Why Chef Kristen Kish Is Scaling Panamanian Waterfalls in Search of Watercress

The host of NatGeo's ‘Restaurants at the End of the World’ dishes on what it takes to run a restaurant off the grid.

chef kristen kish posing at a floating restaurant in paraty, brazil
Kristen Kish at Sem Pressa, a floating restaurant in Paraty, Brazil | National Geographic for Disney/Autumn Sonnichsen
Kristen Kish at Sem Pressa, a floating restaurant in Paraty, Brazil | National Geographic for Disney/Autumn Sonnichsen

In Restaurants at the End of the World, which premiered March 21 on Nat Geo, celebrity chef Kristen Kish travels to remote locales in search of chefs who embody the farm to table ethos in the truest sense—chefs who are not merely hopping on a culinary bandwagon, but rather, the thrill of allowing themselves no other choice. If supply chain issues were ever a plight in the mainland, they become a class of their own once you venture off the grid. These kitchen adventurers set up shop deep in the wild, from the cloud forests of Panama to the northernmost regions of Norway, creatively adapting to Mother Nature’s ever-changing menu.

Kish, in her relatable hilarity, is game to join these chefs in their quests to get as close to the source as possible. The Top Chef star scales waterfalls to forage fresh watercress, dodges polar bears while diving for fish, and digs into muddy mangroves to harvest Brazilian bivalves. It’s a lesson in operating without fear, as these chefs never quite know what any given outcome might be. But the meals always turn out to be just as bold and daring as their hard-won ingredients, accented by inventive dishes like chayote ceviche, reindeer tongue pastrami, and seaweed-topped custard.

In honor of the show’s release, Thrillist spoke with Kish about the allure of far-flung restaurants, intense food-sourcing feats, and what drives her love for all things travel.

Thrillist: From a consumer perspective, what’s the appeal of hopping on a boat or hiking up a mountain to dine at a remote restaurant?
Kristen Kish: For much of my upbringing, dining was just going out to eat. You went to a restaurant that was either known or not known, and you went because you needed to feed yourself. But now, as we’re exposed to so many different kinds of restaurants, the dining experience doesn’t just start and end with the food. It starts with making the decision to go, why you’re going, what the occasion might be. I’m interested in a full story—I love going out to dinner, but sometimes I need a little bit more. Restaurants at the End of the World is obviously taking that to the extreme.

The journey starts at the beginning of the trek to get there. That gives you insight into who these chefs are, the challenges that they might face, and then, ultimately, what kind of food they may be serving. It’s a good human experience to understand what kind of people actually do this, how they survive, and how they manage a restaurant, because we’re all used to restaurants being set up to be efficient and profitable and make the most sense. These people have a phenomenal story to tell.

kristin kish rappeling down a waterfall in boquete, panama
Kish rappels down a waterfall at Hacienda Mamecillo in Boquete, Panama. | National Geographic for Disney/Missy Bania

What’s the impetus for chefs to open up such restaurants? Is it simply an attraction to adventure, or is there something else at play?
It’s hard to say, because each restaurant isn’t traditional. One might be a family home, one might be a base camp where explorers trekking the Arctic Circle stop off for a night or two, or one might be on a boat. A lot of these people created an environment in which they felt was a necessity for their livelihood in some way.

For example, Rolando in Panama (he's in our premiere episode) opened Hacienda Mamecillo because he got, quite frankly, bored of living in the city, and he wanted to raise his family in a different kind of way—off the land, off the beaten path. A lot of times, these chefs are driven by something that isn’t just, "Hey, I want to make this restaurant at the end of the world because I think it’ll be cool." It’s for many other reasons, whether it be for their family, for encouraging the community around them, or just because there’s a place in the middle of nowhere that people stop off at. But the common thread that I’ve picked up on is this sense of relinquishing control to “What will be, will be.” There’s beauty and freedom in that, especially when it comes to cooking.

How can relying on your environment instill a greater sense of creativity?
By the sheer fact that not everything is available. For most chefs, we can dream up an entire dish and order the product or find something similar. If it's not in season in our state, a neighboring state might have it. But when you don’t have it, when you are at a lack, you’re forced to think things through much more creatively, because you have to. Otherwise, what are you going to do, serve a potato as just a baked potato? No, you’ve got to really think about it. What’s that proverb? “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

panoramic view of isfjord radio restaurant in svalbard, norway
Isfjord Radio Restaurant in Svalbard, Norway | Svalbard

How has this experience amplified your understanding of the phrase “farm to table?”
Depending on where you are in the world, farm to table can mean a million different things. The idea is understanding where your food comes from and taking out as many middle people as you can so there’s less of a trek and it’s better for the environment. For Restaurants at the End of the World, it means a true necessity. Where else are you going to get the food in the Arctic? You can ship it from the mainland, sure, but by the time it travels an hour and a half across the Arctic, it’s frozen. In order to get the freshest fish possible, you have to hike an hour and a half to a lake, fish it yourself, and bring it back.

