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.
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So, how fair a test is Top Chef of real-world chef skills?
Brooke: Not fair. They’re completely separate worlds, and I think Top Chef competition is… You start.
Shirley: When we’re competing, it’s very different, the scenario, the time — like we will never be trying to create a dish in the real life within six minutes, and then put it on a menu. A lot it, in a real restaurant, every single dish we put out has always been tested, and then re-tasted. But in Top Chef, you just really have to go with your guts, and then be the best you can cook that day, and then put out a dish and wish for the best.
Brooke: Yeah, I think there is a skill-set that carries over from real life to Top Chef, and vice-versa. But, I don’t think you can compare the two, at all.
If you could change anything to make it more realistic — quote, unquote — what would it be?
Shirley: More time (laughs).
Brooke: In terms of making Top Chef more realistic, in terms of real life?
Yeah, in terms of the real things you do, day to day, as a chef.
Shirley: But then, that wouldn’t be a competition (laughs).
Brooke: Yeah, I would say time. Not even time to cook, really, but more–
Brooke: Planning. But, you know, I guess that’s what the show is. It tests your ability to think on the fly. And sometimes you can do it, and sometimes it’s really difficult.
What do you think was the least fair challenge?
Brooke: I think brunch was, to me, and I know you loved that one, Shirley.
Shirley: Ah, it’s okay.
Brooke: Brunch to me, I felt like the time constraints you know … We were minutes away from Whole Foods when we were given the challenge, and sometimes, you know, you have an hour in the car to like, kind of sit and stew with your ideas. But that was like, think of something, shop, execute and here’s two hours to cook for a hundred people. So, yeah ,that felt really rushed and not so fair to me.
Shirley: I think, for me, it’s probably the Patrón challenge.
Brooke: I loved that show.
Shirley: I know. Because, I guess, it’s the not being familiar with the kitchen, and then the miscommunication, thinking there’s such equipment, but then you walk into the kitchen, and there’s not. So, it really threw me off, and with everything else. And it was so hot. And making a cocktail, and cooking for … you know, like everything, so much things going on. So I think that was one of my least favorite challenge, but I love the location and we had a really great time. Had a good time drinking cocktails that Brooke made. We finished a lot of tequila that day.
Brooke: We drank a lot of tequila.
Shirley: It wasn’t a long judges’ table, so we drank a lot.
Okay, so what was your favorite challenge then?
Brooke: The biscuit challenge was fun. I also really loved the blind taste test, because one, we didn’t have to run around like little chickens, trying to cook something. But, that was actually a lot of fun, and I did okay on that.
Shirley: I think my favorite challenge, even though I didn’t win, was coming out of Charleston. I got really emotional, but, it’s just that, the dish I created, it felt really connected to me, and at that moment, I felt extremely inspired, and I grew as a chef, and I really thought, “This is what I do, something that’s very soulful, something from my heart, for my memory of my grandmother.”
Who is your favorite judge, and why?
Brooke: I don’t know that I have one. I feel like they all kind of…
Shirley Chung: Padma and Tom are both so fair —
Brooke: I do love Gail. I feel like —
Shirley: Oh, yeah, it’s true.
Brooke: Gail is like the calming hand — although, I don’t feel like she was always very loving to me on camera. I just love her as a person. And I think that she’s a really honest, beautiful person. I love Tom too. And Padma. I feel like they’re really all very knowledgeable, and have really valid comments.
What do you think makes Top Chef different from other cooking shows?
Brooke: I think it’s legitimately the most real competition show out there. I think it’s —
Shirley: Nothing’s staged.
Brooke: Yeah, it’s not staged. It’s not overly produced, it’s not … It’s real people doing real things. And I think they stayed really true to that.
Shirley: Yeah, and also I think they do a really good job casting the caliber of chefs. When we compete, it’s really fair, and it’s really fun.
