Bravo's Top Chef Season 16 has just wrapped up, with Kelsey Barnard Clark taking home the coveted title. And although there could only be one winner, Kelsey and fellow finalist Sara Bradley recently opened up about how their longtime friendship was affected by the show — explaining that the heat of competition didn't pull them apart, but actually bonded them even closer together. And previously, Season 15 winner Joe Flamm described the same sentiment on the support of his dear friend and Fan Favorite Fatima Ali, saying: "We were inseparable."
Now, two other Top Chef alums are explaining how the show bonded them — to the point that they've just opened a restaurant together: Chef Shirley Chung and Travis Masar met while filming Top Chef Season 11, became close friends, and recently opened Ms Chi Café in Los Angeles. The eatery serves progressive Chinese American cuisine — a cross between fine cuisine and comfort food influenced by traditional Northern Chinese and American flavors. Think dishes inspired by authentic northern-style dumplings, noodle bowls, fried rice, and specialty Boba and milk teas, and coffee drinks.
"Travis and I met on season 11 New Orleans," Shirley explained. "During our first challenge, I noticed he was making meat floss — an Asian condiment, and I thought, who is this tall blond guy that’s making this super traditional, not-so-well-known Asian snack?! Later on, he ran over to me and had me taste what he was making. The flavor and the texture was spot on and he didn’t hesitate to share his technique with me. I became friends with this Colorado chef who cooks Asian food right away."
She told The Feast, "After Top Chef, we kept in touch, and shared that we had a similar vision on the type of restaurant we wanted to open, and we always talked about working with each other..."
Travis said, "As [do] all Top Chef contestants, we stayed in contact after the show and Shirley first approached me back when she was in Orange County about moving out and helping her run her restaurant there. I was still in Philly at the time and wasn’t ready to make the move from east to west. We continued sharing recipes and ideas back and forth through the years and in the fall of '17 she approached me again about moving out west and helping her open a new concept she was working on in Los Angeles..."
And eventually, it all came together.
Shirley explained that she landed on Ms Chi’s location in Culver City "out of surprise, and decided to open a dumpling-driven Chinese cafe first," she told The Feast. "We began to make dumplings and developed our menu in April, and started selling them at Coachella and other festivals before we opened the restaurant to generate cash flow and evolve our dishes. Travis even painted the kitchen floor of Ms Chi on his own, so we can proudly say, that we physically built Ms Chi together!"
Ms Chi Culver City has now been open for five months and, "we are staying strong after the first two month crazy rush," Shirley told us, adding that she and Travis also recently got to cook at the James Beard House; opened a Ms Chi counter in the Fields L.A. food hall in downtown L.A.; and are getting ready to bring Ms Chi back to Coachella again this year.
As for the bond they started on Top Chef, she said, "When you are surrounded by people that have a similar vision, experience, passion, and the drive as you, it’s hard not to become friends with these people. When we were competing on Top Chef, not only were we cooking in the kitchen with these people, we also lived with them for an extended amount of time. We got to known each other really well quickly because there was no personal space. We were competing against each other but also learning from each other at the same time. We might seem like we wanted to kill each other on the show, but after everything is done, this is the special group of chefs that shared this unique experience with you and you are forever part of this crazy, loving, amazing Top Chef family."
For his part, Travis added, "Top Chef draws competitors closer together because at the end of the day we all are doing what we love: cooking. If you're in a hot kitchen working closely together with your staff it is very similar to the way Top Chef works. Living and competing day in and day out, just like all chefs do when they create their work family. It is a similar style stress and your Top Chef family is there for you to vent to when the challenge is done."
He added, "Just like a chef’s work family is there for everyone at the end of service. And even though it is a competition, the chefs bounce ideas off one another and help each other out. We treat the competition like another day of service where everyone is stressed out and the need to vent to your fellow teammates goes hand in hand. After the show is over and done with is when everyone becomes closer together too."
And indeed, he told The Feast, "No one except those that competed on that season can relate to the experience and that is what keeps everyone after the show together."
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