What was one of your favorite ingredients to learn about? How did it tell the story of a place?
It was in Svalbard with Rogier, the chef at Isfjord Radio Restaurant. He took the feeding sack out of a ptarmigan and turned it into a cocktail. He didn't have to do that, but I guess if you are going to eat the bird, try to use all of it. I hate when people call food exotic, because I’m like, food is food to somebody. It’s their normal. But that was the very first time I think I've ever had a feeding pouch. It tastes earthy, funky—you're looking at it thinking, This thing is internally in an animal. And they’re picking at everything. It’s not just twigs and berries. It also contains rocks and insects that decompose. Then you see an off-brown color—those two things coming together throw your brain for a loop. It wasn’t my favorite flavor profile, regardless of what it was, but it was a new experience, which I always appreciate.

aerial view of turner farm in north haven, maine
Turner Farm in North Haven, Maine | Turner Farm

Which location surprised you the most?
I’m not impressed very often. I think things are exceptional and wonderful, but that wave of like, Oh my God, doesn’t come often. The way I trek through life, these are just experiences. All of them are equally impressive to me and normal to somebody else. A nice reminder was having one domestic location, a place that’s not far from where I live, to see what’s in our backyard. We can travel and pick out places on the map that are so far away, but if we just look around a little bit, there are [closer] places worth exploring that are off the beaten path and different from our everyday life. A lot of people that live in the United States, especially on the East Coast, can very easily go to North Haven, [Maine] and Turner Farm and see their little island community. That’s a really great thing to showcase as well.

From scaling a waterfall to spearfishing, what would you say was the biggest challenge you took on during this experience?
Anytime I had to get over the fear of not feeling capable of being able to do something. Yes, there's a fear of getting hurt, and I don't want to die—I have a wife and adult responsibilities. But no matter what television project I go into, no matter who I cook for, every guest chef dinner, the fear is always the unknown. And the fear is, Are they going to like it? Are they going to like me? Am I going to be okay? Whether that’s for this show or just general life, a lot of us worry about those things.

Were you ever jealous of these chefs, despite all the difficulties they face living and working off the grid?
I think there’s always appeal, when we live in such a modern world with every convenience available to us, in being able to shut it all down and do what you love without food critics, without Yelp opinions. You are constantly being judged in a lot of ways. I walk through a grocery store and I’m like, Oh my god, are people judging me? I’m not saying these people aren’t judged and they don't have challenges like that, but I’m envious of the fact that they can say, “Screw it,” and just do what they want to do, how they want to do it… without the internet.

kristen kish wearing protective face netting while foraging ingredients in paraty, brazil
Kish gathering fresh ingredients in Paraty, Brazil | National Geographic for Disney/Autumn Sonnichsen

Is there a moment you shared with one of the guest chefs that made a deep impression on you, even if it didn’t make the show?
They were all so welcoming. Each episode took five or six days to film, and then I had one day off. On that day off, camera or no camera, they were all like, "Come on, I want to keep showing you things,” or, “Let’s go do this, I want to take you here." This show is about the travel and the cuisine of a certain place, but even more so, it’s about who these people are.

There was this gentleman—God, I hope his story is told one day. I don’t want to say too much, because it’s quite a personal story, but what I took from it was that we do things for other people. We are driven by our love of other people, and honoring those that are no longer with us. Whether or not you do that in your daily life, I think it’s always really important to step outside yourself and say, "Why am I doing this? What’s the bigger purpose?" So with one of our guests—I was a sobbing mess having this conversation, looking at the sun setting over this gorgeous lake—I was reminded that we’ve got to step outside of ourselves and figure out why we do things, because otherwise, if we do it all for ourselves, it's largely driven, I think, by ego.

How has the show impacted your own travel habits? What do you think other travelers can learn from this show?
My culinary career has seen a lot of different parts of this industry, travel included, but this experience highlighted why I love to travel in the first place. It started when I was a child, long before I realized that I was going to do this on television. As an adoptee, I wanted to travel, knowing and seeing and putting myself in other people’s shoes, because I could have ended up in a family like them. I could have been anywhere in the world. I mean, we all could have been born into any kind of family, but that, for me, is the driving force of my desire to travel.

I remember, when I was younger, I would listen to people say, "Oh, you have to travel the world to see and to do and learn." And I was always like, "Well, I can't. I don't have the luxury to do that." So I’m always wary about that. What I hope, at the very baseline, is that even if you aren't able to go to these restaurants, or you aren’t able to go on this epic adventure, people can connect through the screen—that’s how I learned about food and other people. And then if you are able to, I hope that people go and see these fabulous people and restaurants, because it is something special. We’re all used to convenience, but the larger part of the story is the people.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram