Brooke Williamson already owned two LA restaurants, Hudson House and The Tripel LA (along with her husband, Nick Roberts), when she was tapped for season 10 of Top Chef. That she was willing to drop everything to compete is a testament to the kind of boost that the show can still give your career (how many other reality competitions can you say that about these days?). It was a gamble that ended up paying off when she made it all the way to the finals before losing to winner Kristen Kish (three dishes to one), despite having won the most challenges that season (four), even taking home a Toyota Prius, which she won for the Chris-Pratt-and-Anna-Faris-homecoming-party challenge (Brooke’s winning dish? Lamb-stuffed squid on black rice with coconut milk). Making her the Aiken to Kish’s Studdard, so to speak.
Since the show, Brooke and her husband Nick have opened another restaurant, Playa Provisions, also in LA (where they both grew up). This past week, Brooke, Nick, and their son, Hudson, were all in Montana, where Chef Brooke was the chef of honor, tasked with cooking a five-course meal for about 50 guests at The Resort at Paws Up‘s “Bounty of the Blackfoot.” Guests got to follow Brooke and family around the Missoula farmer’s market while she shopped for the local produce she’d be cooking that evening (a task very much in the vein of a Top Chef-challenge). She settled on multi-colored carrots, kohlrabi, pea tendrils, a few different kinds of radishes, beans, two kinds of kale, and a few other items, all while the other guests and I pumped her for cooking tips (dress your kale with olive oil early, and let it soak for 45-60 minutes before eating to make your kale salad more tender).
Somewhere between that morning’s prep and the evening’s cooking, I got to interrupt the surprisingly un-stressed chef during a family lunch to ask some dumb Top Chef fanboy questions and try to get her to complain about food. It went… medium well. You ever meet people who are just sort of easy to talk to in an effortless way that makes you wonder why everyone isn’t like that? Brooke and Nick were like that.
VINCE MANCINI: Did you get to do a lot of guest chef spots like this before Top Chef?
BROOKE WILLIAMSON: Not even close to as much, no. Now I think people see me as a draw for their clientele and something different and exciting.
Do you get to do it a lot?
I do. I’d say several times a year all over the country. Pretty much mostly in the United States, but yeah, I’ve been to some really awesome, fun places.
Did your businesses change a lot after that Top Chef experience?
Absolutely. There are so many different reasons why I did the show, but ultimately, why I do this sort of stuff is not just for my own fun and benefit and, you know, travel desires, it’s to fuel our restaurants. That’s our livelihoods. So anything I can do to keep people coming in and keep us in the know is 100% why I would want to continue doing it.
Do you find yourself having to be more of a public figure than you ever intended when you were starting out?
Totally. I mean, I grew up in LA and all of my friends and my sister all wanted to be actors, and I was sort of the rebel in the sense that I didn’t want to be in front of the camera. I didn’t want to be just like everyone else. I wanted to cook. I always knew what I wanted to do, and I never in a million years expected that to lead to being on TV.
Was that something you understood going in, how much Top Chef would have an effect on business?
No. You know going into it but you never know how well you’re going to do. And I was definitely nervous about making an ass out of myself and not doing well. If you get eliminated early, it doesn’t really affect your life a whole lot. It’s just a massive waste of time.
How much time away does it require and how much does that sort of hurt what you’re doing ?
Like two months of complete immersion and complete separation and total lack of contact with my family, which was really, really hard. My son was four and a half at the time. So my intentions were to make it to the end. Because when you get eliminated you don’t get sent home, you stay.
Yeah, at that point you just have to stay. And you’re separated from all the people who are still competing, and it kind of makes the whole thing a waste of time — a waste of time away from your family, a waste of time away from work. So, no. I had no idea what it would do but I was obviously hoping for the best.
So when you’re on the show, are they trying to make you go stir crazy a little bit?
Totally, yeah. I mean obviously I don’t think the intention is to make you crazy, but I think they want you completely immersed in what you’re doing, and not distracted by your real life. They want you to understand what a big deal it is.
So on Top Chef a lot of the time, you know, you’ll make something, and then they’ll cut in the interview where you’re talking about the thing you just made. I’m assuming you’re not just letting your food sit there getting cold while they interview everybody, right?
No. The interviews happen after the fact. And you have to talk in present tense, which you do have you to get used to, it’s not easy to do. But by the end of the show you’re pretty much a pro.
And then is there a way to sort of — do they coach you to not give away things by the way that you —
They just ask you questions and I think that that’s all in the editing. The fact that you’re talking in present tense makes it so that you don’t really think about the outcome of something while you’re talking. Kind of walking through your brain as some things are happening and you recalling things in present tense. So, I mean, of course, I’m not going to say, “I put this in the oven, and I realize that I had too much salt on it when I put it in the oven,” because in the end the judges told you you had too much salt on something. You don’t say that because you didn’t realize that and it wouldn’t make sense.
Right. Is that just your personal thing? You’re just trying to be sort of helpful in that way, or do you think people end up trying to justify certain things after the fact?
I’m sure people do it, but they make it difficult for you to get that out. And I’m sure that they just don’t use parts that spoil anything.
Okay, so now for the questions that I actually wrote down. What kind of food trend do you find yourself complaining about the most?
I don’t complain about food trends. I just stay away from them. You know, I cook what I want to cook, eat what I want to eat. So trends don’t really affect me.
Do you ever eat a gourmet burger and then sort of feel like you wish you would have gone to In-N-Out instead? [yes, we are all from California. I know how angry East Coast people get when you bring up In-N-Out.]
Absolutely. I mean, one of my biggest pet peeves is people trying to make food into something that it doesn’t need to be. Trying to make something formal for the sake of feeling formal. You know, in my opinion my favorite meal in the world is a great bowl of ramen. And so I can appreciate inexpensive, casual food just as much if not more.
Right. I think when you go on vacation sometimes to like a resort Mexican place and there’ll be guacamole, but you can get like lobster on top of it and you’re kind of like–
No, I just want the guacamole!
Exactly. So you guys do some high-end burgers at your restaurants too. What’s the secret of making one that’s actually worth the money?
You know, we start by using really good meat. We use dry aged beef for our beef burger, we use really good lamb for our lamb burger. I think just quality ingredients. You know, heirloom tomatoes instead of just tomatoes for the sake of having a tomato on– that’s something that bothers me is when people use ingredients that aren’t very good, just because you think you should have tomato on your burger. Like if the tomatoes aren’t great, don’t use them.
What are your feelings about culinary school?
I didn’t go. My husband did. We were trained very differently. I was trained in the kitchen. There is value to culinary school. I think that there are a lot of things that I wasn’t formally trained in that I would have appreciated having the knowledge of, but I learned them down the road. Maybe not perfect technique, but I feel like I have a pretty solid background in stuff. I think it just depends on the person, if you need that structure or if you can create that structure for yourself. I made a point of reading a lot because I didn’t have that structure. But at the same time I was an executive chef by 22. So you know, it’s kind of a tradeoff. It is what you make it.
Nick said you guys didn’t like each other when you first met.
Very true. [laughter] I hired him, he was my sous chef, and we had very different mentalities. I was the girl who didn’t go to culinary school and moved up really quickly and I probably did not deserve the position I was in, and he knew it. But at the same time, you know, he was a little arrogant about it. We put up with each other and ended up actually having a conversation one day, and realized we had a lot more in common than we thought we did.
[In Nick’s version, it was after they had to close the restaurant together one night that they first stopped hating each other.]
And what’s it like now being life partners and business partners?
It’s not always easy, but we make it work. It’s the only way we’ve ever known each other. So we know each other’s weaknesses and each other’s strengths, and we try to play to them. On a good day we play to them, and on a bad day we play against them.
What do you think is the most important condiment?
Condiment? That’s hard. I would say because of its versatility, I would go with mayonnaise. But I don’t really love mayonnaise.
It seems like a lot of people really hate mayonnaise, and I can never figure out why.
I appreciate mayonnaise and I appreciate what it can do, but it’s not a condiment that I use often for my own eating purposes.
I have a friend who has a theory that there are either mayonnaise people or mustard people and you can’t be both.
I’m a mustard person, but I would pick mayonnaise over mustard if I had to pick. You know you can use it in cake batter, to keep it moist. It’s the moisture factor of the mayonnaise that’s really important.
