Photo: Courtney Kugel (NBCUniversal )
The road to the top isn’t always an easy one, and “Top Chef: Charleston” winner Brooke Williamson is a classic example of that.
We first came to really know Brooke four years ago, when she competed on “Top Chef: Seattle,” only to lose in the end to fellow competitor Kristen Kish.
In that season, Brooke had impressed the judges in every challenge and never been eliminated — only to lose out in the finale to Kristen. Kristen, who had been told to “pack her knives and go” early on. Kristen came back in the “Last Chance Kitchen” competition for chefs who had been eliminated from the show and, incredibly, won the entire tournament. Being so close to victory –only to have it snatched away at the end —made the Seattle competition a tougher loss for Brooke to deal with.
Cue this season on “Top Chef,” in which Brooke again seamlessly made it to the final four — only to be eliminated right before the finale. She had karma on her side: this time, she came back to compete because of the “Last Chance Kitchen” and won the “Top Chef: Charleston” title last week.
Brooke’s experience of overcoming multiple obstacles is relatable to anyone, whether you’re trying to create an exquisite sauce or just move up at work. Ladders chatted with Brooke shortly after her win to discuss leadership lessons from the kitchen and beyond.
Ladders: You’ve done this twice, and in doing so has caused a flood of emotions for many reasons. What do you think you have learned the most, now that you’ve won about this entire experience?
Brooke Williamson: I think that I learned that I need to have fun and that when I’m not having fun, it shows in my food and in my confidence. Just to be lighthearted about what I do because I love it. Of course winning was satisfying and wonderful, but having to go to Last Chance Kitchen and competing to come back, I thought that it was the be all and end all of life — and it was [in the end] a wonderful and gratifying cherry on top.
What was the best way that you deal with the ups and downs of this season?
I think what people don’t necessarily see, or understand always, is that life is [always] ups and downs and you learn from your mistakes. Being a chef is all about being creative and inspired, and that doesn’t always happen on a daily basis. Top Chef puts you in a position where you have to be that [creative] 100% of the time, and you can’t always be. I’m far from perfect and far from able to cook perfectly the first time around. It doesn’t always happen! We are under this microscope on Top Chef where if something isn’t executed perfectly, it is shown for the whole world. So, I think taking the criticisms, both the good points and the bad points, are important for the growth of any person’s career.
Did you ever have a moment in your culinary career where you doubted the future of it, and how did you conquer that fear?
There have been low points. However, I have been cooking for such a long time and have known I wanted to be a chef since I was six years old, so there was never a point in my career where I said to myself “I can’t do this.” I think that having a child really motivated me. To provide for someone else and stay inspired and be a role model for him, and to show him that he can be anything he wants to do in life, is a big motivation for me.
The culinary industry has a stigma of being very male-dominated. How do you think you have succeeded the most in this environment?
I think the environment has shifted a lot over the past couple of years, especially with women being showcased so powerfully and positively on television. I’m used to being the only female in the kitchen, which in turn became motivation to do better than the men around me, and I think that it was a positive experience for me. Of course, there were moments where it was frustrating, but I always saw that as motivation to do better.
What is the best career advice you have ever gotten from someone and how did it change your outlook on your career?
I chose to not go to culinary school because of my first legitimate chef boss, who I looked up to. I admired his career. He said to me, “You have the motivation, you have the drive, you have the work ethic. Do what you are doing and you will move quickly.” I saw that as motivation to kind of impress him and at the same time, because I didn’t go to culinary school, needing to educate myself on technique. I spent a lot of time reading, which a lot of chefs don’t do—whether it be cookbooks or reviews about other restaurants —and feeling that I really needed to take it upon myself to get the education that I needed to be able to do what everyone else expected of me.
What is the best advice you can give to be someone like you, who is viewed as a leader and a winner ultimately?
If you feel passionate that you have this dream of what you like to be, make it that. Anything is possible. If you find yourself not being quite as passionate about what you are doing, then shift or move to something else because I think attaining really high goals can only be done with legitimate heart and passion.
Finally, would you do Top Chef again or are you pretty much done?
I’m pretty much done! (Laughter)