Brooke Williamson may be the winner of Top Chef, owner of four amazing California restaurants (plus one culinary store) and the youngest female chef to cook at the James Beard house, but her proudest title – mom. It was clear from chatting with her that her nine-year-old son Hudson is her pride and joy and that she’d do anything for him – even let him get air sick on her when one of her biggest fears in life is vomit. Brooke dishes on all things Top Chef and motherhood, and shares why a good day is one where nobody goes to sleep crying.
How did you get started as a chef?
I knew from age of 6 that I wanted to be a chef, the only thing I ever wanted to do. It was unusual for a female in the 1990s. The culinary world was very different than. I was a rebellious kid, the fact that I wanted to be a chef was really different. Growing up in L.A. most of my friends wanted to be in the beauty industry, or an actor or doctors or lawyers, it just felt really different. It was my one-track mind. I went to one year of college because I felt like I owed it to my parents. I then applied to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York and I got in but they required a certain number of restaurant hours to go so I started working at a restaurant in Los Angeles and never stopped. I didn’t go to culinary school and just kept working and started my career.
You own your restaurants with your husband…how do you work so closely together?
My husband and I have 4 restaurants (Hudson House, Playa Provisions, Da Kikokiko, The Tripel) and a culinary store (Tripli-Kit). All very different from each other. We used to spend a lot more time with each other. We actually met in the kitchen, he was my sous chef when I was 22. It was the only way we ever knew each other. We left and opened our own restaurant at 24. When we had 1-2 restaurants we spent a lot of time together but once we had a child we were of the mindset that we didn’t want someone else to raise our child for us so we made a point of one of us at home at night while the other was at work. Now I travel a lot too. We split up our duties and when I am out of town he’s pretty much a single working dad. I am so appreciative of the backup and couldn’t have done all of this without him.
How do you balance being a crazy busy chef and a working mom?
There is no perfect balance. Our son spends a lot of time at the restaurant. I think it helps that he understands work is a part of our life. We are always around it. The restaurants feel like home to him which is really helpful. Balance is difficult whether it be making sure I am around enough to getting in exercise which is a huge part of my life. I run myself into the ground so if I am not in decent shape it kills me (and exercise saves my sanity!). Maintaining friendships and a marriage not revolved fully around work is a delicate balance. I haven’t figured it out. If we don’t all go to sleep crying, then I think it’s been a successful day. It’s frustrating. I feel like I do a lot of things kind of well. I am not sure I would be satisfied if I could do one thing perfectly, though.
What was it like to win Top Chef after doing it again?
It was a relief. It was a really different experience the second time around. I put so much pressure on myself the second time. The only way to do better was to win (ed. Note: she was the semi-finalist in Seattle in 2012 before returning this past season). When I got eliminated [later to come back] it showed me once again that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. When I came back on I let go of some of the pressure, I remembered that I cook because I love it, not because it’s a competition.
What do you love most about being a mom?
I love how hard it is. How it’s tested my limits in every way possible from pregnancy which I never thought I could handle to personal phobias like fear of vomit. Over this past spring break we went to Japan and he got sick on the plan as we were landing. He threw up 12 times and it was my worst nightmare (I hate flying and throw up). I realized that motherhood gives you these weird superpowers that makes it that someone else becomes more important than yourself. I realized then that my fears could impact someone else. I don’t want my son to feel like he can’t accomplish something because he was afraid of things. That’s part of the reason I did Top Chef again was to challenge myself and show him you can do whatever you want to do…what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s been really rewarding to me about being a mom. I also love knowing that there is someone that depends on me for their well-being and loves me unconditionally.
You have a very close relationship with your son – how do you maintain that?
I am a very affectionate mother and my top priority is that he comes first. I always want him to feel like I am one of the first people he wants to share his feelings with. I actually get really jealous of my husband’s relationship because they get extra time together. I go to great lengths to try to spend extra time with him. I take him on dates – dinner, staycations, etc. I want to maintain an individual relationship in addition to a parental relationship. Also not letting him do whatever he wants. I think his respect for me as a parent comes from the fact he knows that I care about his well-being which comes with discipline.
What advice would you give to a new mom?
There are so many things to be overwhelmed with. Don’t put that pressure on yourself. The way I did it isn’t the way most of my friends did it. I didn’t have set routines. If your child grows up knowing he has a support system and is a happy child, that’s the most important thing. Don’t sweat the small stuff. I read a lot of books when pregnant (mostly because I was terrified of being pregnant and wanted to know everything) but people have been having babies for a million years and most of them are great. The little details people get hung up on aren’t important to worry about.