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‘Top Chef’ Winner Kelsey Barnard Clark Shares Everything You Didn’t See On The Show

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One of the fun parts of writing a Top Chef power ranking is that you can look back and see exactly what your first impressions of a contestant were and compare them to how those impressions evolved over the season. It’d be cool if you could do that with your friends.

Here’s what I first wrote about Top Chef season 16’s eventual winner, Kelsey Barnard Clark:

Kelsey Barnard Clark — AKA: Wine Mom. Aka Elle Woods. Aka Roll Tide. Aka Can I Speak To Your Manager?

Early Impressions: Sort of like if vocal fry was a person. With her raspy drawl, debutante clothes, and boozy affect, I kept thinking Alabama-bred Kelsey was about to slosh her drink on me and explain why I’ll always be a doorman. Weirdly, this is charming.

So how has my impression evolved? Well, now I know that she’s also a pretty great chef. Clark was perhaps this season’s most quip-ready contestant, and one of her central qualities is that her persona comes across so strongly, almost immediately. In a Top Chef season notably lacking in compelling, TV-ready personae (with all due respect to Eddie), Kelsey stood out as one of the most entertaining. She ended up getting voted “fan favorite” at the end of the season, tacking another $10,000 onto her $125,000 haul for winning.

The cash will surely help with a few expenses for the new mother, whose first child took his first steps while she off filming the show. And the money will go further than it would for the chefs still working in, say, New York or San Francisco, since Clark plans to continue running her restaurant and catering business in her hometown of Dothan, Alabama. It’s a place Clark describes as “very much like Sweet Home Alabama.”

Look, I don’t want to say I was right to instantly compare Kelsey to a Reese Witherspoon character, but…

I spoke to Clark over the phone this past week, and she offered the inside scoop on the incompetent Restaurant Wars waiters, finicky Hunter Hayes, and Kentuckians turning out for Top Chef events.

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So, you know, you just won Top Chef, what are you gonna do now?

I mean technically I won it eight months ago. You know, just trying to take all these opportunities. I mean hopefully this doesn’t die, and it’s not just this season. That’s the goal with anyone who’s been on the show is you don’t want it to just end after you’re done.

So how hard was it to keep the secret for the whole eight months?

It really wasn’t. I mean, if you have any respect for the show, which I do, there’s a huge excitement obviously about who wins. But more than that it’s like you want people to be very fooled the whole time. Nobody likes the person that they think is gonna win from day one to win to be honest, ’cause that’s just boring.

Did you have to keep it from your family and stuff too?

I mean my mom and my husband knew because they were there [at the live finale]. But I didn’t tell my whole family.

How long were you gone from your family to shoot the show?

I guess it was like 10 or nine weeks total. The first part was about, I cannot remember these numbers for the life of me. I think I’ve blocked it out on purpose. The first part of it was from like May to the end of June and then the second part was just like two weeks of July.

Were there any important milestones that you missed while you were away?

Oh, you know, just my child walking and talking, other than that, meh, nothing at all.

But at least you ended up winning at the end.

Yeah. Thank God for that, or else I’d be like burning buildings down. I’m kidding. Yeah, you know, it was a very sucky time for me because… I am thankful that I didn’t know. I think it would’ve been significantly worse if this was my second child and I knew exactly what I was going to be missing. Not knowing is sometimes better than knowing.

That’s the same with Top Chef. That’s what we always like to joke is, “I can’t believe people do it twice, ’cause it’s so ridiculously hard.” That you’re like, “You knew what you were doing the second time, what were you thinking?” That’s sort of how it was with just having a child and knowing how hard, ’cause I didn’t know how hard it was gonna be, and in my mind I was like, “Oh, it’s not that long. It’ll be fine,” but I guess you just don’t think that how secluded you’re gonna be.

That really is the kicker for everyone is that you really are totally in seclusion. As much as we love each other there were definitely times where I was like, “Get away from me. I don’t wanna talk to you again. If I have to look at you for one more hour I’m gonna just lose it.”

I mean, you’re with a bunch of people you don’t really know.

Talk me through Restaurant Wars. There was a bit of a debacle with your guys’ servers. Were there parts of that, that we didn’t see, that you think also contributed to that mess?

Well, you know, I think our whole season has agreed on this one thing: We don’t think production realized how hard it was gonna be on them to have three teams. More so on them than us, because… like I’d say 90% of the issues were… just not being ready, honestly. By the time the cameras were rolling we didn’t even have tables built in our restaurant. Things were just totally not ready, and I mean I’ve said a million times, they were like, “What would she do in real life?” I’m like, “Well, I would never open a frickin restaurant with no frickin tables built, number one.” I mean if we were that behind on construction of my restaurant I’d delay my opening. I mean, duh? Are you kidding? Idiot.

