Top Chef just wrapped its 14th season, but the show still feels as fresh as ever. This season, 16 chefs from around the country competed in Charleston, South Carolina, with a twist: half of the contestants were newbies, whereas the other half were “All-Stars” from prior seasons looking for redemption. Suffice it to say that the veterans crushed the rookies like a delicate Maldon salt between their well-seasoned fingers. But in the end, only two chefs remained: Brooke Williamson, who first appeared on season ten and runs a number of L.A. restaurants including Playa Provisions, and Shirley Chung, who appeared on season 11 and runs Twenty Eight in Newport Beach. (Sorry, Sheldon.) Both had come tantalizingly close to winning their seasons, with Brooke as the runner-up her season and Shirley as the second-runner up.
Spoilers follow for the Top Chef season 14 finale.
Over a dueling four-course “progressive menu,” it was Brooke’s execution that won the day. Vulture met up with both of the chefs at the Soho Grand hotel to talk about the judge they thought was being unnecessarily harsh, the fairness of Last Chance Kitchen, and whether they’ve been underestimated as women in the kitchen.
This was a really good season of Top Chef. Probably one of the best, I feel like.
Brooke Williamson: I agree. It felt visually entertaining and beautiful.
Shirley Chung: I agree, totally. But at the same time sincere, right?
BW: The relationships already partially existed. I feel like it was easy to connect with people. I feel like it was genuinely great.
It felt like a second All-Stars season.
SC: But better.
It was kind of fun to watch the rookies run up against the wall.
SC: No! That’s not true! They’ve done well. Don’t say that!
BW: They were a really talented group of people. I think they were just…
SC: Not used to the competition environment in the beginning. And then you can see everybody start picking it up.
Do you think your experience helped?
BW: Yeah, I think our ability to turn that anxiety into excitement, it was a little easier the second time around. The anxiety, the pressure of the clock and the cameras and all of that is really overwhelming at first. But once you’re used to it, it’s a lot easier to process.
SC: One of the most important things to be successful, to compete, is really time management, right? So after the first season, we’d gotten used to knowing the clock and knowing that it seems like there’s five minutes, but you better start plating. We understand the ticking of the clock a lot better than the new bloods.
Let’s talk about the finale. Shirley, why didn’t you choose Sheldon?
SC: Okay, first of all, if you think about it, Sheldon does not do dessert at all. So I have a plan in that I know all of this, and I’m familiar with Casey. I know she can execute a dessert. She can execute my vision without my supervision. So I literally just told her what I wanted to do. I gave her a recipe for rice pudding and I told her, “But don’t make it like that, I need to cook it longer.” So she took up the dessert, and then we’re going back and forth. I didn’t have to worry about it. All I needed to do was go up there and say, “Everything is great. I want to add this, I was to tweak this.” It took so little time. So that’s my strategy.
Because I did wonder if it was a way to try to block Brooke.
BW: Vagina-block me?
SC: No, but I know Sheldon would actually shine brighter on her team. I would never purposefully sabotage my competitor. I know who would be good and who’s best. That’s why.
I wasn’t suggesting you sabotaged her, although the show was trying to play up the pork belly thing through editing.
SC: Yeah, you can tell, right?
I assume it’s not actually that dramatic?
BW: No. I was legitimately worried that I wouldn’t get the pork belly, but I also originally thought I had ordered pork belly and it wasn’t there. So I didn’t blame her for needing to use it. I was just more upset that I didn’t have it.
SC: And I was totally going to give it to her, no matter what. We even talk about, “How much do you need? If both of us have to use the pork belly, what’s the minimum quantity that we could share among us?”
BW: And I actually didn’t even need that much, because my focus was actually not on the protein. It was a composed whole dish, and the protein was literally an ingredient in the dish.
Do you feel redeemed this season, by winning?
