Congrats to Korean American adoptee Kristen Kish, who has taken top honors on Top Chef: Seattle. The show, hosted by Indian American model Padma Lakshmi, had its finale tonight, and Kristen killed it with her Snapper with Leeks, Little Gem Lettuce, Tarragon, Uni and Shellfish Nage. With her win, she is the second woman to win Top Chef. Yes, she’s gorgeous — she of the swan-like neck, tomboy ‘do and model-like limbs — but what made us love her even more is her determination to discover her roots. “In the very near future, a trip to Korea for me,” she said, teary-eyed.
“I prefer to be in the middle of the action and to actually see the ingredients and touch them. Hand-to-mouth, I think, really just turns me on a lot more.” – Kelly Choi
ISSUE: Winter 2010
STORY: Jimmy Lee
Hot in the Kitchen
In every kitchen she enters, Kelly Choi turns up the heat. She subjects chefs to the glare of the spotlight on shows like Eat Out NY on NYC TV, scrutinizing them as she sautés over a hot stove. And if she can torment world-class culinary artists as host of Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters, with challenges like preparing a dish using in- gredients from a gas station store, well, she relishes that, too. “It was a riot,” she says with a laugh. “Seeing the expressions on [the chef’s] faces was priceless.”
Yet the angst Choi put her own par- ents through could be considered far worse, especially by those in their peer group: Korean immigrants. For one, there was going to grad school for — gasp — journalism. But before that, when she was around 8, after she and her family had set- tled in Virginia and her parents began running a grocery store, Choi wanted to make “American” meals for her folks. “I didn’t know anything about cooking American food, but I knew that I wanted to quote-unquote cook. So I would open up all these cans of stuff and then heat up beans and get mashed potato flakes,” says Choi. “My parents were like, ‘Uh-uh, we don’t like this American food. We’re going to eat Korean.’”
Her skill with processed meats (“Lots of pork and beans, lots of Spam — best things ever,” laughs Choi) didn’t exactly compel her parents to encourage a culinary education. However, they would end up helping to prepare Choi, who’s also worked as a model and a VJ for MTV Korea, for her meteoric rise in the world of television just by being at the dinner table. There, she had to preside over one of the most notorious of all critics: a Korean father. “My dad was always [telling] my mom what was wrong with the food and what was good,” Choi remembers fondly.
If only her late father could see how far her cooking has come, especially with the techniques she’s picked up spending every workday with chefs. “I can’t get enough of it,” says Choi. “It’s great to be around that sort of energy.”
In fact, for Choi, it can be an occupa- tional hazard. “Now I’m so used to going to the back of the house with the chef that going to restaurants [to just dine] makes me antsy,” she says. “I prefer to be in the middle of the action and to actually see the ingredients and touch them. Hand-to-mouth, I think, really just turns me on a lot more.” — Jimmy Lee
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