We hope this doesn't spoil anything for you, but the Bravo's Top Chef Season 16 winner is... Kelsey Barnard Clark! (Watch the clip above to see Kelsey take home the title.) Of course, the Alabama native is delighted by the honor. But if her victory were a dish, its flavor might be somewhat bittersweet.
When chatting with PEOPLE, Kelsey opened up about the one downside to competing on the show, and that was being away from her family. During the season's nine weeks of filming, the restaurant owner missed her 9-month-old son Monroe terribly — and she also missed one of his major milestones.
During one call home, she learned that her little one had taken his first steps. "He was walking and he was not walking when I left. And I absolutely, honest to god, lost my s--- on the phone,” she said. “I was just like, ‘I want to leave. This is horrible. What have I done? My child’s walking!’ It put me into a spiral for days.”
"I couldn’t handle it,” she continued. “I actually turned down my last phone call because I had like less than two weeks left, so I said, ‘I think it’s better if I don’t talk to him.’ I was just a mess. And the only way I could get through it would be to block out everything and focus on the competition in hopes that I could find this way to better my family in the long run."
When Kelsey initially applied to compete on Bravo's Top Chef, her son was just a newborn. "I didn’t think I would get it, so I was like, ‘I’m not going to worry about whether or not I’d go. I’ll worry about that later. Right now, just apply.’”
Needless to say, her application was approved, and that's when Kelsey's doubts started to flood in. Still, her family encouraged her to seize the opportunity.
"They were like, ‘He’s not going to remember anything at this age. But the older he gets, the more challenges there will be if you have to leave,’ ” she said.“It was pretty brutal. It was an incredibly difficult decision and it definitely left me with a lot of guilt to feel like I needed to walk out on my child to compete. But that’s also what I had to do.”
Throughout the competition, Kelsey compared missing her son to feeling like a limb was missing. But she found support from judge and fellow mom Padma Lakshmi. "She definitely asked a lot about Monroe and how I was feeling,” the chef said. “She wasn’t asking to make me cry — she was asking because they were genuinely concerned. Every time I got upset or anything like that, she’d say, ‘Your son is going to be proud of you one day.’ She was always so uplifting.”
Of reuniting with her little one, Kelsey said: "Missing 9 to 12 months… he was a different child when I got back. left a bald-haired crawling baby and got back to like, a toddler with curly hair, teeth, walking. So it was just very… the first two days, we actually changed my flight to fly into the beach and we kind of just stayed together for four days to kind of get him to bond back with me again. It was just, ‘Get back to normal mode.’"
The whole experience has given her a greater understanding of what her fellow working moms go through. "We’re in an era where mothers are working too. I mean, military moms — can you imagine? They leave for like, a year, two years sometimes? It’s a challenge. I’ve had an overwhelming amount of women come to me and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve given me so much strength, I’ve had so much guilt.’ And I just want women to know, it’s okay and they’re not alone."
Take a peek at some sweet snaps of Kelsey and her little one, below.