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How a Top Chef finds balance

How has your life changed since winning Top Chef?

It’s been exactly a year and it’s basically taken me that long to get back to normal. Getting used to low-key fame has been wild. I get recognized at the airport, it’s really bizarre. I have to catch myself when I’m wondering ‘Why do you know who I am?’ Personally, though, I love it. I think people handle attention differently, and good or bad, I’ve loved it my whole life.

The competition seems very hectic and physically intense. Did you find it motivating or inspiring or just challenging?

I would say it was all of that. I did not go into it expecting to win. My whole mantra was ‘be yourself, work really hard, and don’t go home first.’ I was more thankful that I was going to be on the show, which was a really amazing experience and opportunity. I wanted to remember that over everything else.

What’s something surprising about Top Chef?

I think viewers get the impression that everybody’s so competitive, but that’s a big misconception. We are more competitive against ourselves and, if anything, we’re helping each other out.

Have you watched the season now?

No, but I never really sit down to watch TV. I don’t watch nearly anything.

Can you talk about being a Southern woman and a professional chef? Did you have women to look up to in the industry?

Predominantly, my friends don’t work and my mom and her friends were stay-at-home moms. [On the other hand], I have a work-heavy career that is a full-time job and sometimes more than a full-time job. In the South, you don’t find [as many] female chefs and it felt isolating and challenging at times, and as if no one knew what I was going through. Now though, being a female Southern chef is one of my favorite things because it sets me apart.

What’s your approach to wellness?

I get a massage every three months and facials once a month. I started doing that when I got back from Top Chef and was like ‘Where did all these wrinkles come from?’ I felt like I came back two years older and that made me realize I hadn’t taken care of my skin. 

Also, my garden and my house are my oasis. I have plants everywhere. Gardening and getting my hands dirty became my alternative to getting drinks after work with my friends. I wanted something that wasn’t drinking that was a way to wind down.

Did you grow up gardening?

My grandmother and great-grandmother both had gardens and used to come over with pickles and pepper sauce made from what they’d grown. These women were huge influences in my life. They gardened, fished, and played golf—things that females weren’t doing in their era.

What are your favorite things to cook from your garden?

Right now, Shishito peppers. No one in my family had heard of them, and now they are obsessed. I just broil them and then add lime, salt, and pepper and eat them pretty much every night. Another favorite is pickling cucumbers from the garden.

How do you manage stress with such a busy schedule?

Champagne helps! No, joking aside, on my best days it’s pretty manageable, though on my not-so-great ones I ask myself if what I’m doing is too much. The number one thing I always recommend for someone in a leadership position is getting people to help you. For women, it’s a stigma to ask for help. Especially when you have a child and you’re working, you want to spend your time away from your job making memories with your children. I make a chart to figure out what I’m spending a significant amount of time doing that I can financially afford to have someone help with. For me, I decided that I’m not going to spend time cleaning my house anymore—that’s where I decided to ask for help.

What are some of your favorite places to visit food-wise?

New York, I try to go there as much as possible. It’s fun because it’s always evolving and there are always great new places to eat. In the South, I love going to Birmingham. It’s only three-and-a-half hours away and there are some really inspiring chefs there. Charleston, too. Last but not least, New Orleans: Culture, music, and fun—you can’t beat it.

You lived in New York City for three years, working in restaurants. Why did you decide to move back to your hometown of Dothan?

[In New York,] I felt like my whole life was revolving around a kitchen. I took a step back and saw that I wasn’t happy and was obsessed with the industry in an unhealthy way. I couldn’t work 110 hours a week for the rest of my life, but I’m such a workhorse I couldn’t stop myself. I realized I wanted a slower pace and to feel like I could date someone that wasn’t a chef and have friends that weren’t chefs. I want this career and this job, but I don’t want it to be my life.

How do you practice balance in your life?

Chefs are obsessive and want to control things, and when we can’t control things, we pick something to control. I’ve always been uber concerned with my health and my weight and, full disclosure, I had an eating disorder when I was in New York. I decided that I didn’t want to be obsessed with my body. Instead of thinking ‘How do I look?’ I’m now invested in ‘How can I be more healthy? How can I have more energy?’ For me, balance is important. If I just came off a bender weekend of eating everything in sight, I don’t need to answer every craving by giving into it. I try not to go more than four days of really bad eating, and then I’ll skip bread or sweets for a day. I don’t ever want to be in a lifestyle where I feel like I should diet. The reality is that no one feels good when they’re at their heaviest. You can’t feel healthy when you’re weighted down. That’s my biggest focus: How I can feel the healthiest all the time?

What about at work?

One thing I focus on since I’ve had Monroe is that I don’t care what’s going on at KBC, at five or six p.m., I’m done. Even if it’s really bad or if I’m thinking I should answer a few more emails, I’ll wake up the next day and do it instead. As a business owner, you feel that because you’re always on the clock you need to constantly be working. I created office hours and that’s made me keep the balance up.

How do you stay active?

I get up every morning at five-thirty or six and walk around the neighborhood with my son. It’s my only quiet time. Then, I go to the gym twice a week, where I do a full-body workout with weight-training and boxing.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a lifestyle book with recipes, stories, and hostess tips. Hopefully there will be multiple books. I want to say yes to opportunities more than I say no and make the most of my time on the show.