Warning: This article contains spoilers for the finale of “Top Chef” season 19.
Chef Sarah Welch was eliminated from Bravo’s long-time cooking competition, “Top Chef,” pretty early, but thanks to the show’s side competition, “Last Chance Kitchen,” Chef Welch was able to cook her way back into the competition and made it all the way to the final three.
The finale aired Thursday night on Bravo, and while Chef Welch did not take home the title of “Top Chef,” the owner and chef behind Detroit’s Marrow was able to show off her incredible culinary skills, all the while making viewers laugh and smile with her hilarious commentary.
She made it to the final alongside chefs Buddha Lo and Evelyn Garcia, but Chef Welch’s unique take on sustainability and using local ingredients made her dishes stand out in the finale, especially her acorn cake dessert that wowed the judges.
We caught up with Chef Welch the morning after the finale aired to hear how she’s doing, and what is next for her James Beard-nominated restaurant.
Q: It’s the morning after the finale -- how are you feeling?
Sarah: I’ve been doing this joke like, ‘Oh my god, I lost!’ But it’s been a relief. Everyone at Marrow is like, ‘We know you won, you’re just not telling us.’ I wish I did! Even my fiance thought it. I already let myself down, so to let America and my friends down has been a treat (laughs).
Q: I was so impressed with your final menu. You seemed to be really inspired by your surroundings, where as the other two finalists seemed to have their menus set and ready to go. Being in Tucson had to have greatly inspired what you were doing in the finale, right?
Sarah: Yeah, I waxed poetic about it on my Instagram last night, but I think I’m the only chef that took where we were, in Tucson, and combined that with my ingredients as a chef and made a menu that spoke to that. And that was the challenge.
I think you could go to New York and get exactly what Buddha made in Tucson, and you could go to Evelyn’s pop-ups and get that food and it would be the exact same. They’re exceptional chefs, but I think my menu could only exist in that time and place. And that’s the kind of food we make at Marrow. I just wish I would have nailed it.
Q: Your run in “Last Chance Kitchen” was historic. What was it like, competing in that to get back into the main competition?
Sarah: I loved “Last Chance.” It was way more fun. People forget you have no one to bounce ideas off of in the main elimination challenges, so you’re alone for 24 hours with this menu, over-thinking it all in existential dread. The rapid quick fire execution, I was good at.
Q: How were you able to transition to cooking on your feet in “Last Chance Kitchen” to then go back into regular competition mode on the main series?
Sarah: Shopping is hard. In a normal kitchen, and even in “Last Chance,” if I screwed up the fish, I’d just go get more fish from the basement. And in “Last Chance” if you screw something up, you just run and get more. In the main competition, you have to put all your eggs in one basket.
I’m a contingencies person at Marrow. There’s many layers for failure. So it’s like, if I fail at one thing, I have a game plan for what’s B (and) what’s C. I was doing that in the main competition, but what it was doing was diluting my commitment to the plan. So I think I had a couple of contingencies when I went into that first competition, and after talking to the other chefs, they were like, “Stop shopping and commit to the dish. You’re going to buy the stuff for it and execute.”
Q: You mentioned in the finale how the show changed you as a chef and person. Now that you’ve watched the season, are you still feeling the same way?
Sarah: Yeah, I think I went into it with really different motives than a lot of people, so it didn’t make me into a different chef. But I’m at the helm of my kitchen, and I think that being in that environment and really being put to the test reminded me why I am that and kind of reminded me about what’s important to me, and helped me to really solidify those things that I care about.
Because when I was cooking in a kitchen where I didn’t have the people or inspiration from the environment, it rang really hollow for me, because I’m not a chef. You can’t just be a chef that cooks anymore, right? Or, I mean, you can be, and that’d be great, but that’s not me. I run businesses, and I network, and I build community, and I try and re-envision this industry and make Marrow a place that not only people want to work at, but people can envision themselves working at, like, into retirement. So for me, being a chef is about so many more things, and cooking is one facet of that that I’m really passionate about, but I’m just as passionate about people and managing and networking with them.
Q: Were there any guest judges throughout the season that left you star struck?
Sarah: Cooking for Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert, I think, are two of them. And it’s not because I think they’re more important chefs than, like, Kristen Kish or something. It’s just because in Michigan, we don’t have an opportunity to cook for people of that caliber. Like, Eric Ripert is not coming to Southeast Michigan.
Q: I’m sure watching yourself back on TV must have been weird, and then having fans judge you and make comments -- did you have any nasty experiences with that? I know the Top Chef Reddit page can be quite opinionated.
Sarah: I’m so deep in “Top Chef” Reddit. Buddha and I get really deep in the Reddit and we’ll just send each other screen captures of it.
People were trying to figure out when I graduated college to see if I spent enough time in Jamaica to be able to say that I partially grew up there. I was like, ‘You guys need a job,’ but yeah, no, I think my experience is polarizing and also I am not the easiest person to like. So I think the fact that I individually eliminated every single person since Sam in “Last Chance Kitchen” had a lot to do with it.
Also, a lot of people don’t watch “Last Chance Kitchen,” and didn’t think I had the credentials to be there. I don’t blame them, but it’s a game, and the rules of the game are made up by Bravo. I played the game and tried to have a lot of fun doing it. The Michigan cheering section has been really great, too.
Q: What has it been like representing not only Michigan, but Detroit, on the show?
Sarah: It’s interesting what makes the edit and what doesn’t’, and Bravo isn’t here to follow my ethos or my specific thoughts about the Detroit food scene, but I did spend a lot of time talking about the stuff that they scratched the surface of in the finale. I wish more of that had made it to air.
It’s been great getting the exposure, and that’s why I did it. We’re in a far-out neighborhood and (we’re) a vision-specific restaurant model. I just wanted to remind people that we are there. I didn’t think I’d get the positive feedback that I did from Tom Colicchio and Padma. I like to think we’re a destination in the area now.
Q: Have you thought about doing any more cooking competition shows?
Sarah: I think the only thing I would do again is a Top Chef redo. I don’t really have any interest in being a TV cooking chef. I could see myself doing philanthropic work through media maybe.
As much as I’m good at cooking on a clock, I don’t enjoy it. Me making jokes and being dumb is like a stress reaction. I’m not naturally that stupid all the time. It’s a stress reaction.
Q: Lastly, what can diners expect when they come to visit you at Marrow?
Sarah: The food isn’t me, it’s a collaboration between a lot of people. I have a new chef de cuisine who has introduced a lot more seafood to the menu while I was gone. He has a great eye for sustainable seafood, which is great. We feature local food, and the menu changes all the time.
The tasting menu is great, but you can come in and eat a la carte, too -- have like, a salad and a steak. It’s not as high commitment as people may think. And we have a dope patio.
Marrow is located at 8044 Kercheval Ave. in Detroit, Michigan.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.