BW: It feels really satisfying. I wouldn’t say that it feels like redemption. Everybody’s saying, “Brooke has redemption now.” And I know that I probably said that in interview a few times, but it feels like there’s some closure to something that I felt like I couldn’t attain or didn’t attain. Not that I couldn’t. I felt like I could, and I didn’t, and that’s just not the way I like to live my life. And I’m sure that’s not the way Shirley likes to live her life either. It’s like I’ve closed the door on Top Chef, and I feel like I can now walk away feeling satisfied.
Shirley, is there anything you wish you could have done differently?
SC: Oh, no. There’s only one thing: we didn’t have enough pressure cooker to crank out. Because normally, one thing I’m good at is extracting flavors. And I’m famous for my broth and those kind of preparations. Walking in, they told me that I would have a pressure cooker. But when I walk in, it’s two tiny little pressure cookers. There’s no way I can produce enough stock for 60 people in one shot, because you serve everybody at the same time.
So that’s my only thing, but no regrets. I literally just needed another 30 minutes , but I made the choice that this is exactly what I want to do. I want to showcase who I am, and I’m proud of who I am. I’m very technical, so if I’m actually thinking about and compose this menu for a judge and also for location, I wouldn’t do a super Chinese-driven menu. Because knowing that I’m in Mexico, it’s hard to get ingredients. But I still made a choice because I want to tell my story and I want to tell the world who I am. I wasn’t expecting my mom gonna be there. I would love to have my parents see on TV what I’m capable of, what kind of chef I became, and how proud I am as a Chinese-American.
BW: It’s really hard to prove that in three hours.
Although I think you did.
BW: I think you absolutely did, but I’m just saying to prove that flawlessly in three hours is not realistic.
Did you talk with your mom afterwards about the meal?
SC: It made her cry and she understands, because she understands every single course and where my heart was. So she was very surprised that I would be able to express my feelings through my food. Now she admits that I’m an artist. In that way, she doesn’t really think about a chef as a blue-collar job anymore.
Brooke, do you feel like you were able to relax more when you were eliminated?
BW: 100 percent, yes. I think I needed that kick in the ass to realize that I do this because I enjoy it. Walking into Last Chance Kitchen I was like, “Oh god, I have to do this, something that I have kind of have not been a fan of for four years. And then I presented these challenges, and it was kind of like a quickfire. And I really love quickfires, they’re so much fun. Last Chance Kitchen was super lighthearted, super fun, super relaxed. That feeling of “I can’t fail” wasn’t there anymore, because I did. And I came back and I was like, “You know what? I’m going to have fun again. I’m going to do this for the right reasons.” And I was able to do that, and I think that that really showed in my cooking.
SC: Yes, you can see it in her eyes.
And it’s kind of ironic, because Last Chance Kitchen was a thorn during your season, but then it’s also productive for you.
BW: And I’m not saying I feel like Last Chance Kitchen is still the fairest thing in the world, you know? John and Shirley and Sheldon didn’t get a second chance. You screw up one thing!
You have to screw up at the right time.
BW: You have to screw up at the right time, and I screwed up at the last right time.
SC: Yeah. You screwed up the best time to make it back.
BW: We’re not super-humans. We screw up, and we do things wrong. And I feel like when people get eliminated they feel like they didn’t deserve to go home. I was literally the only person at the last challenge in Charleston that had a flaw on their plate. And therefore I deserved to go home. It didn’t feel good, but I understood it.
Have you felt like the judges’ decisions are fair?
BW: Yeah. Very much so. More so then I ever have. Even when I was being judged harshly or getting negative comments, I still felt like they were fair.
Was there ever an instance where you felt like it wasn’t?
BW: I mean, I think the entire world would agree with me that Richard Blais was a little hard on me on that Patron challenge.
SC: He was! That was personality.
BW: I feel like he called me out unnecessarily. And it’s really hysterical, his wife actually texted me after watching that episode and was like, “What the hell is his problem?” She was like, “I love that you told him to go shove it.”
He was being real extra.
