'Top Chef' Alumni Talk Biggest Regrets and Life After Competition

Plus: the Cheftestants reveal whether they've mastered their elimination dishes.

Over eleven seasons of our award-winning show Top Chef, we've met dozens of culinary geniuses—and it isn't just the winners who've gone on to have incredible careers. As the finale of Season 11 gets set to ignite tomorrow (tune in at 10/9c), we caught up with runners-up and fan favorites from all seasons to find out their biggest regrets, the lessons they learned, and how their lives have changed since the competition. You may also be surprised to learn which Cheftestants obsessed over the dishes that led to their elimination.

As the clock counts down until the next Top Chef is revealed, be sure to catch up on all the action from our Emmy-award winning series Last Chance Kitchen.

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Carla Hall, Season 5 and Season 8: All-Stars

How has life changed for you since Top Chef?
It's been huge. I always tell people "It's because of Top Chef..." Now, I'm on The Chew and fans can see me everyday during the week. I stopped catering. It's been a whirlwind!

What was the toughest thing about doing both Top Chef and All-Stars?
Being away from your support system is always really hard. But because I've always worked away from home it wasn't as hard for me. Being judged was the hardest part. There were so many times I wanted to go home when people started talking about my food. Another part that's hard is you meet these people who are your friends, but at the end of the day it's a competition.

What's the biggest lesson you learned?
I found my voice. You're always working for somebody and making other people's food as a caterer, and I never thought of what my voice was until Top Chef. Then I realized I'm southern and I do Southern food. Now I don't apologize for that.

Any ingredients or cuisines you were terrified to cook on Top Chef
Let me count the ways! There's no way I would make it on Top Chef now. Breaking down half a cow? There are so many things. In my season, it was eel. I didn't have to do it thankfully.

Do you remember the dish that led to your elimination?
Of course! You go through it in your head so many times. It was a beef dish. I also did a cheese souflee and the oven was too hot and that was a mess. For All Stars, I did this pork dish and it was overcooked. I had thrown it in the frier and I knew that was a bad move. And my sides, I made a compote that was too sweet--an apple and spicy sweet potato mash and I didn't have enough acid on that dish.

Have you made any of those dishes since?
As a matter of fact, the spicy sweet potato mash is in my cookbook.

Would you do Top Chef again?
It's too much! But the crazy thing is I loved doing All Stars.Oh my god! All the people I was rooting for I got to know through that season and I got to know them as real people. I loved that bit. But at the end of the day, after all the challenges, you knew you were staying with them. It's fun to do it with your friends.

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Mike Isabella, Season 6 and Season 8: All-Stars

How has life changed since being on Top Chef
It's changed a lot. When I was on All Stars, I had just signed a lease to open up my first restaurant, Graffiato in DC. I was still nervous trying to raise money while I was on the show. But once I finished, that restaurant opened up. And there was a line out the door for three months! It was a huge success. And now I own another restaurant Kapnos, a Greek place. We're also doing G Sandwich at the Nationals baseball stadium. And I'm opening up three projects in 2014.

What was the toughest challenge about being on the show?
Getting eliminated on my first season. I didn't let that go for a long time. You're stressed about it and you watch it and then you break down. You still have the support from your fans and friends, but that was the hardest.

Do you remember the dishes that led to your elimination?
Yeah. We went to Tom Colicchio's Craft steakhouse. And I was planning a dish, but then they said you couldn't use any meat. We had to make a vegetarian dish. So I made one with three ingredients: leeks, carrots and potatoes. I messed it up. Everything was wrong.

Have you cooked with those ingredients since?
I went back to work after that happened and I started working with leeks and carrots everyday. I was so pissed at myself. But when I went back to All-Stars, my challenge was to cook with leeks, carrots and potatoes. I was trained on it!

Any strategies while filming to intimidate your competitors?
On both seasons, I would always try to talk some smack. I had a big resume coming in. I had worked for four different James Beard chefs. And I tried to get at them. When I did All-Stars, I became friends with everyone and focused on myself. But it was easy to get into their heads [laughs].

