Kelsey Barnard Clark On Life After Top Chef, Her Derby Menu, And Why Kitchens Used To Be Worse Than NFL Locker Rooms

Top Chef is currently in full swing, with the latest, first post-COVID-bubble season taking place in Houston, Texas, building towards a finale with only five chefs remaining. Meanwhile, this past weekend was the Kentucky Derby, less a horse-race than a week-long party in many parts of the country.

To create a perfect menu for all those Derby Day parties, Williams-Sonoma partnered with Top Chef season 16 winner Kelsey Barnard Clark, who not only won the Top Chef season set in Kentucky, but is a native Southerner — from Dothan, Alabama. It’s hard to think of a better choice than Barnard Clark, whom I nicknamed “Wine Mom” and “Elle Woods” in my rankings. She created for them a series of easy-yet-elegant Derby dishes, featuring everything from wings with Alabama white barbecue sauce to succotash (for which she says you can even use leftover corn), taken from her new cookbook, Southern Grit.

Barnard Clark was easily one of my favorite competitors, and I must not have been alone because she was also voted Fan Favorite for her season, an honor that comes with an extra $10,000 prize. Naturally, when I was offered an interview in conjunction with the Derby menu, I jumped at the chance. In our first attempt at it, Barnard Clark was stuck in traffic, on the way back from the beach with her young family (Fun Mom indeed). And stuck in traffic with a car full of kids, despite the miracles of modern communication, probably wasn’t the most conducive atmosphere for an in-depth chat (as a dad and a stepdad, I was amazed she even attempted it).

We did get another shot at it, which is why I didn’t quite get this writeup posted in time for the actual Kentucky Derby. I also didn’t really intend for it to be an “in-depth” chat in the first place, but with Barnard Clark, who now runs KBC in Dothan, Alabama along with her media schedule, has such a winning mix of plainspoken candor and high level of insight, both into food, the restaurant industry, and the television industry, that I couldn’t help but continue picking her brain. We had a lot to talk about, and she’s full of both charm and wisdom, so I’ll just shut up now and let you read it.

Kelsey Barnard Clark Top Chef

Since winning Top Chef, have you gotten comfortable doing a lot of media and television appearances and things like that?

I mean yeah, I mostly have my representation to thank for that. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Bullfrog, which is like an agency. [My agent] only represents about six people, and all of us but one are Top Chef winners. It sort of became her passion because she realized that when we go on the show, we’re just normal people who were chefs and then all of a sudden it’s like, now you’re famous, and we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s one thing if you did an all-star season, but me coming from a small town in Alabama, I had no experience. You’re literally just immediately thrown into this other world, and we’re not savvy at all because we have no practice with it. So three, four years down the road I’ve gotten the hang of it a little bit better, but it was crazy that first year. It was a very wild ride.

That’s only something that happened post-winning the show? You didn’t have any representation or things like that before?

No, I got the representation because the period between you physically winning the competition versus the world knowing you won is roughly nine months. So I got like, nine months to prepare for what was to come. I had an agent by the time the finale aired, which was nice. And Top Chef definitely holds your hand, there’s a media person on staff that definitely helps with that, but she’s not your publicist or your agents, it’s not the same, obviously.

Right. I follow most of you chefs on Instagram and stuff and it’s funny to watch the transition between pre-television and post-television. I think they were doing side by sides for some of you guys where you showed what you look like before Top Chef and afterwards, you always come out looking so much more polished.

That was hilarious. Mine was not funny at all, because I still look mostly the same — I mean, mine was so soon, like maybe in 10 years it’ll be funny, but some of them were so good. I think too, especially if you did Top Chef in the early years, it was really different than it is now. It’s pretty crazy. I look at like things I said on the show and it was just stuff I would never freaking say or do now, or wear the things that I wore that were on Top Chef. You become just much more thoughtful with your words, I guess.

That was actually going to be a question I had, if you would do anything differently now knowing what you know if you had to do over again?

