Burgers are one of America’s favorite comfort foods, but for chef Kristen Kish, creating one for her upcoming Austin, Texas, restaurant Arlo Grey was a matter of stepping outside her comfort zone — way out.
Best known as the winner of Top Chef Season 10 (when Top Chef was still very much must-see food TV), Kish came up in the culinary world under the wing of preeminent Boston chef Barbara Lynch. She was the chef de cuisine of Barbara Lynch’s demonstration kitchen and cookbook shop Stir, and then, after winning Top Chef, became the chef de cuisine of Menton, the fine dining jewel in Lynch’s restaurant empire. She left after less than a year, kicking off what would be several years of travel, events, television hosting, and, most recently, writing a cookbook. Throughout those years, Kish remained rooted in the fine dining world.
So in February, when the Line Hotel revealed Kish would be taking a space in its new Austin property, it wasn’t just food media wondering what a large hotel restaurant helmed by a chef best known for her work in small, high-end venues would look like. “Part of me was terrified,” Kish says, sitting in the Arlo Grey dining room last weekend during Hot Luck Festival. “I was like, Oh my god, breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service? This is not my wheelhouse.” But, she admitted, she’s a bit addicted to feeling afraid. “Something about it was the appropriate challenge. And I was appropriately scared. That’s why I want to do it. I jumped and was like ‘Fuck it, let’s do it. It’s time.’”
And so she set about creating a burger. Her final product, which she describes as “fucking good,” will feature a patty made from a blend of Texas beef, and will come topped with caramelized onions, lactofermented pickles, Kewpie mayo (“because you got to dirty it up”), and hearty mustard greens, all on a house-baked challah bun. But Kish also adds some fine dining flair by taking pommes aligot (an elastically cheesy classic French potato dish), aerating it, and adding it to the burger instead of a standard slice of cheese. “It covers the burger like a cloud,” she says. “Burgers and this whole grill thing, this is not how I cook. But shit, this is fun.”
Kish says she’s also relying heavily on her childhood memories to create her menu, as in a biscuit sandwich and hash browns inspired by McDonald’s version. Arlo Grey’s baker will make biscuits every morning, while Kish’s hash-brown recipe involves soaking grated potatoes in salt water, wringing them out, blanching them, then mixing them with potato starch and seasoning to “give me that feeling [of McDonald’s], but done with technique and proper execution.” She wants the space to feel as personal as the food — even as it seats some 100-plus people — so on the wall she’s hung display boxes with handwritten pages from her various notebooks.
At dinner, which will be a la carte, Kish still approached menu-building as she would have for a tasting menu, focusing on progression. The menu will be organized “lightest to heaviest, smallest to largest: And so if I were to have shrunk all the portions and fed that to you, it would be a true tasting menu. You won’t feel like that, but you’ll understand the flavors and why things are coming after or before and they all work together.” This approach solves her pet peeve — all the dishes arriving to the table at once. “Sometimes they’re out of order, and it fucks with your palate,” she says. “So I’m trying to take that casual shared-dining experience and merge it with my love of fine dining. And the guests may or may not ever know, and that’s okay.”
Friends and family will hopefully start this week, and Kish is targeting June 4 for her opening date. As she sees it, the work of creating Arlo Grey has been hugely educational, and not just because it’s her first restaurant.
“I was so tunnel vision,” she says, looking back at her career so far. “This is the food I do, this is what I do, and I’m not gonna stem out from all of that. But as I’m pushing myself and challenging myself to feed the need of what people want, but do it in my way, shit. I’ve already learned an incredible amount about cooking, about myself, and merging all those things together.”