As Tom Petty so wisely deduced, the waiting is the hardest part. But for Top Chef: Houston runner-up Sarah Welch, waiting around to hear whether or not Padma Lakshmi names you the winner of Top Chef wasn’t as agonizing as she assumed it would be. “I feel like it would have been agonizing if I hadn’t known that I didn’t perform to the level that I wanted to,” she told Vulture a week after Brooklyn-based chef Buddha Lo was named the winner of season 19. “I saw what he was doing and I was like, Well, he definitely took this. I don’t think any of us were waiting with bated breath.”
To be fair to Welch, the four-course finale cook-off might have felt a bit anticlimactic in comparison to the gauntlet she endured to get there. The executive chef of Marrow, a restaurant and butcher shop in Detroit, was eliminated in episode four’s doppelgängers challenge, in which the chefs were tasked with making dishes that looked alike but tasted completely different. From there, she went on a historic run in Last Chance Kitchen, Top Chef’s sister program that offers eliminated contestants a pathway back to the main competition through brutal challenges. She tied the record for most wins with eight, a milestone originally set by Top Chef: New Orleans’ Louis Maldonado in 2014. This feat, which got Welch back into the competition, only becomes more impressive once you learn how exhausting the Last Chance Kitchen schedule is. (Unfortunately, the rules of LCK are similar to Fight Club; the Top Chef powers that be do not let contestants talk about the production schedule. Suffice to say, it’s nearly impossible to keep a streak alive.) “People will say there’s an advantage in being the reigning chef of Last Chance Kitchen,” Welch says. “But there’s also a disadvantage in that, in order to succeed, you need to cook and win multiple times in a row. With each battle, it can be hard to get back in the mental game of it.”
The James Beard Award–nominated chef, who split her childhood between Michigan and Jamaica, somehow blocked out the noise enough to make it into the final three. In our chat, Welch discussed the key to Last Chance Kitchen success, her “butcher-shop mentality,” and why Top Chef contestants shouldn’t read the Top Chef sub-Reddit.
You made history in Last Chance Kitchen, tying the record for most wins. What surprised you most about that part of the competition?
I had never watched Last Chance Kitchen before, so I didn’t have any idea what I was in for. I mean, I knew what it was, but I didn’t have high hopes. The first time I did it, I was like, Oh, this is fun. Then it kept being fun, and I tend to do well when I’m enjoying things. My mom likes to say I have a “fight the problem” mentality. If I don’t like it, I don’t tend to do very well at it, which is why I didn’t do well in the doppelgängers challenge. It’s just everything I hate about food: overworked and hypertechnical. But in Last Chance I really enjoyed the task at hand, and I think I found a lot of pleasure in succeeding at it.
After spending so much time with LCK judge Tom Colicchio, do you feel as if you have a better understanding of what he likes to eat and what he doesn’t?
I don’t think Tom necessarily picks “food that he likes.” I think he’s looking for the most technically sound dish. The point of Last Chance Kitchen is, can you incorporate texture into your food? Can you season your food properly? Can you make a base stock? It’s doing very simple things. The challenge is, you’re on the clock. So I don’t think that you’re necessarily playing to his palate. You need to show you have the fundamental skills to return to the competition.
Top Chef contestants who make it to the finale but don’t win often return to the show looking for redemption. Would you like another chance to compete for the title?
I don’t know how I feel about returning. Unless I’m going up against people who have also competed, it just seems like such a clear advantage to have been there before. I’ve learned so much about how to play the game, it would feel unfair, you know? But I guess I would go back. I don’t know logistically if my life would be able to sustain that, but my curiosity certainly would.
What lessons did you learn that you would want to put into practice if you did return to the show?
Edit your food. In the very beginning, and honestly through the vast middle, people get sent home for making technical mistakes. They get sent home for not using enough salt or not cooking their protein or their pasta correctly. Just make simple food that’s well-executed and you can end up pretty far along. Then you can put on the gas and start doing cool shit, but in the beginning, it’s just, like, make food properly. That’s it.
Was there a chef from this season that you were jealous of in a good way?
