What Top Chef Contestants Say the Show Is Really Like

Before Top Chef season 17 premieres, hear from season 16 contestants.

By Chris Harnick Mar 19, 2020 5:00 PMTags
Watch: Padma Lakshmi Gushes Over Yummy "Top Chef" Foods

Top Chef, literally TV comfort food, is back with a new season featuring returning contestants from the show's previous seasons on Thursday, March 19.

Among the returning players are season 16's Eric Adjepong and Nini NguyenJennifer Carroll from seasons six, eight and 15, Lee Anne Wong from seasons one and 15, Angelo Sosa from seasons seven and eight and Stephanie Cmar from seasons 10 and 11.

Joining Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons on Top Chef: All-Stars Los Angeles are a number of famous faces including Ali Wong, Randall Park, Kelly Clarkson, Jon Favreau, Roy Choi and Danny Trejo.

Top Chef Season 17 All Stars Revealed

Before diving into the new All-Stars season, take a trip with us back to season 16 when Eric, Sara Bradley and winner Kelsey Barnard Clark told all about what you didn't on TV. 


While they had all seen the show before, the trio of chefs did have some misconceptions about it.

"I think that I thought it was going to be really strong competition and it was competition, but you were mostly competing with yourself, not with the other chefs," Sara said. "Not that I thought it would be a toxic environment, but it was just—

"It was way harder to see people go home than we thought it would be. It was kind of sad every time. I didn't realize how excluded we'd be from reality. I don't think any of had any clue just kind of how in a hole you are while you're there. I don't think there's any way to portray that until you're there," Kelsey said. And Eric agreed.

One thing that shocked Sara? The chefs who were surprised by fireflies. "Like half of the people on the first night—probably more than half—were like, ‘Have you seen these bugs outside?'…I think that was the first day I was like, ‘Whoa, Sara, these folks are not from Kentucky,'" she said.


Looking back, Kelsey said she would advise herself to "chill out."

"I was so just, like, ‘Am I ever going to be normal again? Is my child ever going to love me?' I think if I just could of not taken the day-to-day so seriously and kept in my brain, ‘This is only a few weeks, then my life goes back to normal.' It's hard to tell yourself that once you're out of it, that was hard for me, for sure," she said.

For Sara, well, it was about something that almost sent her home. "I hate to say it again, but don't buy boxed waffle mix. That's it. Just don't do it," Sara said.

Padma's Looks

Top Chef host Padma stunned audiences—and the chefs—with new looks week after week. The contestants would make wagers on what color she'd pop up in. 

"We would always talk about what's her hair going to look like and what color is she wearing," Sara said.

"And be wrong," Kelsey added. But Eric said they nailed it once, when she wore yellow for the bouillon cube challenge.

Judges Table

The judges on Top Chef eat. A lot. How do they do it? The contestants said they didn't get any insight.

"They drink a lot of water in between," Eric said.

"Is that what we're calling it?" Sara laughed.

"A lot of coffee," Kelsey added.

"They drink a lot of beverages in between," Eric said, prompting all three to laugh.

Now that they're watching, they're getting insights into the show that they didn't get while on it. "Judges table doesn't last three minutes and then it goes to commercial, it lasts 45 minutes to an hour on each person sometimes, especially for like, Restaurant Wars, it was really long," Sara said. "Then we all go sit in the back and we talk about it. We've never seen that before. We don't know what happened when we left. I always really enjoy seeing what the chefs say when we're not around because I know what they told me. I want to know to what they talked about amongst themselves."

The Losing Dishes

Week after week, the contestants submitted dishes for critique, so was there ever one that they thought for sure they botched?

"I never know. It's hard to know because you're not comparing your food—you have no idea what the other chef's dishes tasted like 90 percent of the time. So, even if it wasn't my favorite dish, I didn't know if it was the worst," Kelsey said.

However, Sara said there were two dishes where she thought she was going home. "The meat challenge, like the sausage one, I was like I'm going home. I think my saving grace was that the butcher was like, 'Sara had the hardest cut of meat.' And I tried to do something outside of the box and took more time that I had." The other? The infamous waffle mix.

"One of the things they always talk about on Top Chef is you better nail that protein. It's about the protein, it's not about all the stuff on the side. I thought that was going to send me home, but then, I fried chicken and I can fry some chicken and it saved me. It's a good thing I didn't serve just waffles," she said.

