Why 'Top Chef' Is the Ideal Testing Ground for Chefs with Big Restaurant Dreams

The show's greatest legacy? Helping chefs find their culinary voice.

Though it should come as no surprise that Top Chef is filled with made-for-TV gimmickry, no one ever said it was easy. The Bravo reality show, which just finished its 15th season earlier this year, is known, of course, for its grueling cooking challenges and high-stakes elimination rounds. But the show's lasting legacy is the legion of chefs who enter as well-intentioned hopefuls and leave as culinary powerhouses.

Because, in the world of Top Chef, success goes beyond the coveted title. One can argue that the show not only gives "cheftestants" the confidence to open highly personal concepts, but it also helps them find their culinary voice.

That's how Claudette Zepeda-Wilkins sees it. Zepeda-Wilkins was a contestant on the latest season of Top Chef in Colorado, as well as the second season of Top Chef Mexico. She also just opened her hotly anticipated San Diego restaurant, El Jardín, which showcases what she describes as "grandma-chic" Mexican cuisine. A passion project in every sense, the restaurant aims to put Zepeda-Wilkins's own creative stamp on the regional culinary traditions of Mexico. "I want to cook soulful food," Zepeda-Wilkins says. "Food you want to eat that warms you, the way your grandma cooked."

Photo: Courtesy of El Jardin

Zepeda-Wilkins is the first to acknowledge that the trial-by-fire battles chefs experience on Top Chef is a distinctly unique proving ground for the hardships of opening a restaurant. Between the intense pressure, judgment and having every step filmed along the way, the stresses of a competitive cooking show are a trial run for the real deal, which you can regard like, well, the ultimate elimination challenge.

During her time on Top Chef Mexico, Zepeda-Wilkins recalls a comradery among the cast, "We were all Mexican, and I wanted to see 'Where do I stand?' I wanted to kind of measure myself up to all these people. I was curious to see what I could do. It ended up being one of the best things I could have done for myself as a chef."

After making it to the top six, she went home and began conceiving El Jardín's nascent menu, which she realized should focus on regional Mexican cuisine. And now she's the face of the 8,000-square-foot restaurant that's been lucky enough to get early buzz—a big step for this self-described "border kid" with a father from Mexico and a mother from Tijuana.

Photo: Courtesy of El Jardin

Zepeda-Wilkins joins a full Top Chef alumni class who have gone from reality TV to opening their own ventures, including a fresh crop that counts chefs like Mei Lin (season 12), who's gearing up to open Nightshade in L.A.'s downtown Arts District. There's also season 10 winner Kristen Kish, whose new project, Arlo Grey, is located in the Line Austin hotel. Elsewhere, Fan Favorite Sheldon Simeon is opening the doors to his second restaurant in Maui, called Lineage, later this year.

"It's intense, you know?" Simeon says, looking back. "But I saw the show as an opportunity for me to represent Hawaii and represent my family, and just put myself out there and be vulnerable to it."

Photo: Alyssa Ringler

Simeon opened his mom-and-pop lunch spot, Tin Roof, in 2016, nearly three years after competing for the first time on Top Chef. "I like to think of my cooking as being honest," he explains. "If you cut me open, I'll bleed 808 [the area code for Hawaii]. I'm Hawaii to the bone." Through the show, Simeon's identity was only further strengthened, and it's that integrity he's bringing to his new concept, where he plans to showcase traditional Hawaiian foods like pork adobo and pipi kaula, Hawaiian-style dried beef.

For the viewer, a reality TV cooking show might be easy to dismiss as frivolous, but for chefs, it's as good a testing ground as any for the hard work that comes next. Like their fellow Top Chef comrades, Simeon and Zepeda-Wilkins took away meaningful lessons they wouldn't have otherwise learned if not for the bright lights.

Photo: Tin Roof via Facebook

"Top Chef taught me be proud about who you are, and do you. It was a huge lesson to always be yourself. You can accomplish some crazy things within those boundaries," Simeon says. "Being on TV, you're always trying to think of what do people want to see, and it can push you to a point where you're cooking things that aren't meaningful. But when it comes to food, you have to put your heart and your passion into it. Because that's the ingredient that means the most."

Andy Meek is a writer based in Memphis. Follow him on Twitter at @aemeek.