The stakes couldn't have been higher for this season's final two Top Chef contestants. The finale was a familiar place for Brooke Williamson, who made it to the final two of Season 10, only to be crowned runner-up after Kristen Kish took home the title of Top Chef following her return to the competition as the winner of Last Chance Kitchen. Shirley Chung came this close to making it into the Season 11 finale, but she was eliminated right before the final challenge.
In their second helping of the competition in Season 14, Brooke and Shirley both hoped to finally be named Top Chef. So which veteran reigned supreme?
That would be Brooke, whose final dinner consisting of a warm oyster, charred octopus, braised pork belly and beans, and flan wowed the judges. "It’s all super surreal," Brooke told The Daily Dish. "I thought my Top Chef days were over four years ago. And then to kind of do it all again and make it through the whole process and become the winner, it’s very surreal, and I kind of still don’t believe it really happened."
Though Brooke said she had been thinking about winning Top Chef since she lost the title to Kristen in Season 10, she couldn't even really believe her ears when host and judge Padma Lakshmi crowned her the winner this season. "She said my name and [I thought,] 'Oh, I won another challenge.' That’s where your mindset goes when you’ve been in this competition for so long. When you win a challenge, it’s really exciting, and it felt like I won another challenge," she said. "It kind of didn’t sink in right away that I had just won the whole thing."
Of course, the poetry of Brooke following Kristen's former path to the finale isn't lost on her. "It’s funny, people keep saying it’s poetic that I came back from Last Chance Kitchen and won. I actually see it as more ironic," she said. "Of course, when I’m put in that situation, I had to take advantage of it. I was very thankful for it. Like I said on the show, don’t knock it until you try it. My heart goes out to John [Tesar], Sheldon [Simeon], and Shirley who never got a second chance. So, there’s a little bit of irony in all of it."
And take advantage of that second chance she did. "My mindset completely changed when I got eliminated. The most terrifying thing in my head was being eliminated and not making it to the finale and feeling like it was a waste of precious time away from my family and my job," Brooke said. "LCK is so much fun. It’s literally like cooking in this totally different environment and all of that fear has been eliminated because the scariest thing has already happened. When I got back into the competition, I felt like I wasn’t scared anymore, I was literally having fun, and it really showed and that’s what probably brought me to the end."
So getting eliminated was actually a blessing in disguise for Brooke. "Toward the end of Charleston, I was exhausted and kind of at a loss for creativity," she explained. "Really, sometimes all it takes to become inspired is to shift your mindset, and that’s exactly what LCK did."
But at no point in the competition did Brooke feel like she had the title of Top Chef in the bag. "I think there was never a confident bone in my body throughout the competition that I would take home the title, regardless of how great I may have felt in that moment or that challenge," Brooke said. "I had a lot of ups and downs, and confidence that you’re going to win is never right in front of you. That’s never at arm’s length for me."
Brooke had everything but winning on her mind as she prepared that final meal. "In the moment, when you’re cooking in the finale I think the last thing you’re thinking about is, 'I need to win.' Or even really what the judges are thinking at that very moment," she shared. "The only thing that was going through my head was, ‘I need to get these plates out. I need to make sure everything’s perfect.'"
Brooke celebrated her win with her husband, Nick, and son, Hudson, by staying in Mexico and taking in the local cuisine for a few extra days after the finale. It seems like they were just as happy about the win as Brooke was. "I think they were really proud and glad that it was over and that I wouldn’t be coming home sad. I think my husband and my parents were really proud of me, and it was really cool to be able to tell my son that I won and see how excited and proud he was," she gushed. "It was a long time away from my family and at the end of it all, it kind of justified me taking that time away. It felt so selfish, but now I have this money that I can help remodel our house. It felt very gratifying and satisfying."
Relive Brooke's winning moment, below.