Top Chef is one of the most intense competitions around. It not only puts your culinary skills to the test but also challenges you mentally, physically, emotionally, and pretty much every other way possible.
So imagine our surprise when we heard that not one but eight cheftestants would be returning to the competition for Season 14 hoping to finally grab that coveted title of Top Chef. Brooke Williamson and Shirley Chung were two such veterans looking for redemption this season of Top Chef, having previously come in as the runner-up and second runner-up in Season 10 and Season 11, respectively.
Brooke, who (SPOILER ALERT) went on to win this season of Top Chef, realizes that putting herself through the trials and tribulations once again might sound a little crazy at first. "There's, like, this deranged mentality that you need to do better. I think we're just masochists," she said with a laugh during a recent interview with The Daily Dish. "And I think we have this weird appreciation for the torture that is Top Chef."
For Shirley Chung, who was this season's runner-up, her return to Top Chef was all about friendship. "First of all, I feel like I don't want to turn down any opportunities. Top Chef, the first time around literally changed my life. So I think it's a great opportunity that I shouldn't miss," she told The Daily Dish. "I heard that some of my friends are gonna come back, and I really like those friends, so it sort of pushed me to decide to compete again."
In some ways, Top Chef is kind of like a vacation. "Being on Top Chef sort of re-inspires you, makes you totally, 100 percent focused on cooking," Shirley said. "You don't do that in real life. Running a restaurant, there's no way. There's so many things pulling you 1,000 directions, so being on Top Chef, I actually think about it like a culinary vacation."
Having already gone through the high and lows of a season of Top Chef, Brooke and Shirley agreed that they felt more relaxed this time around. "The pressure of performing was less, only because maybe I understood the competition, and I understood those nerves and what they meant, and I was able to maybe turn the nerves more into motivation and excitement," Brooke said.
That helped Shirley be more confident in her style of cooking this season, too. "I think, compared to last season to this season, I grew a lot as a chef. I'm more clear who I am as a chef and what kind of cuisine I cook," she explained. "So it was a very different feeling coming back on this season."
However, there was one part of the finalists' second Top Chef experience that remained the same. "I think that the judges' critiques are really consistent. I think they know a lot about food and they have been doing this for a very long time, and they're really consistent with their commentary," Brooke said. "They expect a lot of everyone. I don't think that they expected more of us because they had seen us before. I think that they expected the best food that they could make always."
At the beginning of the season, Brooke said she had no idea that the veterans would do so well in the competition, eventually dominating the top four. "I wasn't expecting anything. I try not to have any expectations when it comes to Top Chef" she said."I didn't know the level of talent coming in with those eight new chefs. I actually expected a lot of them. I think that there was a lot of talent there. I think that ability to turn the nerves into excitement was easier for us because we had done it before. And I think that perhaps that's maybe what held a few of them back."
Padma Laskhmi and Tom Colicchio weighed in on whether or not they thought the vets had an advantage over the newbies this season during their appearance on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen earlier this month. "I don't think it matters because it's like the Olympics. You can compete more than once," Padma explained. "I think it's what you do on the day."
Tom did think the returning cheftestants had a leg up early on in the competition. "To be honest, early on, I think they did, only because I think they understand what's going on. Most of the chefs come on the set, they have no idea that the second they actually show up, there's gonna be a challenge. And they just don't understand the tempo and how fast you have to do things," he said. "But I think by the third episode, you kind of settle in."
But at the end of the day, it really doesn't matter if you're a rookie competing against a veteran or vice versa on Top Chef. "I think our biggest competition sometimes is ourselves," Brooke told The Daily Dish.
Relive the intense moment the new and returning cheftestants come head-to-head for the first time this season, below.