Brooke: Yeah, and I think the fact that it is such a well-respected, good, show, they’re able to get a caliber of chefs to leave their lives and be a part of something that they’re terrified of. It’s fascinating how they’re able to do that. (both laugh)
Shirley: I think, overall, Top Chef, the reputation in our industry is tremendous.
Do you watch other cooking shows? What’s your favorite non-Top Chef cooking show?
Brooke: I like documentary cooking shows. I don’t watch a lot of competitions.
Shirley: (searching) Chef…
Brooke: Chef’s Table.
Brooke: I would say Chef’s Table is probably my favorite. Just visually beautifully shot, inspiring.
Shirley: Yeah. Me too. I definitely like the story better, more than anything else, because that sort of shows you how other chefs think, and how they create. So I definitely draw to that, those kinds of show, a lot more.
What do you think that your wheelhouse is? What kind of challenge would give you an unfair advantage?
Brooke: (to Shirley) You probably know that better than I do.
Shirley: Well, [let’s] say that it is a challenge of making dumplings, or making buns, or making bao. You know, it’s very technical and it’s Chinese, so I definitely think that I have a lot of advantage, because this is what I do. And that is not only that I do that in a professional kitchen. This is actually something that me growing up doing since I was little, so I think that’s unfair.
Brooke: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve been cooking for a very long time, so I feel like I know ingredients really well. Shirley tried to throw me off on Top Chef duel by throwing my some geoduck, figuring I wouldn’t know how to use it. Not thinking about the fact that I was on Top Chef Seattle (laughs).
Shirley: No, I just wanted to eat geoduck that day.
Brooke: It’s okay.
Shirley: I literally didn’t put any thought into that challenge, I’m sorry.
Brooke: I put some thought into the challenge where I asked you to bake.
Shirley: Yes, but then, Brooke, I also think that as a pastry chef, you are very familiar with the pastry side, a lot more.
Brooke: I started my career, for a good year, in a pastry kitchen and I’ve started some pasty kitchens, so I feel like I know the sweet side pretty well, which is not something that’s very common.
So, for Shirley, what do you think is different about food culture here, versus food culture in China, where you grew up?
Shirley: I think in China, overall, we dine out a lot more, because the restaurants are a lot more affordable, in a way. So you see, in Asia, everybody likes to go out and eat. And there’s a lot of street food, a lot of hawkers, vendors, a lot of street food, very affordable, that people can eat, from breakfast to late night supper, five meals a day. Versus in the US, you don’t see that as much. I think that’s one of the main differences. And also, America’s more like a melting pot. You see a lot different culture, a lot more different cuisine, whereas in China, it still dominates, majority Chinese–
Brooke: Shirley, you’re yelling.
Shirley: I’m tired. (both laugh) You’re seriously doing this to me again? (laughs)
This is you guys really staying on brand. Thank you. So how much do you enjoy being a public figure, and how much of it is just a burden that you suffer through so you can keep doing what you’re doing?
Brooke: I think that would be really arrogant to say that it’s a burden.
Shirley: No, it’s not a burden.
Brooke: I think it’s been wonderful for business, it’s been wonderful for our careers. I am more than happy to take a picture with somebody who is literally showing their support for everything that they’ve learned about me, and who gives a shit about me? (both laugh) It’s flattering, it’s wonderful, and it’s my restaurants that are busy, so I’m appreciative of all of it.
Shirley: Yeah, totally, 100%. I second that.
How big of a risk is going on the show? What was the worst case scenario that you feared, before you agreed to it?
Shirley: I think [going out in] the first round.
Brooke: Yeah, but I think really, the biggest fear is to be eliminated first, or second, or third. (both laugh) I mean, honestly, to get eliminated that early in the game, I don’t think it does a lot for your career. I don’t think it does a whole lot for business, if you’re only on the show for a couple of episodes. But you still are missing five to seven weeks of your life. And for me, that means I’m missing time with my son. I’m missing time at my restaurant. So, that is I think, aside from wanting to win, honestly I just want to make it worth it.