Oh hell yes. Like all of it. The ending turned out fine, but it is sort of going through a booby trap that you all of a sudden just end up on the other side of. I didn’t do it very gracefully, I’ll be honest with you. I had no idea what I was doing. Really, my plan going into it was like, I’m going to be myself, I’m not going to worry about the cameras. Which is like yeah, in theory that’s great, but I watch some of this stuff and I’m like, “You’re on freaking camera, what are you doing right now? Did you just totally black out and forget?”

I assume the producers, that’s kind of their goal, to get you guys to forget all that. Did you notice strategies of things they were doing to try to make you guys forget that you were being watched and just sort of be candid and off the cuff?

You’re in this bubble, specifically with Top Chef, where you’re totally cut off from the whole world and you don’t have anyone and you sure as hell don’t feel like you can really confide in your castmates. Because you’re competing against each other. Anything you tell someone, like “I’m really having a hard time with this,” they absolutely can, and if they’re smart, will use against you in the next challenge. So you’re really on this island by yourself. So you start leaning in on producers a little bit, but they have their own motives as well. But it works. We all do it.

TWinkle Light Succotash
(Twinkle Light Succotash, from Barnard Clark’s Derby menu)

One of my first internships out of college was I was working as a production assistant on a reality TV show. For me, there were some parallels between those crews and the people who work in kitchens. I remember thinking those reality TV show people were kind of like pirates, because they’d crew one show in one city and then go immediately go off to another city right afterwards. Then when I read Kitchen Confidential I think Bourdain called the kitchen “the pirate ship.”

Yes. In fact, I have found myself being very attracted to the job of being a producer. If I decided to just bail on food, I could totally see myself doing that. Because that’s like what chefs are, we’re very nomadic. A lot of the time we do end up settling down somewhat, but at the end of the day, we all have that nomad gene in us where we want to just travel and do crazy things. We love chaos and we love a routine, but we also love to break a routine. It’s very similar because production is all about keeping your kit and making sure everything is precise, but then having fun and going rogue. It’s like having your shit together in terms of, like mise en place, but then using your creativity to go wild. So I think that’s probably why we all get along really well.

When I was on Top Chef, it was my first experience on TV, really. So I just remember telling one of the TV people at first, God, this job is so weird. And one of them was like, “And yours isn’t?” And I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.” We literally move anywhere for a job and do crazy things and we don’t even call it a job. It’s more like this is our life and it happens to be our job.

So I’m looking at your wing recipe. I think that was the most intriguing one on your Kentucky Derby list. I noticed that you’re a chicken rinser. That feels like a controversial decision these days. Do you have a theory behind that?

Oh, you mean from that last, what was it? Paula Patton? Did you see that TikTok or something?

Oh yes, yes. I know what you’re talking about, where she’s like pouring the seasoning directly into the–

Yes, yes. She seasons the oil instead of the chicken. Anyway, I am definitely a chicken rinser. I believe in washing chicken because it’s disgusting, first of all. And that’s really my reasoning for it, rinsing in cold water. And then yeah, depending on what you’re doing with it, like at KBC, we keep it in a brine with pickle juice and buttermilk. I tell people number one, it’s for seasoning, but number two, pickle juice kills all things. It’s like the edible bleach of the culinary world.

So your deviled eggs recipe has a note at the top that says you built a chicken coop in your backyard. Do you sell those at all or are those just for family use?

We’ve got 15 chickens and a rooster and no, it’s just for family use. I guess this was back about four years ago that I built it and got the chickens.

Was that super important to you to have fresh eggs whenever you want?

Yeah. I wouldn’t say I grew up with that by any means, but it was also that I wanted my kids to grow up around — I always said I wanted to live on a farm, but I don’t want to be that far from work and all that. So it’s sort of like the best of both worlds, having a little farm in the yard, but not having to be way out in the country. But I love animals, number one. And number two, the same with the garden as well, I wanted my kids to like grow up understanding and having a different level of respect and connection to their food and where it comes from.

