Kelsey Barnard Clark, Sara Bradley, and Eric Adjepong reflect on Season 16 and tell us how they're balancing life as working chefs with their growing families.
This season of Top Chef was defined by cooking that’s rooted in identity. Since the first episode, the three finalists—Kelsey Barnard Clark, Sara Bradley, and Eric Adjepong—put out food that reflects who they are and what they can do, with ingredients that are both familiar and foreign. Through dishes like Sara’s matzah ball soup, Eric’s fufu, and Kelsey’s gumbo, the judges (and the viewers at home) have been able to uncover new pieces of each cheftestant’s story.
When the competition started, all 15 chefs were allowed to bring a box filled with 10 cooking tools and as many ingredients as they could fit. Eric filled his box with flavors from Ghana, like sorghum leaves, a dried XO paste called shito, suya spice, and palm oil. Kelsey stocked hers with products she cares about: seven varieties of cornmeal, five different kinds of grits, three cast iron skillets, salts, sorghum syrup, and her grandmother’s spoons. Sara said she was “super intimidated” when she saw other people’s boxes, since hers wasn’t overflowing. Instead, she opted for the basics: a chunk of Colonel Newsom’s Country Ham, Weisenberger Mills wheat berries, aged sorghum, Jimmy Nardello peppers, and a pie cutter. Each chef's box was a reflection of the food they would be cooking all the way into the finale of Season 16.
The three finalists all gained confidence with each episode, but they remained humble. Eric, who won elimination challenges early on, said, “the first episode was a reality check.” For Sara, who saw the bottom two weeks in a row, the boost came when Padma Lakshmi told the group to not be afraid of cooking their own food. “Sometimes you need that confidence from someone you admire saying, you know how to do it.” Kelsey’s outlook was all about looking forward. “If I won, it didn't matter. If I was in the bottom, it didn't matter," she said. "All that mattered was the next challenge.”
There was a unique twist on the competitiveness between chefs this season, since Kelsey and Sara had been friends before coming on the show. As cooks at John Fraser’s Dovetail in New York City, they’d spend days off eating oysters and drinking champagne. Even when they both moved back to their home states to open restaurants, Kelsey and Sara stayed in touch, sharing pointers with each other about running their own restaurants.
For Kelsey, the competition wasn't about wanting to triumph over the other chefs. “You just have to beat yourself. It's honestly no different than when you're in a kitchen as a line cook. You're not sitting there going, 'I'm competing to be a sous chef.' You're just working your fucking ass off.”
Top Chef often shows us the physical toll of working in a kitchen, but the show also has a huge emotional impact on contestants. Eric left for Kentucky right after his wife found out she was pregnant. “It's tough,” he said. “It was my first one and hers as well. So it was awkward to just not be there. But we both know that I was doing this for a greater cause.”
Sara’s stress reached a breaking point when she cooked in Rupp Arena—and decided to use a boxed mix for the waffles that accompanied her fried chicken. Having been to the arena over a hundred times, Sara called the experience of cooking there “a childhood dream,” but a shaky showing in the challenge didn't provide the hometown hero moment she had imagined. “I wasn't performing well, and there were people in the stands that I knew,” she said. “So here I am thinking this is the story that's going to travel with them. It was very stressful.”
For Kelsey, who had just given birth to her baby when the show started filming, the emotional rollercoaster lasted for the duration of the show. “You're by yourself in this house full of strangers with no one to talk to,” Kelsey said. “It was not a fun time for me. There's no sugar coating it. I'm glad I did it. I think it was worth it, but it was definitely hard.”
Now that filming has come to an end, Kelsey and Eric are experiencing what it’s like to be working parents, as they're both raising young children while simultaneously running businesses. The one characteristic they’ve both learned from parenting and applied to their lives as chefs? Patience.
“I don't think you really understand it until you become a parent, when you have a child that’s screaming,” Eric said. “You understand that having patience, not only with a child but with other people, is crucial.”
“It makes you a better boss, a better chef, a better person,” Kelsey said. “I can parent my staff better because I'm way more patient now. Because really, this is an opportunity to teach. That's what I'm doing with my child every day, why don’t I just do that with my staff as well?”
Although Sara hasn’t yet had a taste of being a working mom, operating a restaurant while pregnant has helped her realize the importance of her staff. “I really saw it when I left for the show and they took care of the whole thing for me. And now I'm starting this new family and realizing how much I'm going to rely on [my staff] in the future. First it was Top Chef and I needed them. Now it’s motherhood and I need them.”
As for what to expect in the final episode, remember that these three chefs have always let their individual tastes and backgrounds shine through their food. “You’re going to see exactly what you think you're going to see from each of us,” Kelsey said. “It'd be silly to switch it up at the last minute.”
The Season 16 finale of 'Top Chef' airs tonight at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo.