In the trailer for the 16th season of the popular Bravo show “Top Chef”, Kelsey Barnard Clark looks at the camera and says, “I look like a Southern beauty, but you sure don’t know the other side of it. me.” Appearances can be deceiving, and the pretty blonde from Alabama has certainly given the other chefs competing alongside her a run for their money.
“I’m a kind, generous, good person, but if you knew me for more than 30 minutes you wouldn’t describe me as ‘sweet’,” she says, about six months after winning the title of Top Chef at the end of this 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 prize of $ 50,000 and an additional $ 10,000 for being voted fan favorite) to renovate her restaurant, KBC in Dothan. She expects it to be finished by November 1.
She was familiar with the show but had only watched a few episodes before her CEO appointed her. “I literally never watch TV,” she says. “But in the chef industry, if there’s ever been a show going on, this is it.”
But Nicki Knight, KBC’s chief executive, was “obsessed” with the show. “When I got the job at KBC, I immediately thought how great she would be,” says Nicki. “She’s smart, funny, has a great culinary experience and is just a badass all around. In fact, we all call it “MacGyver food” because it can make anything beautiful and delicious, which is an integral part of “Top Chef”.
After Nicki applied on behalf of Kelsey, Kelsey quickly forgot about her.
Then one day, out of the blue, she received several urgent emails from the casting department of “Top Chef” telling her that they wanted her to go to Los Angeles for an in-person interview for the 15th season of. the show, together in Denver. But when Kelsey found out she was pregnant with her first child, the case was over. She was promised she would have a spot next season.
Before it was her turn to be on the show, which was set in Kentucky, she tried watching a few seasons to prepare for what was to come, noting things like “Tom (Colicchio) dislikes okra so I can Don’t use okra, “Soon she had a” borderline panic attack “and decided that” if I can’t be myself and win, that’s what it is. is, ”she said. “I did my one and only concentration just to be myself.”
She spent eight months in Kentucky, then took a two-week hiatus, then traveled to Macau, China for two weeks to film the finale – leaving her restaurant and baby behind. When she left, Monroe was only nine months old. Upon his return, his bald, toothless baby had transformed into a toddler with full teething 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 month. Huge things are happening and I missed it all. We got to know each other a lot again. “
“Stubborn Southern Women”
Both Kelsey’s parents were from Mobile. She was born in Atlanta, where her doctor father was living 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. For her, southern cuisine is synonymous with fresh seafood. Its course is more coastal than agricultural, more focused on fishing than on agriculture. In her biography on the “Top Chef” website, she is referred to as “Gulf Southern”. “To understand who I am, I can’t just say I’m from the South,” she says.
From a young age, she experimented in the kitchen and “never considered doing anything else” for a career. “I’ve always been fascinated by the way things are done,” she says. Even in Disney movies, she noticed things other girls her age didn’t, paying more attention to market scenes in “Beauty and the Beast” than to ball gowns.
She always loved cooking with her mom, and in high school she started baking her mom’s banana nut bread and other sweets for her boyfriend. Eventually, her mom got tired of having her in the kitchen, sometimes until the wee hours of the night, so she turned 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 few games, the superstitious coach didn’t let her stop cooking for the team. “We ended up going to the state championship that year,” she laughs.
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. At the end of her two years, she went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY
“This school has changed the course of my whole 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 passed away, she couldn’t leave. to attend the funeral.
While in New York City, Kelsey continued to train at Café Boulud and Dovetail in Manhattan. “I worked 115 hours a week, led an unhealthy lifestyle and had no life,” she says. “I needed to come home.
Her intention was to move to New Orleans and work for Chef John Besh in August, but during her stay at the house in Dothan, she learned that the caterer she had worked for in high school had passed away. She saw an opportunity in the absence of a gourmet caterer in town, and soon she was too busy to leave.
“Seven years later, here I am,” she said.
In her restaurant, KBC, she specializes in “essentially what everyone has seen on ‘Top Chef’”, she says: “Southern cuisine with a lot of French technique. I am an old fashioned chef. I believe in slow food, as it was 100 years ago, without new gadgets – classic cooking, with pots and pans and wooden spoons.
She is candid about the fact that she overcame 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 bad for you, she thinks, so she tries to be balanced. In fact, she writes the word “balance” on sticky notes in her bathroom to remind her of its importance. If she eats one cookie, she tries not to eat another one for a few days.
“I try to focus on how I feel” rather than her size, she says.
At home, she cooks healthy meals for her family: salads with lean protein or the familiar Southern staple of meat and three vegetables. She has several backyard chickens, so eggs are often on the menu. The family is not so disciplined on the road. “When we travel, we eat and drink everything,” she laughs.
And she created a “food snob” in her son Monroe, now 2 years old.
When she met the rest of the cast in Kentucky, she was pleasantly surprised to reunite with an old friend, Sara Bradley, whom she had worked with at Dovetail in New York. In the finale, Sara was Kelsey’s finalist. “We were best friends at the restaurant, but we had a fight all the time,” she says. “We are both very stubborn southerners.”
Kelsey’s celebrity chef status means she is recognized everywhere she goes by fans of the show. Patma Lakshmi regularly likes and comments on her posts on Instagram. Her 51,000+ 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 with them recipes as well as photos of her daily life.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” she wrote on Instagram of her “Top Chef” experience. “It changed my life for the better.”