Kelsey Barnard Clark is a 29-year-old from Dothan, Alabama, and a caterer who runs her own business and restaurant under the banner KBC. The ambitious chef catered her first wedding when she was just 15. She left the South at age 20 to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. She learned the art of fine cuisine by working at Cafe Boulud and perfected her pastry skills at Dovetail.
Now Kelsey has bagged even more bragging rights as the fifth woman to win the title of “Top Chef,” after rising to the top on the 16th season of Bravo’s popular competitive cooking show that mostly took place in the state of Kentucky.
“It’s been seven months since I found out I won,” she says. “We wrapped in July.” Was it hard to keep her news a secret? “Honestly, it wasn’t because there s no point in everyone watching the whole season if they know I won. I don’t want them to know. I want them to be like, ‘Do you go home next week? Do you go home next week?’ I’m always like, ‘Well, you have to watch.’ “
Kelsey hasn’t received her $125,000 prize nor the $10,000 that is the reward for also being voted fan favorite — a title that she is especially fond of. “No, not yet. I have yet to get that phone call.” She also will receive $50,000 in kitchen goodies from Williams Sonoma.
Early in the show, she revealed she how difficult it was to leave behind her 9-month-old son, Monroe, who turns 2 in June. Turns out he is a bit too young yet to fully grasp the fact his mom was on TV. But he does enjoy the benefits of his “Gulf Southerner” chef mom’s prowess at cooking and baking. “He likes sweets, so anything I bake like banana bread, pound cake, biscuits … other than that he likes really fresh vegetables. He likes green beans and cauliflower, he loves roasted cauliflower. He’s kind of like a spoiled brat when it comes to the vegetables. He wants them like really fresh, right when they are cooked. He doesn’t love them reheated. So I’ve created a monster.”
She believes her catering background prepared her to be more flexible and efficient about different challenges and circumstances than maybe her restaurant-based competitors.
“That has been a big discussion,” she says. When it comes to “Top Chef,” “They think that the new secret weapon are people with catering backgrounds. I would have to agree because when you do catering you often are forced to think on your feet constantly. The biggest thing about catering is that your client are kind of like these challenges where they all want different things, they all have different expectations. And when you’re catering especially because we are a traveling catering company, we cook on site most of the time. … We are mostly cooking over a wood fire grill at least 90 percent of the time. Things go wrong a lot.”
That helped prepare her for “Top Chef,” since the cheftestants don’t know ahead of time what situation they will be cooking in during the Elimination Challenges. When her competitors asked her why she didn’t plan for equipment, she told them, “That’s because you shouldn’t plan for equipment. Relying on a fryer that has to be plugged in? What are you going to do with the fryer if the breaker breaks? That’s why I did so many cold dishes or dishes that were soups that I could reheat.”
The 16th season was also notable in that only one of the eight male chefs, D.C.-area chef Eric Adjepong, made it to both the final five as well as the final three before being eliminated on last March 14 finale that took place in Macau, China. Kelsey’s former work mate and Kentucky native Sara Bradley, the runner-up, made it the battle of the Southern lady chefs — just the fourth time that two women went head to head in the end.
“We worked together in New York for a few years, about eight years ago,” Kelsey says. “She was savory and I was pastry at the same restaurant. We’ve kept in touch. We’ve been friends for a while.” Being up against her buddy was to her, “the best case scenario. … It would have been really great, if it had not been me, for Sara to have won.” The last time they got in touch with one another? “Yesterday. We are in similar stages in life. She is very pregnant, so we talk about baby stuff quite a bit. We have a lot of events that we are planning to do in the future.”