It took two seasons, over 50 challenges, getting eliminated and fighting back in web series Last Chance Kitchen, but Brooke Williamson can finally call herself the winner of Top Chef.
Thursday night's finale saw Williamson, who returned for Top Chef: Charleston's rookies versus veterans season, triumph over fellow vet and season 11 contestant Shirley Chung. Williamson, a returnee from season 10, has had one of the longest journeys of any chef on the show. Winning now, four years after she first joined Top Chef: Seattle, is the cherry on top.
Williamson won 19 of the 56 Quickfires, elimination challenges, qualifying rounds and Last Chance Kitchen episodes she competed in, making her one of the most winning chefs ever on Top Chef. (All-Stars winner Richard Blais, by comparison, won 16 challenges across his two seasons.)
Williamson took time from her Friday morning victory lap to talk to Mic about her time on the show, her feelings about Last Chance Kitchen and what her flan-loving mom really thought of her take on the dessert during the finale.
Mic: Over the course of your two seasons on Top Chef, not even counting the spin-off Duels, you competed in 56 challenges and became one of the most winning chefs in Top Chef history. So my first question, naturally, is this: Would you do it again?
Brooke Williamson: No, I think I'm done! I think I've proved to myself what I needed to prove. I had some really phenomenal, wonderful experience, but the time commitment is really intense. I don't know that I need to leave my life for that length of time anymore.
Head judge Tom Colicchio gave you a hard time about your previous annoyance with Last Chance Kitchen, considering Kristen Kish came back from it in season 10 and beat you in the finale. How does it really feel to have won in the exact way you lost four years ago?
BW: I don't know that it affects how I feel about anything, really. It was a wonderful experience. I'm very appreciative of Last Chance Kitchen. As much as it turned around my mindset and instilled the life back in me that needed to happen, and I'm very thankful for it, I still don't know if it's the fairest scenario for everyone. But I am so appreciative to have that second chance.
Do you think it was right for you to win this time around versus back in Seattle? Or would you rather have won back then?
BW: Would I rather never have had to come back and prove that I can do it? No. I appreciate every challenge that I was able to do. Every moment and experience was great. I wouldn't do it any other way
You walked into this season with seemingly a real understanding of your place in the competition — not wanting to do worse than last time, for instance. Was that unusual among the returning vets, or do you think everyone was very aware of their past performance?
BW: That was a universal feeling. Nobody coming back wanted to do worse than they did the first time. My situation just happened to be a little bit harder to attain than for others, because I made it to the final two [in Seattle]. Therefore, the only way for me to do better than last time was to win. But that's a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and I think I felt that pressure. It felt overwhelming at a lot of times. I think being eliminated was the best thing that could have happened to me. It showed me, 'OK, this is not going to kill me. I am capable of doing better.' It takes intense pressure off.
You and Richard Blais are the only two contestants to compete in two finales, and perhaps not coincidentally, you two won your second finales. What did you take from the first to help in the second?
BW: They were incredibly different experiences. I was much happier with the format of this season. It was about cooking your best — although we actually had very little time to plan a menu. It had to be inspired by the ingredients that surrounded us, and I think that's actually how I cook best. The first time around, we had pretty much anything at our fingertips, but cooking with local Mexican ingredients ... it was actually easier for me this time around.
The format of the Seattle finale was not something I was a big fan of, and I think that was the universal consensus. This just felt much more even.
One thing not mentioned on the show is that you and Shirley faced off in Top Chef: Duels, and she won there. Were you worried about the rematch?
BW: No. I knew Shirley was incredibly talented, and what she was capable of. It's just about having a great day. I think anybody on any given day probably could have brought a perfect meal. It was just more of a feeling of competing against myself, and concentrating on doing what I can do best.
During the finale, Shirley named all of her dishes, and she was praised quite a bit for her emotional connection to her menu. But without being quite as direct, you also took a lot of emotional inspiration, from the octopus dish to the flan dedicated to your mom. What do you think differs in your menu planning process versus hers?
BW: We all cook with our hearts and our souls. I pour my entire life into my career, and I think that shows. I think I let the food speak for itself instead of explaining it. I want people to understand what the dish is about in terms of the ingredients and the execution, but I don't have that über-emotional connection toward food that Shirley does. It's more about showcasing ingredients for me. My life naturally inspires my food, and that's an organic process.
As far as the flan is concerned, we saw in the finale your mom giving you some flak for it. What happened there?
BW: That was literally just an oven issue. The flan took too long to cook ... and it was an executional thing based on the oven. I felt like the flavor of it was perfect, but there was nothing I could do at that point. I was just giving my mom crap, because I think she could've held that in!
Have you tried to make flan since?
BW: I don't know that I have, but I would have no issues with making it again! I can execute a flan beautifully. Just give me an oven that works.
The season was set up as rookies vs. vets, but the rookies failed to make an impression. Did it basically feel like All-Stars 2 on set?
BW: I wouldn't say that it wasn't fair, because I think they were all incredibly talented chefs ... [but] it wasn't fair in terms of the experience of having cooked under these specific constraints of Top Chef before. We knew what to expect, and we all made it pretty far in our own seasons. We were all hyper-aware that we can perform under those conditions. That was the biggest difference: Some people are great on that platform, and some just aren't. We had already been weeded out of the people who couldn't handle that pressure.
You are now Top Chef's fourth female winner, and that's still kind of extraordinary because the show has come under critique in the past for how it treats male versus female chefs. But three of those four winners have been crowned in the last five years. Do you think Top Chef is getting better at treating all kinds of chefs equally?
BW: I think there is just a smaller pool of women chefs out there. We are obviously just as capable as our male counterparts, but perhaps there are fewer of us, so we're harder to find. The fact that there are four female winners now is wonderful, and it's inspiring to younger women who perhaps felt like it was a male-dominated field.
We try to not look at ourselves as "female chefs," because we want to look at ourselves as chefs. But it would be incredibly naïve to say that the fact that we're women doesn't matter.
Speaking of female chefs, you bonded very closely with Casey Thompson, returning from seasons three and eight this year. How did that bond come to be?
BW: Casey is one of my favorite people on earth. She's incredibly funny, she's entertaining and she's kind. She's one of the most sincere, wonderful, non-judgmental people I know. To have her there was like having a sister who would always have your back. I think — I hope! — the feeling is mutual. That final Last Chance Kitchen challenge was hard. We both understood we were there for the same reasons, and would never fault either one of us for moving forward over the other. We're both really happy for each other's careers and lives. We have so much respect for each other.
After Seattle, you were an established figure. You have your restaurants. What does this win do? What's your next big step?
BW: I don't know if I have a next big step, except continue what I'm doing and keep up the quality of what I have going on in my life. I think I've accomplished what I needed to do in my life. The rest is icing on the cake and enjoying it. I'm gonna try not to burn out ... but at the same time, I want to take advantage of all the opportunities coming my way right now. Those won't last forever.
A lot of previous Top Chef winners and alumni have come back and guest-judged the show — would you want to do that?
BW: Absolutely. I have a lot of love in my heart for Top Chef, and I love to be part of the show. I don't think I need to compete anymore, so therefore, the only other option would be to judge. I would be honored to be able to do that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.