The Critiques

Throughout the season, rotating guest judges critiqued the contestants' dishes. The trio said Tom was the hardest regular judge and Nancy Silverton was the roughest guest judge. Some judges weren't chefs, which was hard to take criticism from, they said.

"That was rough," Kelsey said of a specific guest judge. "I'm not going to name any names, but there were a few where I was like, ‘You don't like eggs for breakfast and that's your critique on me for this Quickfire?'"

"He said I really steer clear of acid and I thought, ‘You should've put that in your rider,'" Sara said.

"OK, you can't have acid for breakfast, but it wasn't in your rider? And I put tomatoes in your dish? I can't. I'm sorry, I'm done. Stuff like that I was just like, come on," Kelsey added.

There was one specific piece of criticism that stuck with Sara, she said.

"For me, it was when Padma came in and we were getting ready to go. It was right after Eddie had won on the meat challenge and she came in and said…'Cook your own food. Quit cooking scared.' She said that to all of the contestants that were left…And that was it, like, I think the three of us—I really took that to heart and I excelled after that point," Sara said.

The Challenges

All three chefs said the meat challenge was the hardest, noting the butcher cut the cow in Italian primals and the time constraints were too much. However, Sara and Kelsey cited the mentor challenge as a special one, Eric picked the Muhammad Ali challenge where he made fufu and won. As for the most fun, they all picked the challenge that took place on the boat.

Sara's most meaningful? The time she made matzo ball soup in China. "I mean, it's my mom. My mom retired after 40 years as a social worker to help me open a restaurant. She's there every day, so it was really nice to see her be so proud of something that's been so important to her and bringing and raising us, so, yeah, it felt good," she said.

No Sabotage

Throughout the competition, the chefs leaned on each other while cooking, often asking one another to taste their dishes. There was never any lying.

"We're very honest," Kelsey said.

"I think we also have a great deal of integrity for each other. If there was something off about a dish, you'd hear it," Eric added.

"But sometimes I'd be like, ‘Taste this.' And they'd be like, ‘Oh, it needs more this,' and I'd be like, ‘I know I just asked for your opinion, but I really don't think it does,'" Sara laughed.

"You wrong!" Kelsey said.

One moment this season that sent ripple effects through the competition was when Eddie Konrad accidentally spent much of his team's budget on lamb. It was early in the competition, and the finalists said they were still learning the rules and Eddie was apologetic, more than viewers saw on air.

"I looked at that thing and thought, ‘You have got to be kidding me. Everybody gets a grain of salt?' We were screwed from that point on, we really were," Kelsey said.

Still, they all maintained it was an honest mistake. And after that moment, they leaned on each other even more. If one chef had extra money, they would let the other behind them on the line start ringing up on their tab.

"We didn't care because it's not like you're going to go back in the store to buy other stuff. We all wanted to see each other succeed because they had every single thing they needed, not because they didn't have something. So, the lamb incident may have set the standard for that, it's like, ‘Let's make sure everybody has everything they need to do the best dish possible.'…Would you ever stand in your kitchen and watch a chef go down? No. That's what makes you a Top Chef. That's what makes you a good leader," Sara said.

At the End...

When all is said and done, Kelsey said the experience humbled her. "When you're reading bad things about yourself it's humbling. It made me—a lot of things, really, definitely made me a better mother, more conscientious person with things that I say, and just in general, to be a good person. It just solidified keep doing what you're doing, it pays off to be a good person. Being mean never wins. So, all you haters can just go bye," she said.

Sara said she learned to keep her sense of humor and the experience solidified her life choices. "I moved home for a reason. I had this whole journey from big cities to big cities to universities and culinary schools and it all brought me back to the place where I grew up. I've been more successful in my hometown than I ever was in the big cities. So, it just validated my life choices and yeah, I'm happy, I'm happy about it all," she said.

"Yeah, echoing Sara and Kelsey, be a good person and don't take yourself so seriously. I read something about, take your work and your craft very seriously, and yourself not so much. I think that's the approach that really got us all far and where we're at right now," Eric said.

Top Chef season 17 premieres Thursday, March 19 at 10 p.m. on Bravo.

(E! and Bravo are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)

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