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If you thought Stephanie Cmar was a bit of an underdog heading into the Season 17 finale of Bravo's Top Chef, which aired on June 18, you're not alone. The Boston-based private chef would also have to agree with that assessment.
During a phone interview with The Daily Dish prior to the Season 17 finale airing, Stephanie said that she did feel like an underdog going into that final challenge against fellow finalists Melissa King and Bryan Voltaggio. "I did because I was [laughs] is the easiest way to put it. The last challenge that we did, I really had a great time and came into my own. But that was the first time I’d gone into a challenge and been like, 'No, I think I got it.' Like, I think, 'Well, I’m just gonna do whatever I want to do.' And I think that confidence came through," Stephanie said, although she admitted that she thought Kevin Gillespie and Gregory Gourdet were "shoe-ins for the finale." "So, I definitely might have been a bit of a surprise to everybody."
Stephanie then noted that maybe "dark horse" is a better way to describe her position going into the finale. "It just takes me a while to get comfortable in situations. So, I got comfortable at the very end," she said. "I really rose to the occasion towards the end."
But even as Stephanie continuously found herself in the top or the winner of elimination challenges toward the end of the season, she still seemed surprised whenever the judges showered her with accolades. "I just can’t keep emotion off of my face [laughs]. And so, every time, whether it was good or bad, I was just always like, holy s--t, this is huge," Stephanie explained. "For a little while there, in the middle [of the season], I wasn’t so sure that it was gonna work out as well as it did, so every time I heard my name after I stopped living in the bottom, I was just really excited."
Viewers could particularly feel that excitement during the final episodes in Italy as Stephanie's joy for cooking radiated off the screen. "I didn’t grow up traveling, and then once I started working, I was more in the work mode than I was in travel mode. So, I was in this country that I’ve never been to before and was just like, if I don’t enjoy this... I’m just gonna waste the opportunity," Stephanie said. "I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back, and I certainly won’t be able to have such incredible experiences."
The final elimination challenge of the season proved to be full of emotion for Stephanie, who teared up while presenting her first course, kataifi wrapped shrimp with tangerine syrup, pickled Calabrian chiles, and spicy arugula, as she shared that it was inspired by a memory of frying coconut shrimp for her late brother. "Through most of the season, [with] the exception of one time, I really tried to keep what the past couple years of my life have been out of focus, just because they’ve been tough. I lost a sibling, I went through a pretty devastating depression," Stephanie shared. "I was just trying to get better, to be completely honest, and it all kind of came to a head right then."
Stephanie later tearfully explained what it meant to her to be in the Top Chef Season 17 finale during the final Judges' Table. "I am just so glad that I got the chance to cook this meal for you," she said in the episode. "I was really struggling when I arrived in L.A. I did a lot of damage to people that loved me by being so sad, and I didn't know quite how to say, 'I'm OK,' and this is kind of my way of saying, 'I'm OK.'"
Stephanie recalled crying "from the beginning to the end of that day" while speaking with The Daily Dish. Judge Gail Simmons also memorably got emotional during the final Judges' Table. "I knew when I signed back up to be on Top Chef All Stars, I was doing it just because nothing else that I was doing was working for me to get happier. I knew something this extreme is kind of a risk to take, but that I was gonna take it. And I tried to keep that in the back of my mind, not let it necessarily be in the front, because that is such a crazy thing to realize that you’re going through," Stephanie said. "But the fact that I made it, it was one of those moments where I was just kind of in disbelief. Like, hell yeah [laughs]. Just talking about my brother is always a very, very tough thing for me to do."
Melissa may have ultimately taken home the title of Top Chef for the season, but Stephanie earned the distinction of the chef who "grew the most" from head judge Tom Colicchio, something with which she wholeheartedly agrees. "I really consciously tried to make the most of it, and I do think that I grew," she said. "The difference [my husband has] seen in me from this time last year to now is night and day. It was so bad, and Top Chef gave me more than I could have ever wanted for or imagined."
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Check out more from the Top Chef Season 17 finale, below.
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