BW: He was. And I feel like there had to be a comment that mentioned the obvious, that I didn’t cook anything. But I did. There was so much work that went into that dish, regardless of whether or not it was hot or cold. I thought it was funny at the end of the day, but really? I mean, I won that challenge. And I think everybody kind of agreed, “Shut up Richard.”
I was curious what your favorite dish was that wasn’t yours?
BW: Sheldon’s fish at that Kiawah Island challenge, with the tea in the thermos. That was honestly probably one of the best dishes I’ve had in a long time.
SC: My answer is actually a little bit strange because I didn’t get to taste a lot of dishes. But one thing I did taste and was surprisingly good, which was a joint effort between Katsuji and Brooke, which Katsuji doesn’t really admit, was the pirate challenge that cauliflower soup/puree with chorizo. The texture of the cauliflower was so beautiful. And I know Katsuji took full credit for it, but ultimately she is the one that taught him the technique and how to make it.
BW: He had never made that before.
SC: Like gave him verbal instructions and he made it and executed it really well. The seasoning was on point, and then that’s something where it was raining, we were wet, I was cold, I was sick. So that one bite was amazing. So that’s something I remember. It’s so weird.
I wanted to ask you both about coming up in the kitchen as women and whether you felt underestimated because of that in your careers?
BW: I would say that there were definite moments of feeling that way. I started really, really young and I moved up the ladder really quickly — probably quicker than I should have. And so not only was I a woman, but I was a 22-year-old executive chef telling much older men what to do. I’m sure I got a lot of eye rolls, including from my husband who was my sous chef. But I found being a female more motivational to kick ass than I did feeling unfair about it. It was motivation to be the best at what I could be. And to do better than everyone around me and prove myself. So I always loved the fact that I was one of the only women in the kitchen. Because I could often out-cook any one of those men on the line. And that was a great feeling. It was justification of what I was doing.
SC: Definitely there are moments where that happens, but for me I did the same thing. I started late, but I think I’m talented and at the same time, I was a natural leader and I have corporate experience. So walking into this industry, I felt the same way. I was promoted really fast. Out of my 13 years of cooking experience, I literally have only been a line cook for less than two years, which is crazy. I’m always being a chef. I got promoted to be a sous chef really fast and then became a chef. So not only I’m a female chef, I’m also a minority. An Asian female chef. And I’m working in the best French kitchen, Italian kitchen in the world. So there are a lot of people who challenge me, but a lot of times I choose not to see that because why let that affect who I am? So yeah, when you’re starting in a more traditional French kitchen and obviously you have more skill sets than the sous chefs, but you get put on salad station, yeah, it happened. But at the same time, I’m so good that they cannot keep me there for so long because they know it’s a waste of talent because I’m better than everybody on the line. And that really made me fight harder and cook longer, cook better, and spend more hours.
What was the hardest challenge you had to do?
BW: The brunch challenge for me, in terms of time constraints and telling me that I needed to be creative at the drop of a hat. I feel like I’m actually a very creative chef, and I pride myself in being that way. This was just not that day, and I felt like shit, and it didn’t happen naturally. And then I didn’t have the time to work it out in my head, and it showed on my plate.
SC: Mine was the first half of that episode. It was the shrimp boat challenge. Ultimately it is because physically I wasn’t well, I had motion sickness, and [Brooke] gave me pills, so I was loopy. I was moving really slow, so I wasn’t thinking. Not only was that the worst dish I ever made on Top Chef, that’s probably one of the worst dishes I’ve ever made in my life. Seriously, when I was writing recipes I was like “Bowl of Shit.” I was so upset with myself, but at the same time it didn’t hit me hard because I was, like, woo. Yeah, that was one hard challenge.
My understanding is that the celebrity you both want to cook for is Michelle Obama.
SC: Of course.
BW: I mean, of all the powerful women, talk about a powerful woman. Like, role models? Yeah.
SC: 100 percent.
You don’t want to cook for Melania?
I was joking.
SC: Well at least she’s an immigrant, too.