How a Gulf Coast upbringing and classical French training laid the foundation for Kelsey Barnard Clark’s recent Top Chef win.
Kelsey Barnard Clark
Credit: Todd Douglas

One of the best things I ate last year was on the set of a reality TV show, surrounded by 86 crew members, three cameras, and a table full of global food cognoscenti, including Padma Lakshmi—in a shiny Macau casino, no less. Given the artifice of the situation, I wasn’t expecting to have an aha! food moment. But there it was: two voluptuous oysters bathing in just-warm vichyssoise, topped with a kiss of chives and a teensy cheese cracker crowned with caviar. The oyster shells were nestled in flaky sea salt and dried flowers—a sort of oceanic garden. The dish tasted of whimsy and play, of confidence and nuance, of velvety, briny, cheesy goodness in one elegant, perfectly balanced bite. And that’s exactly what Top Chef Season 16 winner Kelsey Barnard Clark had envisioned when she served the dish on the show’s finale.

“If there was ever a dish to define my entire culinary vision, this is it,” Clark says. “Everything about it is what I want from food.” Clark’s cooking is playful and surprising but ultimately grounded in classic cooking techniques and methods—skills that she honed during her time in New York City kitchens, most notably at Café Boulud. “At Café Boulud, I learned how to elevate simple food and how to do that with precision and as much perfection as humanly possible,” she says.

It’s a lesson that Clark brought back to her hometown of Dothan, Alabama, where, at 23, she opened KBC, a catering business, restaurant, and bakery. The young chef stared down a few doubters in the early days of her career, but the same determination she displayed on Top Chef also helped her build a successful business at home. “I think the best thing in the world is to be underestimated,” Clark says. “I’m blond, Southern, and female. It meant that I didn’t always get taken seriously; that made me work harder.”

That hustling instinct has been there since she strapped on an apron at 15 to work for a local caterer. But her culinary approach—marrying Southern flavor with French technique—solidified later, during the filming of the show itself.

Top Chef answered some insecurities I had about myself. It made me really start asking: ‘What is my signature food? What is my story?’ It was a beautiful process to get that clarity.”

You can taste that clarity in Clark’s bread pudding, where a classic French custard is infused with roasted sweet corn and bourbon. Those two ingredients, rooted in her memories of growing up in the South, are deliciously put through the filter of a maturing, confident chef.