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.
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.