Green Eggs and Ham, Kelsey Barnard Clark

Do you notice a huge difference between fresh and store-bought eggs?

I definitely do now. I think that anyone who’s kind of gotten used to the taste of fresh eggs and then you eat a store-bought egg it’s totally different. Specifically when they’re boiled, they’re a lot softer and more… Store bought, they’re always older. So once you boil them, the whites get very hard and chewy, and with fresh eggs, they don’t. They literally just melt in your mouth.

As a Top Chef winner and a TV personality, you’re sort of you’re going around, you’re doing a lot of travel and media, you’re living sort of this cosmopolitan lifestyle. Do you feel like that still fits with your restaurant in Alabama? Do you feel like you have to, I don’t know dial it back for like the local palate or anything like that?

You’re talking about what I serve?

Yeah, just in terms of, I imagine your experiences are now a little more eclectic than the average diner at your restaurant.

I mean you’re definitely spot on with that. I actually had a restaurant that I felt like it was a failure, and I always looked back on that and it was because I was doing what I wanted to do and not listening to the town and where I was. I was thinking like a chef and less like a business woman. So for me, I think the biggest shift in my success as a restaurant owner, as a boss, as a leader and anything, is to do what’s best for the restaurant and take what I want out of it. So I think that like, my creative fulfillment and things like that don’t necessarily always happen within the restaurant. My career fulfillment and my business fulfillment, because I’m definitely someone who’s very much entrepreneurial and business minded, that’s what I get fulfillment from with the restaurant. When it comes to cooking really amazing food that I want to be cooking, it doesn’t always happen there and that’s okay, because the restaurant’s doing other things for me. I think for me at this point in my life and just where the restaurant is and how it’s become successful, investing the most time in my staff and my people is more important to me than investing everything in the food. The second I switched my mindset with that was when we really became successful.

What’s that been like, having a restaurant going during the COVID experience? Do you feel like indoor dining and stuff like that has bounced back?

I mean, yes, to be totally honest with you. What was harder to me was being in a state that didn’t really acknowledge COVID hardly while being a part of a world that was. It always has been difficult to live in the very deep south, as someone who doesn’t exactly see eye to eye with the majority of the people, and definitely doesn’t have the same belief system as a lot of the people. Which is fine, I love different things and I love to be welcoming of that, but that was a little difficult during COVID, because we weren’t shut down that long. And our laws and regulations were very lax at times, and I was looking at all of my friends, all of my peers, just shut down, really just like begging for anything. So I almost felt guilty for that, number one. And number two, we were enforcing things that weren’t enforced by the state within our restaurant, which was very challenging as well. We had our own challenges I think that were a little bit unique, but I think everyone could tell you a different story of how they had a difficult time during COVID with their businesses.

Going back to your Derby menu for Williams-Sonoma, I noticed you have a succotash recipe on here, and it says you can use leftover corn for this?

Yes. Or frozen corn, even. I’m a big fan of frozen corn kernels. I don’t love anything canned because I can taste everything, and I feel like canned things always taste canned. Like canned tomatoes I’m fine with, but everything else… Frozen corn is one of my best friends because it’s something that especially, in a lot of places like you can buy fresh frozen corn that was put out during the summer. I always have that in my freezer at all times.

What other types of frozen stuff do you have in there?

All types of frozen beans and peas. Peas is something that I eat almost every day of the week because my kids love it and the whole family loves it. And that’s something that we get at our Piggly Wiggly. It’s always local and I keep those frozen at all times. Those are my biggest staples. I freeze a lot of meat as well. I buy meat in bulk and break it down myself and then freeze it. So there’s almost always multiple types of beef, chicken, plus a lot of people give me things like duck, deer. I have a ton of that in my freezer at all times as well.

