'Top Chef' Winner Says She Missed Son's First Steps to Compete: 'It Was Brutal'

"It definitely left me with a lot of guilt to feel like I needed to walk out on my child to compete," said Kelsey Barnard Clark

Kelsey Barnard Clark was crowned the winner of Top Chef season 16 on Thursday, becoming the fourth woman to ever win the title — but competing came with a major sacrifice.

The Alabama native, 29, had to leave her 9-month old son Monroe with her husband for nine weeks to film the Emmy-winning Bravo reality show, missing her only child’s first steps in the process.

Learning that her baby boy had reached that milestone while she was away nearly caused Clark to quit the show. Calling to check in from Top Chef‘s set in Kentucky, Clark immediately broke down during one of only three calls she made home.

“He was walking and he was not walking when I left. And I absolutely, honest to god, lost my s— on the phone,” Clark admits to PEOPLE. “I was just like, ‘I want to leave. This is horrible. What have I done? My child’s walking!’ It put me into a spiral for days.”

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“I couldn’t handle it,” she adds. “I actually turned down my last phone call because I had like less than two weeks left, so I said, ‘I think it’s better if I don’t talk to him.’ I was just a mess. And the only way I could get through it would be to block out everything and focus on the competition in hopes that I could find this way to better my family in the long run.”

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Clark never anticipated she would be in this situation when she originally applied to Top Chef. At the time, Monroe was just a newborn and she expected it would take a few tries to get cast.

“I didn’t think I would get it, so I was like, ‘I’m not going to worry about whether or not I’d go. I’ll worry about that later. Right now, just apply,’ ” she recalls.

Top Chef producers called to offer her the gig when Monroe was just 5 months. Clark hesitated, knowing she’d have to leave her son so early on. But her family supported her.

“They were like, ‘He’s not going to remember anything at this age. But the older he gets, the more challenges there will be if you have to leave,’ ” she says.

“It was pretty brutal,” Clark continues. “It was an incredibly difficult decision and it definitely left me with a lot of guilt to feel like I needed to walk out on my child to compete. But that’s also what I had to do.”

Adding to the struggle was that Clark had to quit breastfeeding.

“When I got there, my mind was wack,” Clark confesses. “I would wake up when I would normally wake up to feed. I would wake up three times a night like clockwork. It was extremely weird.”

“I don’t know how to describe it in words,” she says. “I would wake up almost in a panic, like, ‘Where’s my baby? I don’t know what’s going on. Is he okay?’ It’s almost like a lost arm. That’s how it would feel every night. Lack of sleep is not good for a body, especially in competition. I had a really hard time.”

Padma Lakshmi was there for support. “There was no sugarcoating that I had a hard time. And she definitely asked a lot about Monroe and how I was feeling,” Clark says. “She wasn’t asking to make me cry — she was asking because they were genuinely concerned. Every time I got upset or anything like that, she’d say, ‘Your son is going to be proud of you one day.’ She was always so uplifting.”

One would imagine the trouble stopped when Clark was reunited with Monroe, but she says that provided some hardships too.

“It was very weird because he was not really listening,” Clark says. “With a baby, those phases in the beginning, they change pretty drastically. A 1-year or 2-year-old [child], they’ll change a little bit. But there’s a reason why when they’re babies, you’re showing off like, ‘3 months! 4 months! 5 months! 6 months!’ Because they have so many milestones in those first few months.”

“Missing 9 to 12 months… he was a different child when I got back,” she shares. “I left a bald-haired crawling baby and got back to like, a toddler with curly hair, teeth, walking. So it was just very… the first two days, we actually changed my flight to fly into the beach and we kind of just stayed together for four days to kind of get him to bond back with me again. It was just, ‘Get back to normal mode.’ ”

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Of course, it was worth it when Clark won — and picked up a $125,000 paycheck, a $50,000 prize package, a number of future appearances in culinary magazines and events across the country and an extra $10,000 for being voted fan favorite for the season.

She says she hopes to use that money to renovate her Dothan restaurant, KBC, and use her new exposure to make it a destination restaurant to “help grow my town and provide more jobs to people here.”

Mostly, she just hopes people who see her story understand the sacrifices mothers like her have to go through.

“It’s more common than people realize,” Clark explains. “We’re in an era where mothers are working too. I mean, military moms — can you imagine? They leave for like, a year, two years sometimes? It’s a challenge. I’ve had an overwhelming amount of women come to me and say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve given me so much strength, I’ve had so much guilt.’ And I just want women to know, it’s okay and they’re not alone.”

And for those who are critical? “There’s always people who say something terrible, but I’m surprisingly good at blocking that out,” she says. “I don’t even waste my breath, ’cause I do not care. I’ve done my very best to do the right thing, to make the right decisions. Of course, I make mistakes, but I’m human. If you don’t like it, that’s fine — we don’t have to agree. I’m just not going to listen to it. People who decide to be negative and put negative thoughts out into the universe aren’t people I want to be around anyways.”

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