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Dale Levitski, Season 3 and Season 8: All-Stars

How has life changed for you since Top Chef?
It's definitely opened up a lot of doors, not necessarily with getting jobs but in validating a lot of stuff and getting attention and getting people into the restaurant. It has helped. I was fearful that it would box me into a TV chef douche bag. We didn't know the phenomenon it would become.

Have you caught any of this season?
I have not. It's stressful to watch! It's not entertaining for me. I want to be in the challenge—it's such a blast. If I could make a career out of Top Chef challenges, it would be so much fun.

What's the biggest thing you've learned?
Humility. Being told in no uncertain terms that what you made sucked on national TV will teach you a lesson or two.

Do you remember the dishes that led to your elimination?
On All-Stars, I did a veal thing with some french toast and a puree. It was a total disaster.

Have you made the dish since?
I now serve it at my restaurant, actually. And it's awesome.

Did you have a strategy to psych out your opponents?
I tried not to let being sequestered get to me. Some people got ridiculously paranoid and Big Brother-ish. For me, I just went with it and was relaxed and made it a life experience.

Any ingredient or cuisine you were afraid to have to cook?
I don't have cake recipes memorized. Cook traditional Asian? Just send me home now!

What's next for you?
I do private parties and consulting (I hate that word). I'm also doing some product development for a major food company. That kind of stuff. And I'm gearing up to get back into restaurants with a different type of restaurant group that's totally private.

Would you do Top Chef again?
Oh yeah! I would definitely do All-Stars again. I think I was in a weird place at the time. My restaurant then was six months old, my mom had died...there were so many life things going on. I wasn't in the right place. But when you put 15 All-Stars on...behind the scenes it's 10 times more difficult.

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Chris Crary, Season 9

How has life changed since Top Chef
A lot! Before, I was working 60-80 hours a week in a kitchen slaving away and no one knew who I was. Now, I'm a chef for hire at Kitchit. I've been lucky enough to take a few months off from kitchen life to travel and go to Europe and do all that. I got sponsored by a beer company out of Thailand. I stayed in a five-star resort and hung out and drank beer and ate good food. It was amazing.

What was the toughest experience about being on the show?
Not having control and not being able to do what I wanted to do. Not being able to call anybody or go online. Chef are control freaks and that's why they're chefs. And when you take 16 crazy control freaks and you put them in a tent by themselves for five hours a day, they're going to go crazy!

Any ingredients or cuisines you were afraid you'd have to cook?
A cake. We got that challenge and had to make two quinceanera cakes. Desserts are always difficult for chefs. Baking is such a science. Preparing savory foods, you're like, 'I'll add a bit of this or that.'

What's the biggest lesson you learned from being on the show?
Just having that thing where you let go of being in charge. Not having that, you learn a bit about yourself and patience.

Do you remember the dish that landed you in Last Chance Kitchen?
It was the salty ribs at the Salt Lick. I made the rub for all of our meats and apparently during the 13 hours of being cooked on the grill, they got a little too salty.

Have you cooked ribs since?
Yes! I'm making them for my girlfriend's birthday, for 50 people. I've perfected how to cook them.

What's next for you?
I'm working on doing my own crazy restaurant in Los Angeles. It's a distillery diner that distills it's own vodka and whiskey. But there are so many rules from prohibition I'm dealing with. I'm still thinking about the name. I may call the alcohol part Alibi and the diner Chris' Diner. Something simple and old school.

Would you do Top Chef again?
In a heart beat.

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Brooke Williamson, Season 10

How has life changed since being on Top Chef?
It's been busy. I'm opening a third restaurant next month. I had two restaurants before the show and then after they got busy as all hell! We did business I never thought we'd be capable of. I used to also get recognized on the street a lot for a good six months after the show was over. Now, I feel like people recognize me sometimes and I can hear them talking behind my back more [laughs]. The hype has died down a little but the activity hasn't.

