Kristen Kish Finds Strength and Family in Diversity

August 28, 2020

Kristen Kish Finds Strength and Family in Diversity

Kristen Kish, executive chef and partner of Arlo Grey in Austin, Texas, shares the ways in which staff diversity strengthens a team both in and out of the kitchen, and why that’s critical during the Covid era.

On June 19, 2019, executive chef and partner of Austin-based restaurant, Arlo Grey, and Top Chef winner, Kristen Kish, had a conversation that stuck with her. 

“[I had] heard [Juneteenth] a million times, but had I actually had a conversation about it? I hadn’t at that point.” When we connect by phone this summer, Kish recalls the discussion, which took place with one of her cooks. “She’s a Black young lady and; she said, ‘Chef, do you know what today is?’” While not totally unfamiliar with Juneteenth, Kish says it was this exchange that truly deepened her understanding—the need for which was reinforced in the context of the news cycle this year.

Kish, who is Korean-American and identifies as a gay woman, emphasizes how critical that moment was for her. “It’s those conversations and those moments that leave a mark on me,” she says. “It left a mark on her because she was the one to fully educate me on it.”

I’m learning through our conversation that, more than an exchange of food, it is this type of human interaction that electrifies Kish most as a chef. Her interest is in cultivating an environment that nurtures and stimulates—personally as well as professionally, intellectually as well as culinarily. And by prioritizing the inclusion of individuals from different backgrounds, cultural exchange is organic, even unavoidable. “I’ve always wanted this environment where [you can] say anything, whatever you feel. Please speak up; do not hold it in for the sake of anyone else,” she says. 

Building that environment during the course of standard operations is one thing, but keeping a team together and continuing to uphold those ideals—along with all other aspects of maintaining a business and being a chef—has been uniquely challenging as of late. Those in the chef role have been relieved of some duties, depending on their degree of operation, and saddled with others. 

Arlo Grey team | Photo courtesy of Arlo Grey

Kish, like so many chefs accustomed to being hands-on not just with their teams, but with their communities, is struggling with the feeling of having her hands tied. “The reality is we’re still in a position where we could do a lot,” she says. “It’s battling feeling useful versus useless, and then all we have time to do is sit with how we feel in that context.”

Kish is of a generation of chefs for whom work has also extended far beyond kitchen walls. Traveling, speaking and culinary exploration were as much a part of the gig as prep work and menu planning. “My purpose relied one thousand percent on being busy and moving,” she explains. “You take that away, and you take away my purpose.”

Coping in the moment with these new limitations and parameters has forced Kish to reconsider the relationship between motion and meaning, and to reframe her notions of personal value. “This is the reality of the situation, and it’s literally one moment at a time” she says. “We’re all in this holding pattern and can only be so busy in this context; I had to give myself permission to let go of saying ‘busy equals success,’ or, ‘busy equals forward movement,’ because that’s entirely not true.”

How she’s keeping busy as a chef now is more about leadership, and being a conduit for the team. She says it is the separation from that family from which she has always derived such energy, inspiration and knowledge, has been the most challenging. “From the moment it happened, I cried,” she tells me of closing Arlo Grey due to Covid-19. “It was less about having to shut down the restaurant, but so much more about the team and the people.”

Connecting online and in Zoom sessions rather than on the line in the restaurant has removed the work of preparing food and serving guests, transforming the chef’s status into a humbler position. “That’s my only role right now as their chef. [It] is just to ask how they’re doing,” Kish says. “Just checking in on their heart and soul, what they’re feeling, and how they’re handling this.”

Kristen Kish | Photo courtesy of Sydell Group
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Kish, who has spoken candidly about anxiety and depression over the years, recognizes the emotional challenges facing her team right now, especially as social distancing forces isolation. Video calls and text messages may not have been part of Kish’s original hiring criteria, but the ability to focus on more human exchanges aligns with her original goals for creating a team. “No one is trying to be perfect right now. I want them to be vulnerable with me,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be just chef and cook; it’s human to human, and that’s how I’ve always encouraged them all to interact with one another.” 

That the Arlo Grey staff has been able to maintain that connection is evidence of a team that complements one another and enhances the whole. The ability of the staff to support one another outside the kitchen draws on the strength of their different backgrounds and perspectives, a texture Kish set out to implement day one. “My goal in setting up that kitchen was always to try to get women in, people from different races, people of different sexualities,” she says. Kish is aware that fostering diversity is a phenomenon that builds on itself. “How do you do it without feeling like you’re filling a quota? That’s an organic thing that has to happen.” 

Building that diverse lineup has come somewhat naturally for Kish by nature of her own experience. “I’m fortunate because I’m a woman, I’m a minority, and I’m gay—it’s just going to happen. I have people from every walk of life [on my staff]. I think just by the nature of who I am—being an openly gay woman—brought people of like minds.”

And as a result, Arlo Grey has developed a reputation for its diversity. “Probably thirty percent of my kitchen is gay,” she says. “One of my servers said, ‘Chef, you know we call this Arlo Gay?’” she tells me, laughing. “I was like, ‘Totally, I dig it.’” 

But for Kish, not every element to creating that environment is tangible or teachable. “Energy is one thousand percent real and people feel it, and if you put out that energy and live by that standard that everyone is welcome, everyone is treated the same, and we’re all here for a greater purpose, those are the people who are going to enter your life.”

Photos courtesy of Kristen Kish

The kitchen, restaurant, culture and customers all benefit from a diverse and inclusive lineup of people, as evidenced by Kish’s experience in June of 2019. “Our world is different colors, shapes and sizes, and our working world needs to reflect the same,” she says. “It’s so important because we all have to learn so much more, and what better way to do it than with the people you trust and spend the most time with?”

The blended family dynamic and the learning it inspires both in and out of the kitchen, Kish says, is proof of the group’s respect and admiration for one another. “Once I got them all in the box, they created the family; I just put people together,” she says. “It’s a testament to who they are.”

And while some lessons are more topical, driven by current events or based in history, others are timeless. “You’ve got to treat everyone with respect, you’ve got to talk things through, you’ve got to be open to suggestions, you’ve got to be willing to learn,” she says. Regardless of era or circumstance, Kish is emphatic of an enduring golden rule: “You don’t always have to be nice, but you have to be kind.” 

During a time of crisis, Kish feels that energy, kindness and generosity with knowledge has been especially important. “If we can tap in and vibrate high on who we are as human beings, the job is going to be that much easier,” she says. “We’ve always had that relationship, but now it’s just times a million, and that’s been therapeutic for me as well.”

Looking forward, Kish isn’t considering what it is to go “back to normal,” but rather what it means to create a new standard, one that will address the spirit at the core of hospitality. “So many chefs and restaurant people have said—and I echo it one hundred percent—the goal isn’t to reopen as normal again,” she says. “The goal is to define a new way to be hospitable.” 

For customers, that might mean expecting a different kind of dining scenario. But for Kish, that means coming back stronger behind the scenes, grounded in and elevated by diverse voices, and a welcomeness for every viewpoint that will make a better restaurant culture for all.

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