Arlo Grey Chef Kristen Kish Puts Her Heart on The Line
The first thing I notice about Kristen Kish is the way she gives you her undivided attention when you’re speaking to her. She’s easygoing and charming, and despite the incessant pinging of incoming texts, she ignores her phone. It’s impossible not to like her.
The Seoul, South Korea-born, self-taught cook (Kish was adopted as an infant by a family in Michigan) rose to fame after winning season 10 of “Top Chef,” in 2012, while she was still living in Boston and working as chef de cuisine at Menton, under her mentor, Barbara Lynch. After the show, and a brief return stint at Menton, Kish decided to travel and spent the next five years living a nomadic lifestyle. “I was on a plane every four days or so, cooking at events all over the world,” she says. “It was like, ‘Let’s see what else is out there.’”
In 2018, Kish moved to Austin to open Arlo Grey (the name comes from the intended first names of her hypothetical children) at The Line hotel, which is owned by the design-centric Sydell Group. Of her decision to get back in a restaurant kitchen, Kish says, “I was missing the ‘oh shit.’ The timing was right, and I was also scared shitless about doing a hotel restaurant, because my experience prior was dinner-only tasting menus. My life before was really lovely, but I trust my gut and I was appropriately scared. I understand my self-worth and I thought I could do it. Cooking for other people is my complete catalyst and purpose. It gives me confidence.”
At Arlo Grey, Kish has already received praise for her elegant, French-and-Italian-inflected take on Texas ingredients (if you haven’t tried the impeccable malfadini with champignon sauce, pearl onions, and Parmesan or the signature burger, with its ethereal mantle of aligot potatoes, do so, stat), but her involvement in the restaurant goes far beyond the admittedly personal menu, which draws largely on childhood memory.
“I’m a minimalist at heart — I could live out of a backpack,” Kish says. “Kudos to Sydell, because they knew who I was before they approached me, so I trusted them .” The design of the Austin hotel and restaurant was a collaboration between L.A.-based designer Sean Knibb and Austin’s Michael Hsu Office of Architecture.
“Sydell had a team that brought us art-related design items,” Kish says. “For me, starting with a blank space would have been overwhelming. It’s like cooking. When I make a meal for friends or family, I need at least five ideas about what they feel like eating to draw from, or there are too many options.”
Kish says the best thing about her alliance with a design-conscious group like Sydell is being around so many creative people. “I guarantee that if I’d had to start from scratch,” she says, “this restaurant would be concrete floors with white walls and industrial lighting. Working with our designers helped me see a bigger picture with regard to the process, and I learned an incredible amount.”
Kish’s unfussy nature lends itself well to restaurant design, where function is just as—if not more so— important as form. “Everything in the dining room has to have a purpose, and there’s a reason it’s been selected.”
She gestures to the coffee in her hand: “I liked the coffee cups , because they reminded me of corrugated cardboard. My dad is a patent engineer, so they have a childhood association for me, but I also liked the way they felt in my hand; I was thinking about the different sizes of hands. The water glasses — when the light hits them right, they put out a rainbow prism that stops people in their tracks. I tested everything, from silverware to water pitchers. I poured the contents into glasses, to see how many each design would fill.” Other items, like coffee creamers and some plates, were handcrafted by Australian ceramicist Robert Gordon.
Kish even custom-designed her apron, which has a slanted chest pocket for her pens, so they won’t fall out when she bends over. In the kitchen, the existing footprint (the property was formerly the Radisson Austin) was utilized, but most of the equipment was replaced to accommodate the needs of the new menu, including Kish’s signature housemade pasta program. “We also did an aesthetic makeover in order to accommodate kitchen visits and designed the space for more-efficient order-to-run service the way I did at Menton,” she says.
In the dining room, Kish’s overarching goal is to keep diners engaged. “It’s challenging,” she says, “because we’re so distracted by the newest, Instagram-worthy thing. I get that it’s a part of our business, but creating an authentic home for our staff and our guests is also the priority. Keeping an efficient, warm, welcoming space that fits into our current culture is a fine balance and a true marriage of concepts.”
Case in point: the predominantly gray, blue, and neutral dining room, which boasts an array of harmonious textures and patterns that catch the eye (“Full of movement,” says Kish).
Embroidered pillows and blown-glass pendant lamps add pops of color, plants are in abundance, and light streams in from the picture windows overlooking the Congress Avenue Bridge. When I ask how she’s managed to integrate her menu with the restaurant’s design, she says, “It’s a balance of subtly personal, texturally engaging, and vulnerable. The menu is so personal, and the restaurant is totally open, both literally and figuratively.”
The most intimate aspect of Arlo Grey’s design manifests itself in framed collages of Kish’s handwritten menus, recipe ideas, sketched plate renderings, and prep lists, all scribbled on scrap paper and cocktail napkins. It’s both charming and deeply touching to see the inner workings of her mind displayed so publicly.
The restroom — a space many restaurants gloss over —is one of Arlo Grey’s most commented-on features. The white walls and stalls are covered with black spray-painted lettering from the Korean version of “Cinderella,” which her adoptive mother read to her as a child. The same story is playing softly over the speakers, so subtle that at first it seems a trick of the imagination.
As our interview winds down, Kish and I talk Austin, as we’re both recent transplants. Although she spends most of her waking hours at the restaurant, she’s finally had some time to explore. What, I ask, does she like most about her adopted city?
“I’m challenged and curious about and interested by most of the people I meet here,” she says. “It’s their level of individuality; they’re unapologetic. It’s refreshing.”
And what is the most unexpected thing about Austin?
She smiles. “That we’re in Texas.”
For more information about Austin’s stunning new lakeside hotel, The Line, visit this month’s feature “Walking the Line” here.