Hands down, BRAVO's Top Chef is one of our favorite culinary competition shows. In addition to seeing talented chefs come up with creations on the fly, Restaurant Wars and cities being showcased - it's being introduced to chefs and their restaurants that we are constantly making a note to visit when we are in the midst of our travels. We have quite a list of our favorites that we have enjoyed seeing at Cochon555, culinary events, and of course interviewing as well in Athleisure Mag. This month, we chatted with Chef Brooke Williamson who was second runner up on Season 10 of the show and won it all when she came back for Season 14, we talked with her about her start in the industry, being the youngest chef to cook at the James Beard House, being a Restaurateur of a collection of restaurants and more!
ATHLEISURE MAG: What was the moment that you realized that you wanted to be a chef?
CHEF BROOKE WILLIAMSON: I don’t really remember that moment because I was so young and I was probably 6 or 7 years old when I realized that I wanted to be a chef. Then it became a thing that I just worked towards during my whole childhood so I don’t have one defining moment – it was just something that I knew I always wanted to do.
AM: Where did you train and what were restaurants that you worked at starting prior to the first restaurant that you opened?
CHEF BW: Well, I didn’t go to formal culinary school, I did take some cooking classes in my teens at a little cooking school called Epicurean but otherwise it was all restaurant training. My first kind of formal culinary job was at Phoenix at the Argyle Hotel under Ken Frank on Sunset and then I was there for about a year and a half and moved onto Michael’s in Santa Monica and moved up to Sous Chef like within a year so it all happened very quickly within a year. But I think that personally it’s because I I had been cooking my entire life.
AM: How do you define your style of cooking?
CHEF BW: I don’t really – my husband, Nick Roberts and I have several different restaurants and they are all very different from one another. I would say that the one constant throughout is seasonality and locality. I would say that we try to cook with seasonal, local ingredients as much as possible. I think that with both of us being native Californians we just naturally gravitate towards a lot of produce and just kind of work from there. All of our restaurants are very different just conceptually so I don’t have a definitive answer for that.
AM: It’s amazing that at the age of 22, you were the youngest chef to cook at the James Beard House, what do you remember preparing for that to take on such a big task?
CHEF BW: I think that at that age, I kind of didn’t know the magnitude of what I was doing which may have helped me with my composure. I knew what the James Beard House was and what an honor it was, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of what it was.
AM: When you opened your first restaurant, what is the first takeaway that you took from it that you learned from that and how did it inform how you went about opening and managing your future ones?
CHEF BW: Well my husband and I opened it when we were very young. We were chefs, we were not restaurateurs. We didn’t know what the difference was and we learned very quickly that we went into a space that we didn’t do a ton of research on the lease or the history of the location. I think what we took out of that was probably the most expensive culinary education that I could have had! That’s what I consider it – your first failed restaurant is such a learning experience and I’m so glad that it happened the way it did and I had something to fall back on by the time we closed the doors, but I can’t even count on 2 hands the number of takeaways from that. I just became more business savvy and understood how important the business side of a restaurant was.
AM: Can you tell us about each of your restaurants because they have a different feel to them – so walk us through the worlds of your restaurants!
CHEF BW: So the oldest restaurant which is currently open is Hudson House which has been around for 10 years and has morphed a lot since we have first opened it. It is still this warm gastropub kind of feeling. It’s sort of the first gastropub in the Redondo area of its kind and it’s changed a lot. It’s matured a bit as we just did a facelift on it so it looks more mature and more modern than it ever has. The menu has changed a lot and it still has that neighborhood feel to it. Then, The Tripel opened 2 years after that which is kind of a craft beer bar with upscale bar food. We have a couple of signature burgers which is what we are known for at The Tripel. Then we have Playa Provisions which is just down the street from that which is a 4-in-1-concept, we have a whiskey bar, a sit down seafood restaurant, a café that serves pastries and coffee in the morning through lunch, and then an icecream counter where we make all of our own icecream in nostalgic flavors. Then in Playa Vista, we have Da Kikokiko which is a fast casual Hawaiian concept – we serve mainly poke bowls, musubi and shaved ice and Dole whip as well. We have an icecream shop in Mar Vista which is a bit of an offshoot of Small Batch Ice Cream which is in Playa Provisions. We also have a retail store called Tripli-Kit as well that is specialty kitchen related goods.
AM: Do you think that you will open additional restaurants and concepts in California and also do you think that you will open up in other cities down the road?
CHEF BW: I would say if history tells correctly, we will probably continue in California. We do have this tendency to remain very local because my husband and I are very hands on and I like to be able to visit every place within a day if I need to or to get anywhere where I need to be or if I have to be. I’m kind of a control freak that way – I wouldn’t rule out opening a place out of state, but if we were to do something that wasn’t hyperlocal, then it would be an extension of something that we already have. That way we would feel that we would have control over from afar as well.
