By People Staff
January 16, 2009 12:00 AM
Michael Lavine /Bravo

Top Chef‘s resident mom Ariane Duarte had her highs and lows–starting her Top Chef journey at the bottom, then going on to win several challenges along the way. When the 41-year-old chef was sent home Wednesday after the judges criticized her butchering skills, many … including her competitors–didn’t see the elimination coming. Calling from Verona, N.J., Duarte opened up about her newfound fame, what she proved to herself and her competitors and tackled our five burning questions. –Brian Orloff

You had both highs and lows on the show. Do you think the other chefs saw you as a fierce competitor?Being on the bottom, nobody thought you could cook. Being able to come back and start winning challenges slowly with having the best turkey and winning the Today show challenge, I think realized I was somebody to reckon with. I think a lot of were surprised that I left.

Were you? Did you know you were going home before the judges made their decision?I really thought Radhika was going to go. I really don’t know what she did, but when you get that chance to speak up, she just didn’t. . . . But when they kept talking about the lamb, I was like, it was going to be me. At that point I knew it. Definitely I wasn’t ready to go, but I was okay with it. I came so far, and I did so well. I was proud.

Do you think your teammates should have stepped in more? Did one of them deserve to go home over you?It wasn’t even a matter of stepping in. It was like they made the decisions and I had to follow them. I know how to break down lamb. I cook a lot of lamb and I eat whole lamb every Easter. Anything I said– like, “Let’s grill it! Let’s roast it!”–everything was “No, no, no!”

You talked about your family on the show. How are they reacting to your performance–and your newfound celebrity?I have teenagers–a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old. Mom being away was hard, but they were so excited. They’re very popular in school now. I don’t know if they’re getting any special treatment–but they’re getting a lot of questions. It’s fun for them. They’re enjoying it.

Talk about how you’ve grown professionally. Are you more confident now?For me to hold my head up and not start crying after my elimination, that was when I knew it was good. Look at how far I’ve come. Since Top Chef I’ve used some ingredients I’ve never used before. After being in the business for 20 years and raising a family, it’s hard to travel or just get into that creative mode all the time for me. You just get stagnant. Being there really refreshed me–made me want to cook a lot more.

Our Top Chef 5 Burning Questions: Describe your Top Chef experience in one word.Intense

What is in your refrigerator right now?A lot of berries. A lot of milk. Some Chinese fried rice.

Name one food you cannot stand.I don’t know if I have one.

Pick your favorite fast-food restaurant.White Castle.

Gail or Toby?Gail – one hundred percent! That Toby had it out for me.

READ MORE: Top Chef Recap: The Chefs Get Farm FreshMichael Lavine /Bravo