Imagine that you’re chosen as a contestant on Top Chef Season 10. You make the trek from Los Angeles to Atlanta for the
qualifying round where you must prove you deserve a chance to compete for the title. As luck would have it, you end up in the group that’s judged by Hugh Acheson, a chef who is notorious for being as abrasive as he is discerning. You make the cut. You’re flown to Seattle for the first elimination challenge: Create a dish that highlights the city’s regional cuisine and serve it at the top of the Space Needle to guest judge Tom Douglas, nationally acclaimed chef and king of all that is culinary in Seattle.
At what point do you lose your cool?
For Brooke Williamson, 33, it wasn’t the pressure of the kitchen or the exhaustion of the grueling schedule that got to her. She has been in the business since she was seventeen and owns two restaurants, Hudson House in Redondo and Tripel in Playa del Ray. She is also a mom of a four-year-old son. What unnerved her was going to the top of the Space Needle. She is very afraid of heights.
“Top Chef was an incredible challenge to myself in so many ways,” Brooke told Beach. “There were so many things I didn’t know that I could physically overcome in terms of fears and anxieties. I would almost venture to say that it was more so a learning experience in myself as a person rather than in a culinary sense.”
Williamson is no stranger to the pressures of the kitchen, having worked 16 years in restaurants. She had her first gig at seventeen, working under distinguished chef Ken Frank at Fenix restaurant in the Argyle Hotel in Hollywood.
“Ken gave me kind of my first shot,” Brooke said. “He knew I was young and ambitious and very green. He and his sous-chef Brian gave me a little project everyday and made it a point to make sure that I had something new to learn everyday. I would definitely say that they’re the reason why my passion for food turned into a passion for becoming a chef.”
That passion for food started very young. “From the age of 5 or 6,” Brooke recalled, “I was watching cooking shows instead of cartoons and making a mess in the kitchen before my parents got out of bed… making pancakes or muffins or whatever I saw on Jacques Pépin’s cooking show in the morning. I was a very ambitious little girl.”
Ambition helped her move up the ranks in the kitchen at an exceptional pace. At nineteen she became sous-chef at Michael’s in Santa Monica, where she had started as a hot appetizer cook just a year before. “It was really fast,” Brooke said. “I worked a lot of overtime to prove that I could do the job— a lot of free overtime.”
But the hours never wore Brooke down. “It was the first time in my whole life that I didn’t care how many hours I spent at my work,” she said. “I could have spent the night and started everyday at 4 o’clock in the morning. I never really followed through with anything in my life like I did with cooking.”
That commitment helped convince her parents that she had found the right career path, too. After a very expensive high school career at Crossroads in Santa Monica, Brooke felt she owed it to her parents to give college a try. She completed a year at the University of Colorado and returned to Los Angeles to take a summer job back in the kitchen. “My parents could see how passionate I was,” Brooke recalled. “They kind of agreed with me at that point that there was no need to be spending another year of college tuition if I had found what I wanted to be doing.”
Three years later, Brooke was the executive chef at Zax in Brentwood and was lauded by the Los Angeles Times as a “culinary wunderkind.” It was also at Zax where Brooke met her future husband and business partner, Nick Roberts. She hired him as her sous-chef, and they worked together for more than a year and a half before they had a conversation about something besides work. This was mostly because they weren’t particularly fond of each other.
“I didn’t really like Nick’s attitude,” Brooke said with a laugh. “I thought he was kind of arrogant and cocky, but he was a really good cook so there was no reason, professionally, to fire him.”
The feeling was mutual. “He wasn’t a big fan of me,” Brooke said. “He thought I was this know-it-all 22-year-old who didn’t go to culinary school telling him what to do.”
Brooke and Nick finally got to know each other, discovered they had a lot in common, and began dating. It wasn’t until they had both left Zax and ventured into their own project that they discovered what a great team they could be professionally.
The pair opened Amuse Cafe together in Venice. The restaurant was open for two and a half years and, although location and liquor license issues ultimately put it out of business, the project taught Brooke and Nick how well they complimented each other as co-chefs and co-owners. After co-founding another Venice restaurant together, Beechwood, the couple was ready for ownership again.
In March of 2009, Brooke and Nick opened Hudson House in Redondo Beach, a gastropub that touts simple, rustic fare, craft cocktails, great wines, and an immense beer list. “We felt like the South Bay would be a great place to show our style,” Brooke explained. “There wasn’t a whole lot in the realm of what we wanted to do happening in the area. And it’s just great community and we wanted to be a part of it.”
The first six months weren’t easy. The previous incarnations of the Hudson House location had been very different establishments and it took some time for Brooke and Nick to build their local clientele, despite their cache in L.A. proper and a very positive write-up by the LA Times.
“It was really the local media that helped us more than anything,” Brooke said. “I believe it was actually the Easy Reader who gave us our first really great piece of press. And it really snowballed after that. We really found that word of mouth in the South Bay was crucial to our success.”
That success continued when Brooke and Nick opened Tripel in Playa del Ray two years later.
Brooke has grown very accustomed to having a lot of control in her workplace, creatively and otherwise. Surrendering that control was one of the hardest challenges she faced when she accepted an offer to compete on Top Chef.
“I hate not knowing what’s coming next,” Brooke laughed. “I’m such a planner. I’m such a list maker— that kind of letting go for a minute was really refreshing and terrifying at the same time.”
Top Chef also made Brooke work independently for the first time in a long time. “Aside from missing my son and husband
immensely,” she said, “I also didn’t have my partner and I was doing things professionally that I would normally have him to consult with.”
“In the kitchen,” Brooke continued, “I feel pretty confident and I feel like I’m a pretty tough girl. But there are things that get to me and not having my support group around me… that was really hard.”
That tough girl edge has shown through on the show. Brooke has survived ten rounds of elimination, coming out on top in two of those rounds. She, of course, can’t disclose the outcome of the show, but Brooke says she is pretty happy with the results.
Brooke also is happy to be back at home, collaborating with her husband once again. But while her tenure on Top Chef is over, the challenges aren’t. The Bruery of Orange County has challenged Brooke and Nick to a pairing dare, asking the couple to come up with a five-course menu to complement the Bruery’s unusual craft beers. The menu and its pairings will be revealed and served at a special event at Hudson House on January 21. This time, we in the South Bay can play judge.
Related: Hudson House: Spirited food