How does it work, when you’re able to take that much time away from work? Like, do you have to be at a certain stage of your career to be able to do that?
Shirley: Yeah. Trust your team.
Brooke: Trust your team, but also understand the importance of what you’re doing and go into it with major motivation and confidence. I’m fortunate enough to work with my husband, who was able to kind of like be a single father for seven weeks, and take care of work, and he was this superhero that let this happen for me.
But, yeah, I think that is difficult for people who don’t own their own restaurant, who basically are are asking their bosses for–
Shirley: –vacation time.
Brooke: Major vacation time.
Shirley: And then missing out the paycheck for that long is hard for a poor chef to do.
Brooke: And, as a boss I think that as supportive as I would be of anyone on my staff doing it, unless they did really well, it’s not going to do anything for me. And generally, when people do really well on the show, it’s great for business but they end up kind of going off and doing their own thing. So, it’s kind of a double-edged sword for owners, I think.
Shirley: A lot of times, doing Top Chef is definitely about timing. Either you own your own restaurant, or … The first time around, I was just leaving Las Vegas, and the timing was perfect. I’m moving back to California, so they’re like, “Would you like to do this?” I was like, “Yeah.” But before that,Top Chef pursued me a few years ago, and I became Executive Chef. My first Executive Chef position, opening a brand new restaurant, so there was no way I would do it.
Brooke: I spoke to Top Chef for like, four years straight, before I actually ended up doing it. And the first time I had a six-month-old child, and I was not going to leave. And the second time, I had just opened a restaurant. The third time, I had just opened a restaurant. And then, finally, I was at a place where I was, like, “You know what, it’s now or never. I’m just going to dive into it.”
Do you think having all this televised cooking now, does that make it harder or easier to be a chef.
Brooke: It depends on what your definition of a chef is. (both laugh) I think there are a lot of people who think that it’s a lot more glamorous than it really is, who don’t feel like they need to work as hard as they do.
Shirley: They do.
Brooke: I’m so thankful that I had so many years of restaurant experience and lived a full restaurant career before I even attempted at doing TV. Because, I think that it makes you a different type of chef.
Shirley: We are chefs, and then I am a chef on TV. I don’t want to be a personality.
You guys are both pretty young, but how do you think the industry is changed in the time since you started cooking?
Brooke: I think it’s changed dramatically. I’ve been cooking for a long time. I mean, I’m 38 years old, I knew by the time I was six what I wanted to do, and started super, super young, professionally. And as a 12-year-old girl to say that I wanted to be a chef was kind of unheard of. It was rebellious-sounding, it was like insane.
Now, I think it’s almost the norm, and it’s great that cooking shows have inspired a lot of talent, and inspired kids to feel like they can pursue anything, regardless of gender, which I think it was really wonderful. But, it has been diluted the talent pool a little bit, I think, because I think that a lot of people get into cooking now because they want to be those people on TV. And I think that’s the wrong reason.
Shirley: I mean for me, I haven’t been cooking this long. You know, well I changed career, so I started cooking at 28. Now I’m 40, so it’s like a little bit more than 12 years now. And I want to say I started cooking at actually the beginning of this food network blowing up. One of the reasons that really pushed me forward, like learning about American cultures by watching food TV and learning about food. So, becoming a chef is really fulfilling, and then now I look at … There’s a lot of for-profit, for a while there was a lot of for-profit culinary schools.
So, I just feel like, a lot of young chefs, they don’t realize, being chef is really hard. It doesn’t matter. Even now, we’re restaurant owners, we still work six, seven days a week on norm, and then we work 10 to 12 hours. Now, there’s a lot of culture that people don’t realize that you still need to build that foundation. Everybody thinks that it’s easy, you can just become a chef.
On that note, someone wants to become a chef, do you say, “Go to culinary school.” or no?
