It’s a Friday night at Arlo Grey, chef Kristen Kish’s renowned restaurant in Austin, Texas, and there is a gorgeous plate of pasta on the table. The mafaldine has been made in house earlier in the day, the ribbons of pasta served with a champignon sauce, pearl onions and parmesan. From the very first bite, Kish is hoping that diners have a vision of a cartoon hand dancing in their heads. 

“It sounds fucked up and it sounds really weird, but this is my version of Hamburger Helper from growing up,” Kish says with a laugh. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had a boxed pasta in their life and didn’t like it. Everything stems from the stuff I grew up on, the things that feel comforting to me, but I spin them in a way that is ‘restaurant material.’”

Kish has been classically trained in the French tradition and she’s learned her craft alongside some of the most revered chefs of our time. Her bona fides also include writing a cookbook, hosting a show on the Travel Channel and winning her season of “Top Chef.” Kish has traveled the world and experienced countless flavors, but like so many of us, comfort will always be found in the tastes of the Grand Rapids suburb where she grew up. 

Her hometown McDonald’s certainly didn’t have rabbit on the menu, but the Braised Rabbit & Parisian Gnocchi Kish created for Arlo Grey takes her back nonetheless. “There is something so familiar about it that feels good,” she explains. “It’s obviously not a McDonald’s hamburger, but there is something in there—maybe it’s the pickles and the lacto brine and all that stuff—there is something in there that clicks that memory for me.” 

Over the Millennia, people have eaten just about everything there is that should be eaten. Everything has been done before, at least in the broadest terms. Some chefs choose to turn to science to make themselves stand out, using molecular gastronomy to create techniques that Julia Child never could have dreamed of. Kish appreciates this method, but it wasn’t where her passion was, so she turned inwards and drew on her personal tale.

Photo by Bill Sallans

Photo by Bill Sallans

“Food is, and chefs create food as, a love language,” Kish says. “The only way I’m going to stand out in the food world, to be different and add something, is if I do me. The only person who knows how to cook my story is me.“ 

One constant in her story is the high expectations that Kish holds for herself. It has given her the drive to achieve the incredible success she enjoys today, but it also led to her being very hard on herself growing up. It took years for her to fully accept that she could find happiness in a life that looked very little like the stereotypical American Dream. 

“One thing that I was always trying to do was to manipulate my appearance in some way,” Kish says. “When I looked in the mirror I thought I looked boring, I wasn’t thrilled with what I saw.” At first, Kish wore a lot of different colored contacts to add to her appearance. Then as she got older tattoos came into play. 

Her first tattoo was small, but the meaning behind the piece and the impact it had on her life were enormous. Kish was born in South Korea and adopted at a very young age, so she paid tribute to this by adding her Korean name to her wrist. 

This first piece would lay the groundwork for the rest of her collection. “All [my tattoos] are black ink, and they all came from a place of purpose,” Kish recalls. “I like to have tattoos that are slightly obscure, that by the naked eye people might not be able to tell what it is or why I decided to get it. But they have a very personal intent and purpose.” 

Her collection includes a woman holding a chef’s knife, a butter knife, a fish skeleton, herbs, a whisk and many more tools of her trade. One of her most memorable pieces is a line drawing of Austin’s Lady Bird Lake, upon which Arlo Grey sits, morphing into the Charles River Esplanade in Boston, a reference to her time at Menton working with chef Barbara Lynch. 

While Kish insists that the prevalence of tattoos among chefs has more to do with the era we live in than some sort of spiritual connection between chefs and ink, it’s clear that she goes about designing her own work with the same mindset that she brings to crafting recipes. Each tattooed image in her collection holds significance that only she knows, just as each flavor of every dish she creates tells a part of her own personal story.

If you can't make it down to Austin for a meal at Arlo Grey, here's one of Kish's recipes that you can cook up at home.

BRAISED BABY POTATOES

PANCETTA, COMTÉ, SAGE

SERVES 4

I’m always looking for new ways to cook potatoes, those favorite little sponges for flavor and salt. We fry, mash, sauté, purée, roast— so why not braise? Surround them with a flavorful liquid and let them drink it up. The skins hold on to that wonderfully salty liquid, and the meat of the potato remains light, soft, and creamy.

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons olive oil

4 ounces pancetta, cut into a small dice

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 pounds small new potatoes

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 fresh thyme sprigs

8 fresh sage leaves

2 cups vegetable stock, homemade or store-bought

3 ounces watercress

2 teaspoons white vinegar

3 ounces Comté cheese, finely grated

In a wide saucepan—you want the potatoes to lie in one layer—heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until it begins to crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the butter and heat until it melts and begins to sizzle. Continue to fry the pancetta in the fat for 2 minutes.

Add the potatoes and, when they begin to brown on one side, roll them in the fat to brown as much of the outside as possible. Season with salt but be careful: potatoes need a fair amount of seasoning, but the pancetta is salty. Grind in some black pepper; I like a lot for this dish. Push the thyme and sage into the bottom of the pan in between the potatoes to brown and crisp these up, too.

Once everything is beautiful and golden, add just enough vegetable stock to come halfway to three-fourths of the way up the potatoes. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and allow the liquid to boil and evaporate until the fat is left and you hear a sizzling sound; this signals everything is re-crisping. Cook until crisp and golden, which could take 12 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, dress the watercress with the remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil and the vinegar; season with salt.

TO SERVE: Spoon the potatoes onto a platter, sprinkle the cheese on top, and garnish with the watercress salad.