and the short ribs never came. And I was like, “Oh crap.” So right before we start filming, I’m like, “I still have no short ribs. So I need to come up with a plan B.” And I go into the walk-in and it’s there because one of the other guys is going to use it a few days later. And I was like, “Oh my God, can I use this because I have no other option?” And so that was a lot of on the fly.
It’s funny, the first season we were like, “Whoever uses caviar just automatically wins, it seems like.” And then we were all thinking, “Well, screw that. We’re not going to use caviar. We want to win on the most humble ingredients.” So I’m sure if we kept going too high, we would’ve gotten stopped. That’s for sure. Someone would’ve said, “You guys are done using caviar and white truffles.”
MW: The show is unashamed about eating the food as well. The guests just dig into it. And it’s messy sometimes — there’s food sometimes caught in beards. That’s not something you see on other shows.
KISH: And that is hopefully a testament to how relaxed all of our guests are. It’s “Come, enjoy yourself, be you and the cameras will work around you. The hardest part you have to do is just choose someone to win each round.” It is the most relaxed, no rules vibe that I think I’ve ever personally worked in, especially in television.
MW: What’s been the most challenging fast food concept or item to recreate? Has there been one that was just like, “This is really hard.”
KISH: Quite frankly, all of them are a little difficult. Oftentimes, we’re trying to not do a good job so it is more like the actual fast food. I think the most unfamiliar and seemingly impossible task was Schlotzsky’s bread. I don’t know what it is to this day. We looked up recipes online to say, “This is how they make it.” And it’s not the same. It’s just not the same. So whatever they’re doing, they have kept a really great secret, and it’s delicious.
MW: What’s your favorite fast food? What’s your go-to?
KISH: Justin and I both have a love of Arby’s. I’ve always loved it. But I’m not there for the roast beef. I’m there for the chicken tenders. I’m a chicken finger fanatic and curly fries. I am definitely a chicken finger person.
Outside of that, a McDonald’s hash brown. I don’t think that there’s anything technically wrong with it. It is perfect in my eyes. I will say I had White Castle [hamburger] for the first time this season, and I was thoroughly surprised. It was quite enjoyable. It was soft texturally, bland, but really interesting at the same time.
When they introduce each episode’s fast food, we eat it for real. There are moments and days where we’re like, “All right, we’re just going to take one or two bites.” Because you are literally eating all day. But then there are those moments where you’re just — you can’t stop. And in that White Castle moment, I think we all ate more than what we should have, so we were in a little bit of a food coma going into the round. But there are those moments where you just are like, “Wow, I haven’t ever had this,” or “I haven’t had it in so long,” and you just go for it. Which is good, because now I feel like I don’t need to eat White Castle for a while. I’m good. I don’t crave it and I’m not curious about it anymore.
MW: How do you not go to Arby’s for the roast beef?
KISH: I don’t know. I’m just a fried chicken person. Any form, any which way, southern, Korean, fast food, it does not matter. Fried chicken is my jam.
MW: Arby’s has incredibly good onion rings now, too. Probably the best of all the fast-food outlets.
KISH: I haven’t had those, but I feel like I need to go seek those out now, with the cheddar sauce from the beef and cheddar.
MW: We are constantly being told fast food is bad for us.
KISH: It is. There’s no argument for me on that. But there are a lot of things that are bad for us. Fast food. Or if you are a smoker, smoking. Or having one too many drinks. All that stuff. I think that in our show, fast food is simply the vehicle that connects us to people that don’t know us. It’s just this thing. If you’re like, “Okay. Fast Foodies. What’s all this about? Three chefs. I don’t care about chefs. Who are they? I don’t care what they won, what award they have. It doesn’t matter. All the celebrities. I don’t really care.” But “Hey, we’re going to talk about McDonald’s for a second.” And then that might be like, “Okay, that sounds familiar. I’m going to show up and watch it.”
MW: Fast food is a powerful lure, no question. Has there been any talk about maybe a cookbook for the recipes you three create on the show?
KISH: The network has certainly asked for recipes. But writing recipes takes a long time, and writing recipes of things that you’re just making on the fly takes a really long time. When I’m writing a recipe, I’m there with a pad of paper and I am constantly weighing and editing and doing all these things. On the show, we’re just cooking off the cuff. And so to go back and write a recipe is probably more time than perhaps people think.
MW: Still, that would be a great cookbook — those remixes.
KISH: It would be great, but I need to be paid a lot more money.
New episodes of Fast Foodies air weekly on Thursdays at 10 p.m. on truTV. Check your local cable listings. Or watch for free anytime online at www.trutv.com.
Follow Kristen Kish on Instagram at @KristenLKish and on Twitter at @KristenLKish.
For more information about Kristen’s Austin restaurant Arlo Grey, click here.
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