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Top chef offers tips for helping restaurants in pandemic
Behind the Screens with Joshua Maloni
With double the contestants and double the challenges, who better to win Food Network’s “Tournament of Champions III” than B Dub?
“Top Chef” alum and season one titleholder Brooke Williamson leads a field of 32 culinary masters looking to win host Guy Fieri’s meat-grinder of a competition and take ultimate bragging rights.
Well, at least until next season.
“I feel like this is a competition that we've seen for the last two years, but has never been quite like this before. So, I think it's going to be a really exciting season,” Williamson said in a phone interview.
Following the success of season two – 11 million viewers tuned in to watch Food Network’s highest-rated series of 2021 – it’s not surprising the number of entrants expanded.
No. The shock comes later, when these chefs enter the arena and look upon the dreaded, five-wheeled “Randomizer.” The spinning device determines which protein, produce and equipment the combatants must use, as well as cooking style and time.
If that wasn’t enough pressure, each competitor’s dishes will be judged by a panel of super-successful chefs, restaurateurs and foodies who will decide which person advances deeper into the tournament.
While this might sound daunting to most, for Williamson it’s another opportunity to show her Liam Neeson-like special skillset. The California culinarian has shined on TV’s most prestigious food fight, Bravo’s “Top Chef,” finishing as runner-up on season 10 and then winning season 14.
Williamson made her Food Network debut on season one of “Tournament of Champions,” defeating fellow “Top Chef” alums Michael Voltaggio and Antonia LaFaso to win the “West” side of the bracket. In the final, she edged “Chopped” judge Amanda Freitag.
She returned to defend her title in season two. Williamson triumphed over a third “Top Chef” entrant, Nyesha Arrington (cohost of the FOX series “Next Level Chef”), once again got the best of Voltaggio, and took down the illustrious Jet Tila, before squaring off with “East” victor and “Chopped” judge Maneet Chauhan.
The “Randomizer” provided the two with langoustine and fresh wasabi. They were tasked with preparing the langoustine three different ways in 50 minutes – and liquid nitrogen was the required equipment. Chauhan would take the gold belt, narrowly defeating Williamson by a score of 93-90.
Williamson, who owns Playa Provisions with her husband, Nick Roberts, in Playa del Rey, California, shared more about her love of the game in this Q&A.
Brooke Williamson won the first season of “Tournament of Champions.” (Food Network photo)
Q: In the interest of transparency, I have to say you were the one that I was rooting for in the first two seasons because of what you did on “Top Chef” – and how impressed I was with your work. I am definitely a big fan of super competitive.
Brooke Williamson: Thank you. I appreciate it. And I yeah, I do not fall short of super competitive (laughs).
Q: With that said, I have to say I was surprised in season one that you were, if I'm correct, I believe you were the No. 7 seed. You certainly were labeled as an underdog. What did you make of that seeding, and did it provide any extra motivation for you?
Brooke Williamson: It was my first time ever being on Food Network, so I will say that’s understandable because of the fact that Bravo and Food Network have very different viewership. And it was the first time a lot of Food Network watchers had ever seen me. So, I totally kind of understood where that was coming from.
I also knew what I was personally capable of, so I never really paid too much attention to the seeds. And I knew that it was kind of just my job to prove myself.
Q: And talk about a platform to do that. For those who weren't familiar with your work, how nice was it to showcase your skills on a show that’s scene by 9, 10, 11 million viewers?
Brooke Williamson: Yeah, so much fun; and I was very warmly welcomed.
I did know a good handful of the chefs competing. We all kind of run in a tight circle regardless of what network we're on or where we've competed. A lot of us just sort of know each other. It's a tight community.
So, it was just a really fun experience. Of course, a very stressful experience, but I knew from my history of competing on “Top Chef,” on “Knife Fight,” on what have you, that the quick fires – the sort of “set the clock, here's some ingredients, and go” scenarios is kind of where I perform at my highest level. So, it was a really exciting, fun competition for me, and I think a great way for me to showcase what I'm sort of inherently good at.
Q: Of course, for season two, you would be the one to beat. You would certainly not be the underdog. Was there any doubt you would return to defend the title? Did you have any sort of second thoughts, or where you just like, “I'm going to go and take a second belt”?
Brooke Williamson: (Laughs) I mean, I always have a 100 second thoughts, because it really is the most sort of high-stress environment you can put yourself in.
Regardless of how you perform – at least me personally – I take competing very seriously, and I'm always sort of uber-stressed in that environment. So, agreeing to do it in the first place was one thing. Coming into season two – knowing that the only way that I could even just do as well as I did in the first season was to win – that was definitely an added layer of pressure.
Q: And Guy, he's a mastermind of chaos – and on his competition shows, you could wind up with like a frozen chicken and a coffee maker and, you know, stand on one foot or something like that.
