Top Chef season 14 came to an end Thursday night in its typical nail-biting fashion, with returning chefs Brooke Williamson and Shirley Chung both serving up epic meals in their final challenge (and us stress-eating the whole way through).
At the end of their four-course feasts, Williamson walked away with the coveted title—after getting eliminated earlier in the season, coming back through Last Chance Kitchen, and fighting her way back to the top. So when she chatted with PEOPLE Food about her comeback win, there was a lot of ground to cover!
When she first was eliminated Williamson was not confident at all she’d get back on top. “I went into Last Chance Kitchen thinking, ‘Oh s–t’ I have to compete again the next day,” she says. “But I walked in and it ended up being a really fun, light-hearted wonderful experience. I think the pressure of being eliminated from the competition is so much more intense, and then once that happens, it’s a sigh of relief almost.”
Once she got back in the game, she was on a winning streak until her very last dish in the finale, her flan. It didn’t get the best reviews from the judges, but she says she was never worried that would hurt her overall chances of taking home the title.
“I felt like I had put together and executed a really flawless meal and that flan was due to an oven that had some temperature issues and there was nothing I could do about it,” she explains. “I thought the flavors were great, it was just a textural issue, and there were many other courses that didn’t have a flaw.” (She’s thinking about adding the first course, the oyster and bacon dish, to her menu at Playa Provisions.)
And although there was some friendly fire thrown back and forth during the final episode (especially over the will-she, won’t-she drama when Chung was debating letting Williamson use her pork supply) the chef says her relationship with Chung is strong. “We laughed about everything,” Williamson says. “It’s a lot less dramatic than it may be on TV and we had so much fun. We have a mutual respect for each other.”
Williamson says she’s very thankful Chung did give her some pork (#orderingissue) and feels for Chung after the finale. “The win felt satisfying and wonderful, but at the same time, I felt for Shirley because I had been in her shoes and it’s a hard position to be in. But it was definitely the answer I’ve been looking for for many years.”
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This marked the second time Williamson was in an all-female finale, but that she and Chung didn’t focus on gender at the time. “I think neither of us saw it as anything over than being the finalist. I think in our daily lives we try not to focus on the fact that we’re female chefs. We focus on the fact that we’re chefs and we’re just as capable as anyone around us. It’s really a wonderful, proud moment to be able to see how far this industry has come as far as perception of female talent.”
In fact, the first text she received last night was from season 10 winner Kristen Kish. “She wrote, ‘Proud of you, I’m excited for you, enjoy it.’ I think it just goes to show you how supportive chicks are of each other.”
WATCH THIS: The Sides Have It—Brooke Williamson Makes Green Beans with a Kick
While her return for redemption paid off in the end, she says it took “a while” to decide to come back. “I promised my son I would never leave him for that long again, so that was my biggest factor,” she explains. “I had a conversation with him about it and I told him I would take him any where in the world for a few days if he felt okay with me doing it again.”
She made it up to him by going on a family trip to Costa Rica and winning mom-of-the-year award for making him his favorite meal (which, no, is no longer the epic crêpe recipe she made during this season). “He’s kind of over the crêpes which is really sad because it was always a Sunday morning ritual.” But his perfect meal now includes sushi and lava cake. “As much as I dread the thought of making lava cake, it’s not about me, it’s about his experience. And to a 9-year-old lava cake is the entire world.”
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Returning alongside other Top Chef veterans was a relief knowing she had friends like Sheldon Simeon, Chung and Casey Thompson to lean on but there was very little down-time to actually hang out outside of competitions. They had “about one day a week” to themselves, which she used to write down recipes used on the show, watch a movie or treat herself to one beauty indulgence. “That would also be the day I would wash and blow-dry my hair. Because having the time to blow-dry my hair was a definite plus.”