There's nothing like winning Top Chef. When host and judge Padma Lakshmi crowns the latest Top Chef, there's always an electric joy that fills the air. And that's just how it feels watching the season finale at home.
But as everyone's celebrating, congratulating the winner, sipping Champagne, and hugging their loved ones, your heart always goes out to the cheftestant who came so close to taking home the top title, he or she could almost taste it. In Top Chef Season 14, Shirley Chung was the person in that unfortunate position.
Shirley ended up as runner-up of this season of Top Chef behind winner Brooke Williamson. But when Padma bestowed the title of Top Chef upon Brooke, it took a while for the news to really sink in with Shirley. "I was in shock in a way that it didn't really hit me," Shirley told Bravotv.com. "It happened, like, the next day, 24 hours later, I broke down. But at that moment, no, I was still very emotional and feeling good."
She said that she was still riding high on the fact that her mother, sister, and husband were all present at the finale dinner and could taste her modern American with Chinese soul cuisine, especially since her menu was inspired by her family. "I was just hoping that by cooking this menu that my family would see [it] on TV, that was my goal. So when my family [was] actually able to taste the menu, I was so emotional, and at the same time, I'm filled with joy," Shirley gushed. "Even now, we're just talking about my menu and how my mom was there, I already start to get teary-eyed."
From the second Shirley found out that she would be in the Top Chef Season 14 finale, she started planning her menu for the final dinner, using it as an opportunity to present who she is to the judges and the world. "So in a sense I wasn't really thinking about how I want to win, but it's more like how I want to tell my story," Shirley explained. "And so, that's why I present a menu that's literally a lot of my food memory with my loved ones, and that was my inspiration."
For the finale dinner, Shirley prepared a snapper crudo, ramen, braised piglet shank, and rice pudding. She said she was worried about finding traditional Chinese ingredients in Mexico, the location of this season's Top Chef finale. However, she was strategic in picking her team of sous chefs from the pool of eliminated contestants, choosing people she thought could help her in some of the more challenging aspects of the finale dinner. "I picked Casey [Thompson] because I know that she could help me with my dessert," Shirley said. "I picked Katsuji [Tanabe] because I know that there's certain ingredients that I'm looking for, but I don't know what they are yet. So I need to pick his brain, tell him the texture I want, the flavor I want, so he could help me pick a Mexican ingredient that's similar to mimic what I want to do for my menu."
Even though Shirley ultimately didn't win Top Chef, she said she was satisfied with how the final meal went. "The whole entire cooking experience, it was very cool. Even though it was really stressful and there was a lot of hiccups, not familiar with kitchen equipment, things always happen in a foreign kitchen, but it's OK," she said. "I think we did the best we [could]. We achieved what we wanted to do. So ultimately, I was extremely happy with everything that went down."
However, there is one thing that Shirley would do over. "I would make a better broth for my top ramen," she admitted. "There wasn't a pressure cooker in the kitchen, so to execute that many portions, and I didn't have the luxury of using a pressure cooker to make stock, which would extract more flavors. So I think if I could do it again, that would be the thing that I would like to change. And everything else, I'm actually quite happy with."
That means, yes, she would have gladly given her competitor Brooke her pork belly to use after she forgot to order it for her meal — and would do it all over again. "I don't really want to compete with someone that didn't get her ingredient. That's not fair. I want to compete with the best, so I want her to perform the best, and that's fair," Shirley said. "I joke about it with her that I don't want to give it to her, but ultimately, I actually do. Like, she knew from the start that I was going to give her the pork belly."
At least Shirley gets a bit of a consolation prize for contributing to Brooke's success. "So the deal is, from now on, when I dine [at] every single one of her restaurants, I get comped," Shirley said. "So free meals for the rest of my life at all her restaurants, that's pretty sweet."
It's never easy to go home without the title of Top Chef at the end of a season. But losing it to someone who was eliminated and then came back into the competition after winning Last Chance Kitchen, as Brooke did, must give it an extra sting.
But actually, Shirley was happy to see how reinvigorated Brooke was after LCK. "I can see she's getting tired, and you can tell in her eye that the sparkle wasn't there. It wasn't as sparkly as when she first started the season," Shirley said of Brooke's attitude right before she got eliminated. "I really felt that Last Chance Kitchen really did her well. It re-inspired her, and she's having fun. And then coming back from Last Chance Kitchen, she was on fire."
And Shirley has nothing but love for Brooke. "It was amazing. It was really awesome to see she's making a comeback and [was] able to win," Shirley said. "Yeah, she beat me, but as her friend, I'm extremely happy for her."
Watch Brooke dish on her Top Chef win, below.