The Top Chef finale really resonated with me — particularly one moment shared between finalist Shirley Chung and her mother.
During the finale, both Chung and fellow finalist (and, spoiler alert, the winner!) Brooke Williamson were surprised with their respective families joining the judges for the last elimination challenge. But it was the brief moment between Chung and her mother that had viewers balling:
What made this especially powerful is her mother said this in broken English, so you can tell she really tried for her daughter, to make it as clear as she could that she was proud of her. This was made even more powerful because of Chung’s interviews throughout the season in which she discussed her upbringing and how she still struggled to get the acceptance from her parents for choosing a culinary career.
I don’t want to speak for all Asian-Americans out there, but this moment really struck a nerve. When you grow up with Asian parents (for me, a Filipino mother) and you pursue a career or life outside of what they/she envisioned for you, you’re met with disapproval at first (let’s be totally honest). So you wait. You go above and beyond to make strides in your career, to achieve success, and you wait until you hear those words: “I’m proud of you.” My God, it’s the most gratifying moment of your life when that happens. And for Chung, it happened that night, and we all felt it.
I’ll wait for you to regain your composure after that moment (because I need a moment myself).
Ready for it? Let’s hear from Chung herself regarding the finale decision and more.
SheKnows: Were you surprised by the outcome of the finale?
Shirley Chung: Yes, a little bit because at the judges table, all the judges highly praised my third course pork shank. Padma [Lakshmi] and Tom [Colicchio] said my dessert was one of the best dishes they had all season — the best dish of the finale. Well, I guess I should be pretty happy that I beat Brooke on the dessert course, and she is known for her pastry skills. And her mom told me she liked my “rice pudding” better than Brooke’s flan. [Laughs} Sorry, Brooke.
SK: What was it like working with all the judges on the show? Who’s the most intimidating?
SC: I really enjoyed judges critiques because I can always grow and improve from that. I don’t think any of the judges are intimidating.
SK: Who did you consider your biggest competition throughout the season?
SC: I was my own biggest competition throughout the season.
SK: Was there anyone on the show you really clashed with? Who was it and why?
SC: I didn’t really clash with anyone on the show.
SK: What’s one thing that happened behind the scenes viewers didn’t get to see on the show?
SC: When we were in Mexico filming the finale, Brooke and I were staying in a different building of the Secrets Resort than the other chefs. We could see them partying in the pool from our balcony, but we weren’t allowed to join them. So the night after the finale, Brooke and I snuck out of our rooms and made a run for the other building where our friends were staying. We felt like high school kids; we were laughing so much that our stomachs hurt. We finally saw Silvia [Barban] and BJ [Smith] in the hallway and rushed to them and asked them to hide us in their rooms.
SK: What was the best experience you had on the show?
SC: I was really happy to be able to cook in the finale and tell my story — even though I was taking a big risk by cooking a very Chinese-focused meal in Mexico. I didn’t have access to my usual ingredients, and the sous chefs I picked weren’t able to help me without detailed instructions. But one thing inspired me the most from the time I spent in Charleston was how much heritage and history are connected to influencing how I cook. Each dish tugged my heart in a different spot that after I finished cooking, I was really emotional and felt fulfilled at the same time. I didn’t cook for the competition, I cooked for myself, I cooked for my loved ones, I cooked to represent my culture, I cooked to represent Chinese-American immigrants. I was proud of what I was able to accomplish under the conditions. I think that’s why I was extremely calm after.
SK: What was the biggest challenge for you on the show?
SC: Physically, this season of Top Chef was very challenging. We stayed up for 48 hours for the BBQ challenge; we ran around in a hurricane. I got sick, had a fever, lost my voice, stuffy nose, but kept competing.
SK: Who’s your favorite Top Chef contestant of all time and why?
SC: Stephanie Izard. She is extremely talented but super-humble at the same time. And she was the first female Top Chef. I remember cheering her on when she competed. At that time I just started in my culinary career. Watching her cook was very inspiring.
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