So, that’s the thing you have to know about Restaurant Wars is that it’s the most unrealistic thing in the history of anything. You would never open a restaurant on those terms, you would never open a restaurant without testing the menu, training your staff, so of course, we all acted like a bunch of jackasses because we were like, “This is ridiculous.” There was just a point where we were all laughing ’cause we were like, “This is ridiculous. What are we even doing right now? This is just a joke.”

And we were third. There was no way someone or both people from my team were not going home. Because we were last and we significantly got the short end of the stick because by the time judges got to us, I think it was probably midnight. I mean mind you, we don’t even have watches so I don’t know what time it was but, it had been HOURS.

So, we were insanely behind and there’s that whole scene of Padma being like, “How long have these people been waiting?” We’re like, “I don’t know, y’all tell us because we’ve been waiting for y’all.” So, that’s kind of the thing about it, is that everything was behind. It wasn’t just the cooking was behind, or we were behind, it was everything was behind. It was just a cluster, honestly. I would be very shocked to see Restaurant Wars happen with three teams again.

Where do they find the servers? It seems like it was unclear whether it was your guy’s fault for not training them more, or if they were just shockingly untrained for people that were supposed to be serving.

Well, I’ll say this, it would have been very beneficial had we had time to train them longer, that is for sure. But, you know, when we’re building tables when we should be training staff… I don’t know if that’s on us. I will tell you this much though. In the 15 minutes I’d spoken with them I was like, “Well, this is completely pointless.”

Because I have a catering company, and having catering servers versus restaurant front of the house is totally different. It’s a different setup, I mean you have to know how to bus tables, and how to clear tables, and move tables. Catering is all about hospitality and keeping a smile on your face and cleaning up really, you don’t have to do much service. They were catering staff, and we were significantly short staffed. We had two people quit before we ever started.

Did they quit just ’cause just it was getting late at night and they wanted to go home?

Probably, they probably wanted to go to a party or something, I don’t know. They were probably like, “This is dumb. What did I sign up for? I don’t wanna do this anymore,” and they left. I mean, I can’t really say that I blame them, hahaha.

Speaking of that, were you surprised during that one where you guys did the challenge in the basketball stadium that they seemed like they filled almost the whole stadium just for people to watch you guys cook?

I don’t know what I thought, I guess. I thought to myself they were trying to make it feel as real as realistically like a basketball game as they could. I think that was the goal. But I mean no, not really because I think a lot of people just wanna be near the production of Top Chef, from what I’ve seen. A lot of people, I mean I’ve heard it a million times but “how do I come to these events, and how do I do this?” So, the Kentucky people were just super hyped about all of it so I think getting a bunch of Kentucky people to show up to Rupp Arena is not really hard.

Right, I guess the surprise was that in one episode, they clearly got that many people to show up for a cooking challenge, but then in Restaurant Wars, there were servers they found who were like, “Who’s Padma?”

Yeah, you’re telling me! I went up to my staff and was like, “Hey, just let us know when Padma walks in,” and they were like, “Who is that?” I was like, “You’re kidding, right?” I mean, yeah, you can’t be serious. I just would laugh and I didn’t mean to be offensive, I just was like, “Wait, is this a joke?” It got to the point where honest to God… I mean, multiple times Justin and David were like, “This has to be planted. There’s no way these people don’t know.”

I mean there was that whole scene of Nini being like, “You don’t need to give her a spoon,” and the [server] was like, “Why not?” And she was like, “‘Cause she didn’t get soup.” Then the person was like, “Why doesn’t she need a spoon?” Nini was like, “I can’t, I’m walking away. I can’t.” It was just like, I don’t know how to break this down.

I promise you, I just feel like these people, may have been told to mess with us? I don’t know.

So tell me about Dothan.

You know, I was raised here, I wasn’t born here and it’s not a tiny town but it feels like one, I guess is the best way to put it. I mean we had a party on Thursday night for the finale and they gave me a key to the city. It’s very much like the movie Sweet Home Alabama. It’s got a great small town feel. I’m trying to grow the downtown community, which is kind of big for me, and sort of where my passion is so that’s a pretty new thing. I mean, when I was in high school 11 years ago, there was nothing downtown, we didn’t go downtown. Now it’s kind of this booming area, kind of the place to be.

What are the pluses and minuses of running a restaurant in a smaller town?

The pluses, I mean, for me, is I came home to open a restaurant because of the cost of it, number one. When you compare the cost of buying a building and all that, anywhere else it’s just a joke actually when you compare what I would pay for what anyone else would pay. The support too. You aren’t competing against, just mountains and mountains of businesses all around you. People knew who I was the second I got back. They were excited about it, they wanted to support me. I mean you work really hard in a big city just for people to be like, “Oh, that’s who she is. Okay, now I’ll give her a chance.” You know what I’m saying?