Are you thankful for the experience?
Oh, absolutely! I didn't feel that was my career path with the TV thing. I wasn't confident I would be able to perform in front of cameras. I was afraid of embarrassing myself on national TV. I can definitely say I embarrassed myself a few times, but I'm still thankful I did it. It's so unexpected how it changes your life.

Did you have any strategies to intimidate your opponents?
I feel like people expected it but that's not how I work. I remember in the finale with Kristen [Kish], we were en route to the finale and she had a headache. I offered her Advil and she thought I was trying to drug her! [Laughs]

Do you remember the dish that led to your elimination?
Chicken wings and I thought they were tasty and really good. I don't feel like I did anything wrong. But the last dish I put out, which was ultimately the one I lost with, was the snapper dish.

Have you cooked either since?
I have chicken wings on my menu and people love them! We sell a ton of them.

Any cuisines or ingredients you were afraid you'd have to cook?
I was afraid of a few things but none of them had to do with food. I'm afraid of heights and boats and I had to go to the top of the Space Needle and get on a cruise!

What's next for you?
My new spot! My husband and I are opening a restaurant concept. It opens at the end of March or beginning of April. It's like a beach community restaurant in Playa del Rey in Los Angeles. It's called Playa Provisions. There's three different rooms: a breakfast-lunch place with a creamery, a whiskey bar, and an east coast-style dining room. I also have Hudson House and the Tripel in Playa del Rey.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned?
That I'm actually great under pressure. I can work quickly and think quickly when I need to. I always thought I was the person that needs to work out the menu, but now I don't. I was just at Sundance and I was doing beef cheeks for a 300 person dinner. They were frozen and a block of ice. You learn to deal with situations that would make most people throw up their hands.

Catch up on all the action from our Emmy-award winning series Last Chance Kitchen and see who's facing off on the final episode below.

 

 

Click to catch up with Tiffany Derry, Fabio Viviani, Casey Thompson, Stefan Richter, Tiffani Faison, Ed Cotton and Sarah Grueneberg.


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Tiffany Derry, Season 7 and Season 8: All-Stars

How has life changed since being on the show?
Oh my god. You will never understand how it can change until it happens. Everybody all of a sudden just knew who I was—it's crazy how it happens. Just cooking for a lifetime without doing Top Chef would never have given me the exposure of getting to know the amazing people around the world.

What's the craziest experience been post-show?
Just last week I met Kristen Stewart from Twilight while cooking at Sundance with Brooke Williamson. Her exact words were, 'I f---ing love Top Chef!' She was so excited.

Have you watched any seasons since your stint?
Yes. I feel like it takes me back emotionally and how I felt. I am in those people's shoes! I'm like, 'No, don't do that!' I feel like I'm back in the competition every single time.

What was the toughest challenge about competing?
Before All-Stars, I got married and three days later I was back filming. And getting to the finale, I was losing steam. I felt like I didn't have more in me. It was weird. That's not normally who I am. I'll never forget while being on Ellis Island and seeing my mom come out...normally, that would make me cry. But seeing her just gave me so much life!

Do you remember the dishes that led to your elimination?
I'm not truly over it. For Season 7, I did a roasted halibut and a mussels with curry and I did vegetables. I remember during the prep time I put my mussels in the fridge and the next day, the fridge froze everything in there. I couldn't use them because they weren't alive. And all of my herbs and tomatoes were frozen. I kept thinking, 'OK, it's not over.' But it was over. It was hard. It was hard! I can still hear Padma say, 'You know, if you had the mussels, this dish would've been a different dish.'

Have you cooked mussels since?
I have! You have to conquer that fear. For Season 8, in the very first challenge, we had to cook the dish that got us eliminated and I was like, 'Oh, hell no! I'm not letting this one go!'

What was your favorite dish you cooked?
Pork buns. I would always do it in the restaurant. I made them during the dim sum challenge and Tom was so disappointed in everyone but on the inside I was like, 'I can really do this!' And in that challenge everyone went down. I remember I was just cooking my food and grabbing and cooking and getting out of the weeds and I realized, 'Y'all, this ain't nothing!'