If you had to give advice to someone who has no media experience, just a chef that’s going on Top Chef, what advice would you give them?

I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me right after they go on the show or right before they’re going on the show, and I think the biggest thing I would tell anyone is like, figure out who you are. Whether you’re even sure yet, figure out what your story is. Because if you don’t know it by the time you get there, they’re going to make it up for you, trust me. So decide what you want it to be and stick to it. Sell it and make it. And I don’t mean like, “Hey, I’m Kelsey and I’m from Alabama, but I’m going to now talk about how I’m obsessed with Italian food and I’m going Italian.”

I mean, it has to be true to you. Like, dig deep into your roots. Has your training all been in, I don’t know, like Aztec cuisine and you’re obsessed with Aztec cuisine and that’s what you want your story to be? Then sell that. And let that be the food you cook. Because I think to me, even when I judge, if I can’t figure out why the hell you cooked something and you can’t tell me why you did it, you’re already down on the bottom for me. I don’t even want to go to bat for you because there’s no heart there, you’re just cooking someone else’s food. Getting there and being, even if you’re not super confident, fake it till you make it and just commit to that. Commit to, this is who I am, this is what I’m going to be, and this is the food I’m going to cook.

For me, that was always going to be Southern and French food and I stuck with that the entire time. I was always like, if I cannot find a story from my actual heart about why I want this food to be on this plate, I can’t cook it. It always started with a story and then ended with a plate. All the times that I actually did well was when I stuck to that.

This last season before this one, they sort of had a situation where they had a winner where they found out some stuff about him, and sort of had to disavow him after the fact. Do you think they’re doing anything different now? Is there anything that they can do differently to avoid that? And do you see the process being any different as a result of that?

A hundred percent. And without saying too much of why I know what I know about it, I think I will say this: I think the coolest thing about Top Chef is that I look at them totally differently now after that scenario than I did before. Because they could’ve pretended like it didn’t happen. They could have erased him. They could’ve changed the ending. They could’ve done a lot of things. And I think what I really applauded was them just being like, “Hey, we didn’t know and we don’t support this.”

I think that is powerful in this day and age, just being honest. And then what they’ve done now more moving forward is, again without saying too much, the people who are getting cast are 100% being vetted. It wasn’t like we weren’t before, but they’re definitely doing a nose dive deep into your background now. They’re asking questions, they’re asking peers that you don’t know about questions, which is what should be done to maintain the respect of the show. And I think every show should do that. If you want to have any kind of respect, all you have to do is ask a few questions. I mean, there’s been a lot of that lately, where if you would’ve just asked four people in the restaurant that person worked in, one of them would’ve told you. That’s all it would’ve taken, one person to say, “Yeah, no, this guy’s an asshole and you probably don’t want him on your show.”

Do you think it’s a matter of, traditionally, coming up in kitchens has been sort of a chauvinist environment, and now there’s this broader change that’s happening, but then you’re still getting people that sort of came up in that and are still influenced by it?

No, I think that there’s just still a lot of assholes in the world, and no matter what we do, I don’t think we’re going to get rid of them in any culture. I will say, where it used to be very much, I call it like locker room behavior more than anything, that was absolutely the kitchen. When I was in it, there is no sugarcoating, it was horrific. It was so inappropriate. I would’ve rather been in an NFL locker room than in the kitchens that I was in, any day. It would’ve been so much more professional and appropriate. That is now gone because it was way crossing the line. It wasn’t like a little bit inappropriate, it was like downright abusive. So that was a kitchen thing before that absolutely can’t happen anymore.

But as someone who runs a kitchen, I’m the first to say, like we’ve had guys that I’m like, what is wrong with you? Like number one, you’re fired and number two, what the hell is wrong with you? Get out of here and don’t work anywhere until you go see a therapist for a while. So I think it’s less a kitchen thing and more than just, like some people just suck.

Read the rest of our Top Chef Power Rankings here. Vince Mancini is on Twitter.