Brooke: I didn’t go to culinary school. (both laugh)
Shirley: I actually talked quite a few dishwashers, my dishwasher out of culinary school, because I understand where they’re coming from, and they want to save a lot of money for this one year occupational culinary school, but I feel like if they just work for me and study under me, and let me train them, they can probably benefit a lot more than pay a lot of money and go to school for five hours a day.
Brooke: I think real-life experience goes a lot farther than education in a formal environment. However, I think that you really have to have a foundation of motivation and the desire and passion to learn, because it’s really easy to go about your day and do your job. But, if you’re not continuously learning, and becoming inspired and reading and educating yourself, I think that you end up missing a lot of the fundamental trade skills.
Shirley: But then, for me, I really enjoyed my experience in culinary school. I also felt, because I had zero restaurant experience before, that it would have been really hard to go to any restaurant and ask for a job and [have them be like], “What are you doing here lady?” Throwing silicone at me [Note: I’m not 100% sure what Shirley was saying here, but the transcriptionist left it as “throwing silicone at me” and I love that so much that I’m leaving it]. But then, by going to a culinary school, it opens the doors. And then, at the same time, that’s what sort of prepared me for a professional kitchen.
Who do you think got screwed the worst in their elimination, this season?
Shirley: Yes, Jim and Casey. Yeah the two quick-fired in sudden death. Oh, that’s just not fair.
Brooke: Those sudden-death quick-fires are so quick and so dismissive, in my opinion, that I feel like —
Shirley: You can’t really show how you cook in 20 minutes.
Brooke: And, not only that, but you don’t even have a moment to showcase what you’re capable of. And, like, literally, you’re judged on one 20-minute dish, and then, see you later. Like, you don’t even a judges’ table. Those sudden-death quick-fires are hard core, and I’m so happy I didn’t have to compete in one of those.
Shirley: Hey, can I change my answer, please?
Shirley: Talk about my least favorite challenge, now like totally reminded me, like I guess I kind of forgot but the shrimping challenge. That was my least favorite
Shirley: Yeah, it was motion sickness, I puked, Brooke hurt, and then gave me pills, then I got really high. It was really great. I no longer had motion sickness.
Brooke: I have a legitimate fear of vomit, and I had to look at Shirley vomit.
Shirley: I told her, I was literally screaming, “Brooke, run away!”
Brooke: I’m like, in the middle of peeing, and she’s like, “Brooke, get out of here.” And, I was like, “What, I can’t. My pants are around my ankles. What is going on?” And she’s like, “Never mind, it’s too late. Close your ears.” Yeah.
So, who do you think was more drugged up this season? You, from the dramamine, or Sheldon from his back stuff.
Brooke: A different kind of drugged-up.
Brooke: I was on lots of dramamine and Xanax too, from that boat. (both laugh) We were spacey and tired and —
Shirley: Hot, sunburned, oh, I got bird poop on me.
Brooke: It’s good luck, that’s why —
Shirley: Yeah, yeah. And then there’s like a bee flying around, oh my God —
Brooke: Somebody got stung.
Brooke: That’s good luck too. He won.
All right, so you can’t vote for yourself, and you can’t vote for each other. Who do you pick for fan favorite?
Shirley: I mean, come on, we all vote for Sheldon.
Brooke: Yeah, I mean, who wouldn’t vote for Sheldon?
Shirley: I mean, like, he made us lunch, to pack, to take with us.
Brooke: He sharpened my knives, when he was bored. I mean, he’d just, like, take care of us.
So, how annoying is John in real life, on a scale of one to 10?
Brooke: I’m going to honestly say there’s probably been, I don’t know, 10 or 12 occasions where I’ve to myself, “I’m done. I am never talking to John again.” And then, the next day I’m like, “Hey John, what’s up?” He’s a weird, like … He’s got this weird power. It is, it’s like a love-hate relationship.