AM: Seeing that you and your husband are both chefs and restaurateurs and run your business together – how do you maintain how you work with one another as business partners as well as to maintain your coupleship?
CHEF BW: It’s the only way we have ever known each other. We met each other in the kitchen many years ago so it feels very natural to be in business together which is a struggle for a lot of couples that didn’t start out that way, I think. We know each other in a business sense very well. The hardest thing is juggling the parenting with the business. We want to stay active and engaged as parents as we juggle our busy days with the restaurants and with what we do. It’s really been the hardest part but we have somehow managed to make it work. We’re very fortunate that we have one another that we can kind of play off of and understand each other’s lives and the fact that we don’t want someone else raising our child. That mindset about what we want our lives to be is really helpful.
AM: What are 3 signature dishes that if you had to select them from across your restaurants – what should we try?
CHEF BW: Well, Hudson House we just completely redid our menu and in 10 years we just shifted things to a slightly overall Asian feel. There is a lot of Asian influence but it stil feels like a gastro pub menu. There are a couple of items that we will never be able to get rid of so we put it on a secret menu as we knew a lot of people would be mad with us if we didn’t still offer it. The Hudson Pretzel Burger and we do these Brown Sugar Pork Ribs which people go crazy for.
At Playa Provisions, I would say the Lobster Roll is something that we are pretty known for. The Crab Claw Pots, which is a snow crab claw with a crab cake at the end of it and then the whole thing is fried. That has become a signature staple as well as our specialty pastries. We do a Unicorn Cake it’s a special order. It’s a rainbow sort of pastel layer cake that is decorated like a unicorn and is filled with sprinkles which we sell a couple a week.
At The Tripel, I would definitely say that The Tripel Burger is a go to staple that we are known for on that menu. It’s duck confit, ground pork and beef with truffle cheese and apricot jam on an onion brioche bun.
At Da Kikokiko the spicy tuna bowl and the spam musubi, although we do a really good salmon musubi which sells almost as well, and of course the shaved ice. People come in just for the shaved ice.
I would say that our signature staple flavor that we have over at Small Batch, which is also my son’s favorite, is Mint Oreo or Chocolate Malted Crunch which is kind of a play on the old thrifty Junior flavor.
AM: You were asked to collaborate with a brewery to create Girl Grey. Where did this idea come from by having these interesting flavors of the Belgian style ale, the almonds and earl grey tea to come together?
CHEF BW: I knew I wanted to do a Belgian Tripel style of beer as it is my favorite style of beer and it is also why the restaurant is spelled T-r-i-p-e-l in the style of this Belgian beer. So it felt like it made sense to do a Belgian Tripel beer and then I used my chef brain in the sense that I thought about flavors that naturally went well with a higher alcohol creamy aged ale. There were probably 7 different flavor ideas and combinations that were on the table. That’s the one that really stuck and we made a sample of it, tasted it and that is the one that we went with.
AM: Is it still available?
CHEF BW: It was a one time release so I’m sure that there is some stashed away, but I don’t know if it is still purchasable from the brewery.
AM: We know you also did a sour beer with them, do you see yourself doing collaborations like this?
CHEF BW: I would totally be up for it! I felt like it was a one time collaboration that they were looking to do, but if they came back to me, and were interested in doing another flavor with me – I would totally be down to do it.
AM: So what led to you to the decisions that brought you to Top Chef for Season 10 and after having all of the experience from that season, what made you say that you would come back for Season 14 where you ultimately won that one?
CHEF BW: Well the first time it was a really difficult decision. I had a 4 year old at the time and I had turned it down several years before and then finally said yes after seeing what it had done for the previous chefs, that the platform creates for chefs who do well on it. I felt it was a personal challenge to do something that was out of my comfort zone for myself, but I also felt that now more than ever – the restaurant business is a difficult business and I felt like anything that you can continue to do to stay relevant and to let people know that you are out there and waiting for them to recognize you is worth doing! Of course, you don’t know how you are going to do or come off when you do something like that, but I felt that I was relatively unconcerned with my personality coming off in a terrible way so it was more of a personal challenge to see where we could take this.
AM: For season 14 was it more of a nobrainer?
CHEF BW: No it wasn’t because I felt like, what were the chances that I could do better than second place? On a personal note, it was a much more difficult decision. Professionally it was more of a no brainer. I saw first hand what it did for my business and what it did for me. But personally, the thought of going back and being eliminated first, second, third or anything less than winning would have been a total disappointment to me. So I kind of went into it with that mentality which helps and hurts in several ways.
AM: In terms of your Top Chef squad we see you with Richard Blais on the show and we see you with other chefs from the show for your appearances etc. When you are not in those areas, who from the show do you hang out with?