What’s something that you think most people cook wrong?
In what way?
In terms of overcooking. I think I would rather eat a raw vegetable than an overcooked vegetable.
How do you compare the food scene in LA where you guys work versus say San Francisco or New York?
You know, if you’d asked me that ten years ago, I would have said that LA has a lot more to accomplish, but I think that we’ve come a really long way in the last ten years. And I think that LA is right up there with fantastic food cities across the world. I think that there’s a lot of talent in LA and we’re finally seeing that now.
Do you think that customers have more special requests in LA than other places?
Probably. Yeah. But I feel like maybe you get that everywhere but a lot of places just don’t entertain it. But we try to.
What is your philosophy on it?
If there’s something that we can do that doesn’t affect the dish in a sense that I think it would be a terrible meal, then I’m happy do it. If it’s a dietary restriction or an allergy, you know, our goal is to get people to come back. So we try to be as accommodating as possible without giving them a bad experience.
You guys run a whiskey bar. What are some of your favorites?
I’m a bourbon lover so I kind of tend to gravitate toward Elijah Craig and sort of the old school brands. You just know they’ve been doing it a long time and they know what they’re doing. I am not a huge scotch drinker but I’ve gotten a lot more in the past year. But yeah, I just went to Louisville recently and the number of incredible bourbons just sitting on a shelf — it’s just astounding.
Do you have a favorite food movie?
I probably do… Honestly, I like Ratatouille. [laughter].
That’s a good answer. Home fries or hash browns?
(I swear I didn’t prep her for this last one).
BROOKE’S BOUNTY OF THE BLACKFOOT MENU (With notes)
1st Course: Endive & Watermelon Salad. Pickled kohlrabi, prosciutto, lemon-mustard vinaigrette.
This was fresh and raw, but somehow still tasted earthy. The pickled kohlrabi especially is fantastic, and you can’t go wrong with prosciutto and melon. In this case, two different types of watermelon. Brooke seems especially big on having as many colors as possible.
2nd Course: Charred Heirloom Beans & Carrots. Shaved beets, whipped brie, sunflower sprouts, cumin.
I thought the first course was earthy, and then the second doubled down with some thin-sliced raw beets. They taste like dirt, but in a good way, if that’s possible. And I’m one of those people who, unlike Brooke, would prefer a borderline-overcooked vegetable I can easily cut with a fork to a raw one, but if anything was going to convert me, it’d be these charred beans and carrots, which are still crunchy, but have all kinds of flavor from the dressing and the deep char. It’s like they feel raw but taste cooked.
3rd Course: Squid Ink Spaghetti. Shrimp bolognese, fennel, tarragon, chili oil, salmon roe.
This was something I’d probably never order on a menu, as I’d be scared off by salmon roe (can’t get over the image of the salmon eggs I used as fish bait as a kid) and the seafood-on-seafood-on-seafood potential fishiness. Thankfully, the roe was much smaller than the bait I used to use. And it was right up to the edge of my tolerance for fishiness, but the herbs cut through it perfectly. It just tasted rich, like something you’d sweat through your clothes and end up smelling like fish sauce later, but is so good in the moment that you really don’t care.
4th Course: Braised Horseradish, Honey Mustard-Crusted Short Rib. Cheesy kale grits, crispy kale, juniper.
Horseradish, short ribs, and cheesy grits? This is exactly something I would order, and it was as good as I imagined. Kale and cheesy grits sounds like a weird combo, I’m sure, but cooked kale actually has sort of a meaty flavor, and it worked.
5th Course: Huckleberry Hibiscus. Vanilla bean panna cotta, caramel puffed rice.
I’ll be honest, throughout dinner I was trying to finish some local bourbon I’d bought because I knew wouldn’t be able to bring it on the plane the next day. This in addition to being served a new glass of amazing wine with every course (who turns down free wine? not me). Long story short, things got a little fuzzy by the time this dish arrived. Flavors… muddled. “Bro, this is f*ckin’ good,” I remember thinking to myself, and also that “Huckleberry Hibiscus” would make a good name for a children’s book private eye.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.