How ‘Top Chef’ Season 14 Winner Brooke Williamson Got Where She Is Today
She says she's grateful for every mistake she has ever made.
When Brooke Williamson was just 10 years old, she learned a tough lesson. A tomboy with a short ‘do and unshaved legs, Williamson was teased at school, relentlessly. Williamson remembers crying to her mother one day after school, “I wish I had been born a boy. It’s so much harder to be a girl—and girls have to do gross things like have babies and shave legs.”
But Williamson’s mom wouldn’t allow her daughter to be discouraged, saying, “You can do whatever you want to do—being a girl will never stop you,” Williamson recalls. Williamson pushed back, arguing that it was harder for her to do the things she wanted to do. To which her mother said, “Then you just have to do them better than the boys—and you know you can, so you just have to prove it to them." "That is what I took to heart for the rest of my life,” Williamson says.
“I said, if I want to do something that boys are known for [like being a chef], I just have to prove that I can do it better and somehow—I don’t know if it was my passion or my work ethic—I was able to do that," the chef continues. "I got far, fast. I never complained about working a 16-hour shift. I was excited about it. It was like, I loved coming home exhausted.”
By 19, Williamson had become a sous chef at Michael’s in Santa Monica. And by 22, she was booked as the youngest female chef to ever cook at the James Beard Foundation House. “I don’t think I understood the magnitude of it,” Williamson admits of the special experience.
But Williamson didn’t stop trailblazing there. She and her business partner and husband, Nick Roberts, opened their first restaurant, Amuse Café, when she was just 24 years old. It was a struggle. “I remember walking into Trader Joe’s with like $7, and my husband and I saying, ‘well, OK, what can we get with $7 that will give us the most bang for our buck?’”
Today, Williamson has several restaurants under her belt and a win from season 14 of Top Chef to boot. She almost didn’t appear on Top Chef—in fact, she says, it took the producers several tries to convince her to come onboard to season 10, where she left in second place. “I have massive stage fright,” Williamson admits. “But I am a total control freak, and I knew Top Chef would put me into scenarios where I’d have no choice but to relinquish control. It was more of a personal, I-wonder-if I-can-do-this-and-come-out-a-stronger-person thing. I said, ‘I’m going to do it—I’m going to do the most terrifying thing I can think of,’ and I came out feeling like a stronger, more independent person.” In season 14, she left with the prize.
“When they called again, I said absolutely not,” Williamson recalls. “I came in second—what are the chances I could ever do better than that?” But Williamson ultimately changed her mind, and went on to win, because “the restaurant business is really difficult,” she says, “and I feel like anything you can do to remain relevant and stay in the public eye, then why not? I was creating more opportunities for us as a family—and fortunately, it worked out.”
Here, Williamson shares her advice on how to make sure your endeavors work out too.
1. Learn to recognize a good opportunity.
According to Williamson, there are two types of opportunities often come her way: inspiring opportunities that don’t pay and financial opportunities that give her the chance to elevate her brand or her bank accounts. When it comes to the former, like her recent collaboration with The Bruery to create the new brew Girl Grey, “if I am passionate about it, I will do it,” Williamson says. But for the latter, she says, “I never take an opportunity that goes against my beliefs just for money.” She cautions others to do the same. “Never take a financial opportunity that doesn’t represent you as a person, or that completely goes against who you are,” Williamson encourages. “I’ve been alive enough years now to recognize the difference between a [good or bad] opportunity.”
2. Only do what you love.
Of course, Williamson readily admits, any job—even a dream job—comes with tasks and responsibilities you’d rather not do. “But what’s the point of life if you can’t enjoy yourself?” she asks. “I understand there will be sh—ty days. I have plenty of sh—ty days. But in the grand scheme of things, I am enjoying what I am doing. And if that weren’t the case, I would have to reevaluate why I am doing it.” She advises anyone who is not in love with their job to do the same. “In order to get through sh—ty days, you need to have purpose,” Williamson says. “People ask me what would you be if you weren’t a chef, and I honestly don’t know the answer because a chef was all I ever wanted to be. There was never a fallback. In any career, that is what you need to look at in order to enjoy your life.”
3. Pull success from suffering.
Williamson says she’s grateful for every mistake she has made, and she wouldn’t change them today. “All the stuff I’ve learned has brought me to this stage of my life,” she says. “I wouldn’t be where I am right now if I hadn’t gone through those things. I’m grateful for understanding the value of having $7 to spend in a grocery store. And I am grateful for the experience of losing my first restaurant because now that I know what it feels like, I never want to go through that again. I understand the value of trying really hard. You need that sort of motivation—that idea that this one can’t fail.”