The negative is it can be pretty stifling for someone like me, who’s trained, and you know, been places, and done really awesome food. In the first two years it was definitely a struggle, ’cause I had to tone down my expectations and tone down what I wanted versus what I needed to do for the city, and what I needed to do for my customers. This is the hardest decision — and something that I have told any young person starting a business — is: stop. Throw that ego that you have out the door and throw away all these big dreams you have of making the food you want finally. I always hear people who don’t have their businesses being like, “I can’t wait to finally cook the food that I wanna cook,” and I’m like, “Okay well, have fun with that when you close your restaurant doors in about a year.”

Because you can’t cook the food you want, ever. If you wanna make money and keep your business open, you gotta cook what the people want. So, you’ve got to have a good balance there — like, yeah, be educational and do some things maybe that people haven’t heard of, and take some chances, but also, know what your atmosphere is. Know who your customers are. I learned pretty early on that, like, I really like vegetarian things but putting in a menu full of vegetarian options in a meat-and-three type of town is not going to happen. At the end of the day, this is a business. So passion aside, you do have to pay the bills every month.

Yeah. So do you like Hunter Hayes less now that he was so unfair to your shakshuka?

Now, that was all the most ridiculous thing ever. I mean I know Hunter Hayes, I like Hunter Hayes, but that whole reaction I’m pretty sure I was talking to Sara about a conversation we were having earlier. That’s the power of editing. You have to remember, you don’t know when we’re reacting the way that you’re seeing us react, if we were even reacting to the situations they’re showing.

So, yeah, I like him fine, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not really someone who fangirls. Ever. When I saw that I was like, “That didn’t happen then.” I was probably telling Sara to shut up about continually talking about my ex-boyfriend… That’s probably what was actually happening.

Was he the finickiest guest judge, you think?

Yeah, I’m not, in no way am I talking bad about him ’cause I think he was very nice. I mean he was so nice, but for example, I got a rider for breakfast, right? Well, a rider means you tell us “I can’t eat this. I can eat this. I like this, I don’t like this.” His only feedback for putting me in the bottom three was, “I can’t eat acidic things for breakfast ’cause it messes with my voice.” Then I was like, “Well that would’ve been beneficial to have in your rider that you just gave me.” Then he says oatmeal as a winner because he was like, “This would be something that I would eat for breakfast.” I was like, “Yeah, you and every other four-year-old in America,” I mean, come on.

Who was your favorite guest judge?

I mean, I love Emeril just because he’s Southern, and he’s kind of like the man version of Julia Child. At least in terms of televised cooking. He’s the original, one of the originals that was doing cooking shows before cooking shows were cooking shows. I watched him when I was younger and he’s very entertaining. On a side note, he’s just genuinely a very nice guy. He hardly had a negative thing to say to anyone, you could tell it just pained him to have to pick us apart.

I’d probably say him, and then Eric Ripert is just quite possibly one of the loveliest human beings I’ve ever met. He’s just so kind and he speaks so softly, and even when he’s critiquing you he does it in such a way that you are like, “Tell me more. Critique me all day long.”

I mean is Emeril Southern though? I thought he from New England or something.

He is but he’s New Orleans though. It’s like he’s an adopted Southerner. He’s definitely not an original Southerner but we’ve adopted him.

What do you think was the most unfair challenge in terms of the amount of time you were given to cook something?

I think this would be unanimous, the meat challenge. There were multiple “‘We’re gonna quit’ lines being thrown, so yeah. No doubt. It was like two hours? Well, we were on a stagger and it was supposed to be like, “This is fair, you know? We’ll stagger you all every 30 minutes.” But it was ridiculous. I mean if you had flank steak, which someone did, it’s like you’ve got to be kidding he’s got a flank steak and I have a freaking shank? I mean it would take normally six hours, and by the time you broke down your piece of meat you had two hours to cook. It was totally ridiculous.

Then the judges were all mad that you didn’t give them a bigger piece of meat.

Yeah and they’re like, “Oh, you should’ve given us a bigger piece of meat, and we were like, “Yeah but we had to make 12 plated dishes, how are we supposed to put a carving, you know, a piece of meat you cut when everyone had to have an individual plate?” It’s just was one of those, when we were watching it and like it was all happening and you wanted to be like, this has to be a joke. I mean, they’re gonna stop this any second, right?

Finally, do you have anything would like to say to anybody who watched the show or anything to add?

I mean maybe I’ll say it to y’all… Does it suck to be wrong, Uproxx?

No. We love being wrong, it’s great, it’s so much more surprising that way.

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