CHEF BW: I feel like I made a lot of really good friends from the show. They’re people that I would consider closer personal friends that I made and keep contact with on a very regular basis. Kristen Kish is one of my very best friends that I stay in touch with, Casey Thompson is one of my closest friends and I have a plethora of other people – I’m good friends with Shirley Chung, Kelvin Gillepsie - I could go down a list of people that I have kept in touch with on a regular basis and I would say a handful of people I stay in really close contact with and consider them my closest friends.
AM: We know that you have done a lot of TV from Top Chef, MTV’s House of Food, and Esquire Network's Knife Fight – what are upcoming shows that we can expect to see you on?
CHEF BW: I haven’t done a ton of shooting lately. I did an episode of Top Chef recently that just aired that I judged.
AM: We loved seeing you on there with your Christmas Sweater – so cute.
CHEF BW: Haha yeah my Ugly Christmas Sweater.
AM: You have so many accolades under your belt from being a chef, restaurateur, whisky aficionado, beer creator – what else is on your list that you want to add to that you have yet to tackle??
CHEF BW: Not really, there are areas that I feel like I want to do better in. I would say that the way I feel about my life and career is that I have done a lot of things pretty well. I would love to say that I do more things very well. I’m kind of at a point right now where I don’t have to do more stuff to do more stuff. I want to make sure that what I am doing is really quality. I don’t feel like I need to expand my horizons. I want to make the restaurants that I have open are doing the best that they can and that the people that come in are having great experiences as often as possible. I want to be more present in my restaurants, my life and as a parent. I don’t feel like I need to branch – I feel like I need to branch in.
AM: That’s a good one. I feel like a lot of times we do bite off so many things and branching in is a good thing.
CHEF BW: Totally, I mean – when it comes to my health and mental, physical, wellness, my parenting and my friendships and that there have been things that have suffered – not dramatically because I have been stretched too thin and I just want to do everything a little better.
AM: We know that you are an avid SoulCycler and you do fitness and various workouts – why is this so important to you to have this as a part of your lifestyle?
CHEF BW: One because I feel like I physically need to maintain my health in order to live the lifestyle that I live and to do the things that I do. The travel takes a lot out of me when I do the appearances, dinners and stuff like that. I’m not a great traveler so just maintaining that and some sanity is really due to my exercise regimen and I can really feel it when I don’t exercise and I don’t get that energy out in the right way – I feel like my life suffers. Even from an energy standpoint to maintain the energy to do it all. I feel like it’s so important to maintain sanity.
AM: You recently cycled through Italy to tour their countryside as well as to enjoy the foods of the region. Did you have to train yourself to do that kind of cycling as it seemed like you were on your bike quite a bit to get everywhere!
CHEF BW: I think I had to train myself on how to be on a real road bike which is not a no brainer! It’s actually a scary piece of equipment and if you don’t use it properly, it can kill you. I felt that I needed to up my game on how to be on a real bicycle outside and not on a stationary bike like I was used to. It was also about sitting on a saddle for such a long period of time that’s really where I struggled the most sitting on those bike seats. It seems like it would be nothing when you’re talking about biking hundreds of miles – but it’s not nothing!
AM: How many hours were you on this bike without a rest?
CHEF BW: I mean, we would stop for coffee and when we needed to stop. But, we were with a group of people and I wasn’t going to be the reason why we were taking so long. Especially since I was technically helping to lead this trip. We would go for a couple of hours and stop for a cup of coffee and then go another couple of hours and stop for lunch and then it was a quick ride to whatever hotel we were staying at. The difference between a 45 mins or hour SoulCycle class and 5 hours in a bike seat is huge!
AM: Since you do travel so much, what are 3 must haves that you bring with you regardless of where you are traveling to?
CHEF BW: If I am taking a flight, I always have Flopsy my stuffed rabbit that I take with me that I have had since I was 4 in my carry on! If I get on a flight, I’m going to have Flopsy. I’m not religious at all but have a Saint Christopher that I travel with as well. Those are the kind of things that I don’t get on a plane without having those. The other thing is that I travel with snacks always. I’m always the one that travels with a ziplock gallon bag full of snacks because I feel like unnecessary travel hunger just adds to the stress of travel. I also hate having to grab a bag of Doritos because there isn’t a banana. I always have a little pot of lavender scented balm or something that smells good. Usually it’s lavender scented as I am a bit of a high anxiety person and smells really help me. I also love Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker Chapstick.
AM: We love the throw back!
CHEF BW: I actually mentioned that I had them and I couldn’t remember where I said it, but I couldn’t find them anywhere and Target stopped carrying them – specifically the Dr. Pepper flavor and Lip Smacker actually sent me a 6-pack where I am currently on the last stick.
AM: So where can we find you grabbing a meal outside of your restaurants, working out and doing a bit of shopping?