Shirley: It’s very confusing.
Brooke: He’s very long-winded in his advice-giving, but I have no actual issues with John.
Shirley: You just can’t take him seriously. And then sometimes he would say something. The next second he would say he didn’t say it, so we just learned to love him like that,
So the show, it seemed to try to position Emily as the girl with the bad attitude. But I’m not sure it really came through, as a viewer. Was there something that we missed? It seemed like the show was trying to sell her as the girl with the bad attitude, but I’m not sure we actually saw a ton of evidence for it.
Brooke: I don’t know. I think she would, herself, say that she was totally out of her element and uncomfortable and terrified. And I think that it showed, not only to the public, but to all of us. And I think she kind of shut us out, at the beginning, and didn’t want to participate in friendships and, you know, it was very apparent. But now we’re all —
Shirley: Yeah, we’re all really close.
Brooke: We love Emily. We have nothing against Emily. I think that, you know, circumstances are just really difficult for some people, and that was not her wheelhouse.
Shirley: But, after we were together on Restaurant Wars, she was, like —
Brooke: Yeah, she was great. She was a total team player.
It seems like the more successful that chefs get, the less the actual physical cooking they do. Is that hard for you? Is that a relief?
Shirley: That’s why we do Top Chef. Because it’s cooking all the time.
Brooke: Yeah, honestly, doing Top Chef is so wonderful, in the sense that we just get to just focus on food, and do nothing else. Do I want to be on the line every night of my life? No, I want to be home to be able to put my kid to bed once in awhile.
I think what I’ve learned is, I will never remove myself from the food aspect, because I love it and that’s why I got into this business. But, I also really kind of want to enjoy life at the same time. And I think that it’s difficult to balance that.
Shirley: Yeah, I’m trying my best to balance that life, as well. But, I really enjoy cooking. If I don’t cook in the restaurant, I still cook at home. I think cooking calms me. This is what I choose. I don’t want to leave, But, at the same time, now that I have to run a business, it’s very different, so I need to look at every aspect of the business, but ultimately still to relate it, and this is still what we mostly do.
Brooke: When I did Top Chef Seattle, I hadn’t been on the line in a while. I’d been running restaurants for several years and kind of had become a little bit too removed from the kitchen. I think. And Top Chef really kind of got me back into the fire in the kitchen and became really inspirational.
Shirley: Yeah, definitely. I think to beTop Chef the first time around, it’s the first time that I actually have my own voice, me and Brooke met on Top Chef Duels, and then just look at the growth between me and her is Jurassic. So, I really think that Top Chef really inspired us. And also refocus us.
Brooke: It’s Jurassic, or drastic?
Brooke: Because, I like Jurassic.
Shirley: Jurassic Park. You can write Jurassic, that’s fine, that’s really popular, it’s all good.
It’s prehistoric, it’s primordial. Yeah, Jurassic. I like that. All right, so last question. What do they threaten you with, to keep you from revealing the winner?
Brooke: (to publicist) I don’t know, Becca, what did you just threaten with?
Publicist: I would just say that they have confidentiality agreements.
Brooke: And they make it incredibly unattractive to tell you the answer. (chuckles) Even posting something on social media the day after the episode has aired, I’ve gotten so much flack for spoiling it. I mean, in one sense, I feel like maybe you shouldn’t be looking at my social media if you don’t want to know the answer. At the same time, I generally wait a couple of days, because I do want people to the real experience and surprise.
From personal experience, do not piss off the no-spoiler gestapo, because they want to read everything on the internet, but they can’t handle you spoiling a plot point for some reason.
Brooke: Exactly, why are you reading Twitter if you don’t want to know the answer.
Shirley: Or, if you’re such a big fan, why don’t you watch it right away?
Thanks a lot, you guys. Any final thoughts you want to add before I let you go?
Brooke: No, I’m starving. (both laugh)
Shirley: We’re eating ramen.