What's next?
I'm doing a few TV shows. I do a show called Bar Rescue and I'm a regular expert on this new show called Hungry Investors. And I'm writing a book! It's classics from around the world, but I don't want to give away too much.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned?
I've learned to cook whatever I want. Don't be afraid to do something different. Doing Top Chef opened my eyes to so many things happening in the world. Every day I had to push and do a new dish. And every day being told, 'What else do you have?'—it pushed me to a whole other level. The day I left Season 7, I sat on a plane and jotted down tons of ideas on three sheets of a legal pad: caramel, fish sauce, halibut...full-on menu items! I just found it the other day, actually. It was amazing to read.

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Casey Thompson, Season 3 and Season 8: All-Stars

How has life changed since Top Chef?
It opened up so many doors. The industry has become super saturated with people wanting to get into this career and something like Top Chef helps you stand out. And because I was on during an early season, it was more of an open playing field back then. I had a chance to grasp as much of the career as I wanted to.

What was the toughest experience about being on the show?
Not knowing what's coming your way! That's ridiculous anxiety. Like, 'What are they going to throw at us tomorrow? How are they going to tweak it to make it harder?' And living in a house with a bunch of crazy, drunk adults—and I mean that in the best sense possible—that's tricky, too.

Any ingredients or cuisine you were afraid you'd have to prepare?
I was really lucky: I never had to make a cake. I felt for the Cheftestants when they announced, 'We're doing a wedding! And someone has to do the cake!' If it was me, I would've made a boxed cake and an icing. That gave me anxiety.

Do you remember the dish that led to your elimination?
On All-Stars, it was the infamous chicken feet. We were in Chinatown and we had to make dim sum. I had to do the chicken feet. It was such a nightmare.

What would you have changed?
I would stop being so nice. That was my downfall. I left my food and I forgot this is a competition about the food.

And what dish eliminated you for Season 7?
It was a whole meal. And the pork belly dish got me in the most trouble. We had to leave the kitchen for an hour to receive our additional challenge. I left it in the oven and it dried up. It was inedible.

Have you cooked that dish since?
Of course! I have to do it to make sense of it. And my pork belly is one of the best things I do.

What's next?
I'm opening two spots: one is called Aveline and the other place is the European. They're due to open this spring. And they're right in the heart of San Francisco.

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Tiffani Faison, Season 1 and Season 8: All-Stars

How has your life changed since Top Chef?
It has and it hasn't. Obviously the exposure is enormous and can be used in incredible ways. I've had the opportunity to launch a restaurant that gained attention when most restaurants have to work years to find. The work after that to make it successful is all separate from the show. It's made me a public person which comes with a significant amount of responsibility and also the detractors of being alert and careful with my words and actions.

What's the biggest lesson you learned from the show?
Don't take it all too seriously. Nothing is worth doing without it being fun and adding good things to your life. It's not that serious.

What was the toughest challenge about doing both shows?
Top Chef was just the aftermath. Having the country point at me and think of me in a way I'd never considered myself was hurtful and shocking. All-Stars was an easier experience because my goals were different. Obviously I would have liked to have lasted longer, but that was out of my hands.

Do you remember the dishes that led to your elimination?
I remember them all. It's hard to say what got me eliminated for the first season—I did 10 different dishes. For All-Stars, it was bluefish with summer squash salad. 

Have you tried to cook them since?
Absolutely not. They weren't interesting to keep banging my head against the wall.

Did you have any strategy to intimidate your competition?
I don't think I had a strategy, maybe I should have. I think I approached both times with a Boy Scout's kind of "Do your Best" mentality. I certainly saw others with strategy and intimidation techniques, but that's not my thing.

Anything you were afraid might be sprung upon you in competition?
Nah, whatever comes, comes. It's just like a day at work.

Would you do Top Chef again?
I'd like to think I'd stop torturing myself, but it's just so much fun!