CHEF BW: Oh my gosh those are so different questions! Alright so, I don’t often grab a cocktail outside of my restaurant. I grew up in Los Angeles, I was a total bar hopper at 20/21 I was sitting at the Vermosa Bar sitting by myself just after work drinking a Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks on a school night – loving it. I feel like I got that out of my system and that I don’t need to go to bars just to go to bars anymore. I have a child that I appreciate putting to bed at night and I can have a really good cocktail at my own restaurant. I’m not a bar goer. When it comes to eating meals outside of my restaurant, we generally go ethnic. Generally Asian, we do a lot of sushi and go to Kanpai in Westchester a lot. We go to Aiara for Thai food a lot we go to ASAP Phorage for pho – so we do a lot of Asian food and we like to keep it local.
I definitely am a SoulCycler but every so many months I do this Boot Camp with Lacey Stone and I love her. She does a 2 week boot camp called Reboot which I am actually doing and it’s 2 weeks of no drinking, eating super clean and I prep all my own meals. I still go to my spin classes, but 3 days a week, I go to her Boot Camp in the morning and the next one will be at The Wall - so I’ll be there.
AM: We love The Wall.
CHEF BW: I’ve never been there.
AM: It will definitely be good to check it out.
CHEF BW: I like shopping online – I’m not a huge shopper. I don’t like to try things on. I do like to see things in per son. I don’t like to go on shopping excursions. When I see something that I like in a store, I often buy it on an impulse and hope it will fit as I don’t like returning things. I’m not a huge shopper so I actually prefer that when my conditioner is getting low, I like to go on Amazon and order it and would rather have Amazon deliveries every single day!
AM: It’s like Christmas every single day with a new box – but you know exactly what’s in there!
CHEF BW: It’s amazing. By the time I decide that I need to buy something, it always takes me a couple of days to get to whatever store it is anyway, so I can have it on my doorstep without having to go anywhere!
AM: How do you define your personal style in terms of what you wear when you go to work and what you wear when you’re going out with friends or for a date night?
CHEF BW: They are all very different from one another. I love fashion, I love clothes, I love shoes. I also am not someone who will make themselves look great every time they leave the house. I work out a lot. I wear a lot of workout clothes, but I also try not to make that my daily outfit and try not to fall back on that for my go to. I work out in work out clothes and try to care about what I look like when I am going out someplace else. I love to be comfortable. I love overalls, love jumpers and am a big fan of being comfortable and also having a cute outfit on. I do love getting dressed up and am the first person to say that I am going out to dinner to a nice restaurant and that I am excited to put on a pair of heels and a dress, especially because my everyday life means I’m dressing down in jeans, a button down flannel or long sleeve shirt. So when I get dressed up,
I love getting dressed up.
AM: I can only imagine how busy you are. What’s your morning routine like to get to your restaurant?
CHEF BW: I’m very fortunate that in a sense, my husband is a morning person because I am not! So on a weekday, my alarm goes off at 6:20am or 6:18am don’t ask. I start by complaining that I have to get up and my son will come one eyed down the hallway into our bathroom because he is not a morning person either and he found that his morning routine needs to include a shower. My husband will get up and make coffee and usually that’s how I am able to get out of bed because he makes me coffee. Then I am a workout first kind of person. If it is my turn to take my son to school then I will take him and head straight to a SoulCycle class which depends on whether I am in a bootcamp or not. If my husband takes him, he goes to a trainer on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so he can’t go to school before that so on Tuesday and Thursday, I can kind of take my time a little bit and go to whatever class I want to as opposed to the one that is closest to the school. I’m a take-a-class-kind-of person usually but if I can’t, I have a Peloton bike at home and if I can’t pull it together to take a class then I will take it from home. Or maybe I will go for a run if I am on a running kick which I haven’t been for a while. Then I shower and get as many things as I can get done so that depending on where I have to be and when – before one of us has to be home to pick up our son from school.
AM: How do you take time for yourself with such a schedule that you have?
CHEF BW: I consider that when I workout, that that is time for myself and that I don't know if everyone considers it that. Working out is me taking care of myself and working out to keep myself sane. So me scheduling a workout into my day is really my way of taking care myself.
PHOTOS COURTESY | Chef Brooke Williamson | LEFT IMAGE courtesy of TOP CHEF -- "Naughty and Nice" Episode 1603 -- Pictured: (l-r) Richard Blais, Brooke Williamson, Padma Lakshmi -- (Photo by: Michael Hickey/Bravo)
Make sure to follow our new multimedia podcast network, Athleisure Studio and specifically our show, Athleisure Kitchen. You can get the latest episodes when they drop by following and listening to us on your preferred listening platform (Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, etc). You can hear the full interview with Chef Brooke Williamson on Athleisure Kitchen when it drops in Feb.
Read more from the Jan Issue of Athleisure Mag and see Seasonality and Locality with Chef Brooke Williamson in mag.