The season finale of Top Chef: Charleston airs tonight — pitting chef Shirley Chung and chef Brooke Williamson. In a lot of ways, it’s a battle of opposites. Brooke grew up in LA, says she knew she wanted to be a chef by the age of six, was already working towards that goal by her early teens, and got all of her training on the job. Shirley, who grew up in Beijing, came to the US at the age of 17 to go to college then worked in Silicon Valley for a few years, before quitting to go to culinary school when she was 28.
It’d be easy to position this as some kind of Rocky IV showdown, but the fact that Top Chef isn’t nearly as dumbed down and overproduced as virtually every other cooking competition on television is probably a big part of I still watch it after 11 years. I also think that after 10 or 20 years of consuming reality show dickheads we’ve gotten to a place where not every show needs a villain, and in fact it’s refreshing when you can watch a show or movie where there’s conflict, but it’s not because one of the people is insufferable.
Which is part of why it’s not disappointing to talk to Brooke and Shirley and realize that they genuinely seem to like each other. I’m sure they’re both intensely competitive and want to win, but they’ve logged enough hours together that they’ve become almost a comedy duo, finishing each other’s sentences and teasing in equal measure. I spoke to them by phone yesterday, in a chat that was as revealing as it was on-brand, with Brooke even scolding Shirley for talking too loudly at one point.