Brooke Williamson: Yeah, I mean, that also adds an extra layer of pressure and stress.
I think the one thing that I tend to fall back on is that I've been cooking for a really long time, and I've come across a lot of ingredients and tools and styles of cuisine in my 25-year history of professionally cooking. But that doesn't mean that all of those things work together. And I think my biggest fear in competition is walking into a challenge and having my mind go blank, because I'm sort of stumbled by an ingredient or a tool.
Yeah, that “Randomizer” is an animal in itself.
“Tournament of Champions” host Guy Fieri. (Food Network photo)
Q: You talk about the pressure and the fear and that, but I would think that there would also be feelings of excitement and considering it a challenge. …
Brooke Williamson: Oh totally! The reason I continue to do it, regardless of how much stress and pressure it ends up always being, is because I really enjoy it. And sort of the adrenaline rush, to me, is the same – you know, I don't ever want to jump out of an airplane, but I can imagine that the reason why people do it is because it gives them the same feeling that I feel when I'm walking into a competition. Knowing that you're sort of walking into an uphill battle is something that, if you can accomplish this task – let alone shine and exceed people's expectations – then you've accomplished something that most people have not and will never do.
So, there's a thrill in that that sort of keeps all of us who continue to do this coming back for more
Q: Along those same lines, these competitions are television shows – and the main goal is to draw and keep viewers. We recognize that going in, and we know that a lot of these scenarios will never arise in a kitchen. But yet, I have to believe that there are lessons you can take and use in your own establishments. Am I right in thinking that?
Brooke Williamson: I don't know. I look at them as two very different worlds. You know, I've come across so many incredibly talented chefs in my career who, when I've sort of witnessed them in action in a competitive environment, they fall apart – and vice versa; people who really thrive in competition who aren't necessarily great at running restaurants.
So, to me, they're completely different worlds. But I think the one very specific carryover for me is thriving in a high-stress, high-pressure environment. And by thriving, I mean not only being able to sort of handle yourself, but also be creative under those types of stresses and pressures. And for me, that is something that carries over – and sort of proves to me, in a great way, what I'm capable of in my everyday life.
Q: Going into season three, of course, the goal is to win. But is it satisfying to just win, or do you have to also, if possible, avenge your one loss in this competition? Would you have to beat Maneet to make it truly satisfying?
Brooke Williamson: To me, the disappointment of specifically losing in that battle was losing against myself. I walked out of that finale battle feeling like I didn't do the best job I could have. That I was capable of putting up better food. And to me, that's sort of avenging myself, right? If I go into a battle and I feel like I've done the best that I'm capable of doing, and I lose, then that's one thing. It's another thing – and don't get me wrong, I know that Maneet is a beast, and she had to perform at the top of her capabilities to beat me, as well. But knowing that I could have done things differently, it's sort of just avenging my regrets – of performing at my top capability. And to me, it's always a battle against myself.
Q: Interesting, interesting. So, you win “Top Chef.” At that point, I'm sure you have no shortage of offers. You talked a little bit about Food Network. More and more top chefs and chefs from other networks, other shows, have come over to work with Food Network in recent years. Tell me more of what you like about working with this particular team.
Brooke Williamson: It's really just a wonderful family. And there's a lot of crossover. I think there's just so much opportunity at Food Network.
It's really wonderful to be in an environment where sort of everyone is not only passionate about the same thing, but there's all these opportunities to not only showcase what you can do to the world, but also hang out with your friends and be a part of something bigger. Food Network has really welcomed me with open arms; and it's been a wonderful way to expand who I feel like, ultimately, is my family.
Q: It's been a very difficult two years for restaurants. We've got a lot of great eateries here, and we've been fortunate that our locals have really done a good job of supporting them.
What is something really good and kind and decent that people can do to help restaurants as we still continue to sort of work our way out of this pandemic?
Brooke Williamson: There's so many things you can do in terms of supporting restaurants, whether it be buying gift certificates or just dining out in every possible way – whether that be takeout, delivery.
But I think that, ultimately, what I consider to be the biggest form of support these days are just people understanding the circumstances and being kind to the staff.
A little bit of understanding and kindness goes a long way, when we're asking for vaccination cards; when we’re doing our best to seat people outside, and working the puzzle that is the floorplan of the restaurant; training new people, constantly, with more turnover than we've had in many years; people being short-staffed and understaffed.
It's been a really trying not only two years, but specifically like the last six months, in terms of just people understanding what we're going through to keep the doors open. Just understand that we're doing our best, and a little kindness goes a long way.
“Tournament of Champions III” premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 27, on Food Network and streaming on discovery+. Fans can find more at FoodNetwork.com/TournamentOfChampions.