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Stefan Richter, Season 5 and Season 10

Has your life changed?
Of course. It has been a great ride, I got 5 restaurants I have a great team, happy life, a few bucks to spare and my own show.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned?
Be who you are and enjoy the ride. Enjoy your seven seconds because casting for season 12 is going to go on. Out of sight, out of mind. I still have four minutes left.

Toughest experience about doing the competition?
Just being away from home, your phone, and chill time. It eats at you. That was rough.

Do you remember the dish that led to your elimination?
You can ask anybody. It is a blur. I don't remember anything [laughs].

Would you do the show again?
Maybe. But I would love to do a survival version of it in the woods and you have to eat to survive. I'd love to do six months in the middle of nowhere.

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Ed Cotton, Season 7

How has life changed since being on the show?
A lot of things. More opportunities for travel and seeing parts of the world I never would've been able to see otherwise. I went to Malaysia to write recipes for the tourism board. That was awesome.

What was the toughest experience about Top Chef
Just trying to execute the food that I really wanted to do in such a short amount of time.

Any challenges that were particularly tough?
I thought I would've done better with the Quickfires due to my experience on Iron Chef America as sous chef for Cat Cora. But some of them were very difficult because it's hard to come up with something off the cuff super fast. And something noteworthy.

What's your favorite dish you created?
I did a spicy rice cake with pork bolognese, a sweet and sour pork. I really excelled towards the finale. I really embraced Singapore and everything they had to offer. So that was a really fun dish to make.

Do you remember the dish that led to your elimination?
I think it was my lack of dessert experience. We were forced to create a dessert—no ifs ands or buts. I should've thought a little bit more. I made a sticky toffee pudding with whipped cream. It didn't jive well with the rest of the meal.

Have you made it since?
No. But I do enjoy it. I have definitely learned more about pastries and desserts in the hope I get called back.

What's next?
I'm Executive Chef at Sotto 13 in New York City. We have a wood burning oven and we do new takes on classic Italian dishes, and we're working with cool local ingredients.

So you would do Top Chef again?
It was a great overall experience. I would!

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Sarah Grueneberg, Season 9

How has your life changed since Top Chef?
It has changed more than ever expected.  The sightings at malls and grocery stores are always a fun surprise. The competition pushed my career 10 years forward, from where I would have if I never did Top Chef.

What’s the biggest lesson you learned?
That I really can do anything. I have to dig deep and believe!

What was the toughest experience?
The crazy hours, stress, the element of surprise always around the corner, and second guessing yourself every challenge.

Do you remember the dishes that led to your elimination? Have you tried to cook them post-show?
My finale meal was a turning point for me, and how I cook. I love that meal. I still cook those dishes. They will absolutely be on my menu at my new restaurant.

What was your strategy for the competitions? Did you have any techniques to psych out your opponents?
Before the show I spoke to a life coach. She said that whenever I was nervous, or going a mile a minute, to take a deep breath and hold it, then slowly exhale. It helped so much and allowed me to make wise moves! The funny thing about this competition is that I was competing against myself! I think I psyched myself out more than my opponents.

Any cuisine or ingredient you were terrified to cook with?
I was definitely worried about having to cook Indian food! When I cooked with Floyd Cardoz, it was awesome. I love Indian food and am no longer worried about it.

Would you do Top Chef again?
Without a doubt. Yes.

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Fabio Viviani, Season 5 and Season 8: All-Stars

What’s the biggest lesson you learned?
To stick with what you know.

What was the toughest experience?
What’s that? It was easy! Everybody was freaking out and I was having a ball.

Do you remember the dishes that led to your elimination?
Oh yes. In Season 5, my dishes were awesome and I still got eliminated over Stefan. And in All-Stars, I made a burger that was more like a meatball.

Any ingredients you were fearful of having to cook with on the show?
Cilantro. I hate it, hate it, hate it.

Did you have a strategy to psych out your opponents during competition?
I made them all an offer they couldn’t refuse. At the end of the day, I am Italian.

Would you do Top Chef again?
Yes, if they ask me to do a Fan Favorite competition.

Catch up on all the action from our Emmy-award winning series Last Chance Kitchen and see who's facing off on the final episode below.

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