By Michelle Matthews
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Restaurateur Kelsey Barnard Clark shares how her “Top Chef” experience changed her life. She also shares some of the lessons she learned along the way from Alabama to New York and back home again.
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On the trailer for the 16th season of Bravo’s popular show “Top Chef,” Kelsey Barnard Clark looks at the camera and says, “I seem like a Southern belle, but you certainly don’t know the other side of me.” Appearances can be deceiving, and the pretty blonde from Alabama certainly gave the other chefs competing alongside her a run for their money.
“I’m a kind, giving, good person, but if you knew me more than 30 minutes you wouldn’t describe me as ‘sweet,’” she says, some six months after she won the title of Top Chef at the end of that life-changing season. “People assume I’m docile, but I’m like, yeah, no.”
Kelsey is now using her grand prize of $125,000 (she also won a $50,000 prize package and an additional $10,000 for being voted fan favorite) to renovate her restaurant, KBC in Dothan. She expects it to be complete by the first of November.
She was familiar with the show but had watched only a few episodes before her general manager nominated her. “I literally never watch TV,” she says. “But in the chef industry, if ever there was a show to do, this is the one.”
But Nicki Knight, KBC’s GM, was “obsessed” with the show. “When I got the job with KBC, I immediately thought how great she’d be,” Nicki says. “She’s smart, funny, has a great culinary background and is just a badass all around. We actually all call her ‘the food MacGyver’ because she can make anything look and taste great, which is a huge part of ‘Top Chef.’”
After Nicki applied on Kelsey’s behalf, Kelsey promptly forgot about it.
Then one day, out of the blue, she received several urgent emails from the casting department at “Top Chef” telling her they wanted her to travel to Los Angeles for an in-person interview to be on the 15th season of the show, set in Denver. But when Kelsey found out she was pregnant with her first child, the deal was off. She was promised she would have a spot the next season.
Before it was her turn to go on the show, which was set in Kentucky, she tried to watch a few seasons to prepare herself for what was to come, noting things like “Tom (Colicchio) doesn’t like okra, so I can’t use okra,” Soon, she was having a “borderline panic attack,” and decided that “if I can’t be myself and win, it is what it is,” she says. “I made my one and only focus just to be myself.”
She spent eight months in Kentucky, then had a two-week break, then traveled to Macau, China, for two weeks to film the finale – leaving her restaurant and her baby behind. When she left, Monroe was only nine months old. When she returned, her bald, toothless baby had turned into a toddler with a full set of teeth and a head of curly blond hair.
“It was so weird,” she says. “In the first year (of a baby’s life), there’s a reason you number everything by months. Huge things are happening, and I missed out on everything. There was a lot of getting to know each other again.”
‘Headstrong Southern women’
Both of Kelsey’s parents were originally from Mobile. She was born in Atlanta, where her physician father was doing his residency at the time. After a brief stint in Minneapolis, the family settled in Dothan before she was a year old.
As a child, she spent a lot of time in Mobile and at her family’s beach house on Ono Island in Orange Beach. To her, Southern cuisine means fresh seafood. Her background is more coastal than agricultural, more focused on fishing than farming. On her bio on the “Top Chef” website, she’s referred to as being “Gulf Southern.” “To get who I am, I can’t just say I’m from the South,” she says.
From an early age, she experimented in the kitchen and “never considered doing anything else” for a career. “I was always fascinated with how things are made,” she says. Even in Disney movies, she would notice things other girls her age didn’t notice, paying more attention to the market scenes in “Beauty and the Beast” than to the ball gowns.
She always loved baking with her mother, and in high school she started making her mom’s banana nut bread and other sweets for her boyfriend. Eventually, her mother grew tired of having her in the kitchen, sometimes until the wee hours of the night, so she transformed the pool house into a kitchen just for Kelsey and her baking hobby.
As a cheerleader, she started baking a cake for the football coach every Friday, as well as cookies for the players. After winning a couple of games, the superstitious coach wouldn’t let her stop baking for the team. “We ended up going to the state championship that year,” she says with a laugh.
From there, she started making wedding cakes. “The more I did, the more I wanted to do,” she says.
Although she wanted to go to culinary school right after graduating from high school, her parents made her agree to go to Auburn University for two years. As soon as her two years were finished, she headed to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
“That school changed the course of my entire life,” she says. “It’s not fun. It’s extremely difficult and very serious. In a nutshell, if you miss more than one class, you fail.” When her great-grandmother died, she couldn’t leave to attend the funeral.
While in New York, Kelsey continued to train at Cafe Boulud and at Dovetail in Manhattan. “I was working 115 hours a week, leading an unhealthy lifestyle and had no life,” she says. “I needed to go home.”
Her intention was to move to New Orleans and work for Chef John Besh at August, but during her break at home in Dothan she learned that the caterer she’d worked for in high school had passed away. She saw an opportunity in the absence of a fine-dining caterer in the town, and soon she was too busy to leave.
“Seven years later, here I am,” she says.
At her restaurant, KBC, she specializes in “basically what everyone saw on ‘Top Chef,’” she says: “Southern food with a lot of French technique. I’m an old-school-type chef. I believe in slow food, the way it was done 100 years ago, with no new gadgets – classic cooking, with pots and pans and wooden spoons.”
She’s forthright about the fact that she has overcome an eating disorder. “Being obsessed with food, I became obsessed with not eating it,” she says. Eating too much and eating too little are both unhealthy, she believes, so she tries to be balanced. In fact, she writes the word “balance” on sticky notes in her bathroom to remind herself of its importance. If she eats a cookie, she tries not to eat another one for a few days.
“I try to focus on the way I feel” rather than on her size, she says.
At home, she feeds her family healthy meals: salads with lean protein or the familiar Southern staple of a meat and three vegetables. She has several back yard chickens, so eggs are often on the menu. The family isn’t quite as disciplined on the road. “When we travel, we eat and drink all the things,” she says with a laugh.
And she has created a “food snob” in her son Monroe, now 2. “He will not eat food that isn’t seasoned,” she says, adding that he would turn up his nose at green beans straight from a can.
When she met the rest of the cast in Kentucky, she was pleasantly surprised to reunite with an old friend, Sara Bradley, with whom she’d worked at Dovetail in New York. In the finale, Sara was the runner-up to Kelsey. “We were best friends in the restaurant, but we argued all the time,” she says. “We’re both very headstrong Southern women.”
Kelsey’s celebrity chef status means she gets recognized everywhere she goes by fans of the show. Patma Lakshmi regularly likes and comments on her Instagram posts. Her 51,000-plus followers are mostly women, she says, who want to know everything about her, from who sells her sunglasses to where she buys Monroe’s monogrammed outfits. In return, she shares recipes as well as photos from her daily life with them.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” she wrote on Instagram of her “Top Chef” experience. “It’s changed my life for the better.”
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