Buddha took it, so if there’s someone to be jealous of, it’s probably him. But I’m really happy with how I did. I think out of everybody, I definitely had the most varied experience. We called Last Chance Kitchen the “Dark Side”; it was just all of the people who were eliminated hanging out. I didn’t get to know people the best, but I got to know the most people. I got to know Leia [Gaccione, the first season-19 chef to be eliminated], and a lot of people didn’t get to do that. I have Leia’s doughnut recipe from Last Chance Kitchen on my menu right now. I think people stick with you and their food goes on to inspire you. Honestly, I wouldn’t change my experience for anything. But if I had to be in anybody else’s shoes, yeah, I’d certainly be in the winner’s shoes.
Many fans enjoyed your very honest but very self-deprecating confessionals. You seemed to have a one-liner for everything.
I attribute that to the production team. I happened to click with one of the producers and most of my funny edits are just her and I laughing together about my experience. My way of processing, even when I’m upset, is humor. I make a shitty joke and I move on — or I make the same shitty joke over and over again until I’m ready to move on. I know some people online felt like I was uninvested, and it’s not that. It’s just that in the end, it is a cooking game show. I take cooking really seriously. I just don’t take myself very seriously. And I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.
In the finale, you got to have a dinner prepared by Tom Colicchio, Padma Lakshmi, and Gail Simmons, as well as guest judges Stephanie Izard and Eric Ripert. Who made your favorite dish?
I really loved the dessert that Gail made. She made this baked peach cake and it was just incredible. She made it in this gigantic cast-iron pan and she just wasn’t sure if she could flip it out. So there was much discussion and debate. It was a whole thing. Then Tom ended up flipping the cake out and it was just hilarious. I was definitely on the team that was, like, It can’t be done! And then it was done right in front of my face. Yeah, Tom can do anything, whatever, fine, but that cake was really delicious.
You used your four-course finale meal to promote sustainable food practices, such as using every part of an ingredient to eliminate unnecessary food waste. Why is this topic so important to you?
I think it should be important for everyone, not just chefs. I think the biggest problem with our food system is that people don’t know the people growing their food, so they have less respect for the amount of work that it takes and less of an understanding of how much resource goes into creating and bringing the food to them. Part of what we do at Marrow is we spend a lot of time talking to people who grow food. I think when you do that, you have a greater appreciation for what they do and what they produce. I tell people all the time, garlic takes two years to grow. It takes a year to dry it — and people complain about buying it for a dollar at the farmers’ market.
How do you think we change this?
There’s a fundamental lack of understanding about what goes into making food. I think that if people had a better understanding, they would understand why using every part of an ingredient is so important. It’s a very butcher-shop mentality. We pay the same for bones at Marrow as we do for New York strip steak. They each cost us the same price per pound when it comes to our door. So if we’re throwing away all the bones, all of a sudden, New York strip becomes very, very expensive. Finding value where it was once lost and keeping things from the trash is something everyone, not just chefs, should care more about.
You mentioned that you’ve been spending a lot of time on the Top Chef Reddit. What has been your experience reading their thoughts on this season?
I don’t recommend reading the Top Chef Reddit if you’re on Top Chef. It can be really demoralizing and soul-crushing. I think the weirdest thing is that people can’t seem to figure out when I was born. [Laughs] It’s some huge mystery, like, they just cannot figure out how old I am. I feel like on the old versions of Top Chef it would be like, you know, “Bob Wilson, 22.” They don’t do that anymore and people are like, How old is she, though?!
Do you know how this mystery started?
I think it’s just because, and my fiancé can testify to this, I genuinely sometimes forget what year I was born. It’s not me intentionally pulling the “I’m 30 forever,” it’s just sometimes I forget how old I am. It’s very possible I’ve misspoken about that to the media unintentionally through no wickedness or malice. It’s just me being an idiot. So that’s definitely been the funniest thing, seeing how worked up people get about when I graduated high school. Hypothetically, I could just answer, but I’m not going to. I’m going to keep the mystery alive. Somebody will find my diploma and it will feel like a victory. And you know what? I’m about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.