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'Top Chef' victor talks winning over Tom Colicchio (and why dessert is a must)

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David Moir/Bravo

In the hotly-contested conclusion of the culinary franchise’s 12th season, Los Angeles-based modernist chef Mei Lin out-dueled globally minded Gregory Gourdet. Both chefs impressed the judges throughout the season, but Mei’s menu—thanks to an unexpected choice—came out on top, winning her the $125,000 prize and the coveted title. Fresh out of the kitchen after her win, she’s still digesting what it all means—and took the time to talk about it with EW.

EW: Going back to the beginning of the season, what was it like to step into the Top Chef kitchen for the first time?

Mei Lin: Walking into the Top Chef kitchen is one of the most nerve-racking things I’ve ever done. I was just super, super nervous, but you can’t let your nerves get to you that much or you’ll cut yourself in the kitchen or something. And that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do on the first challenge, so I had to stay calm.

As the season wore on, the only real critique you would get was for your consistency. The judges were satisfied with what they were getting each week, but some of them—Padma in particular—wanted you to push yourself more. How do you weigh cooking food you know is going to be good against taking the necessary risks to grow?

I think all of us, to a certain extent, took a risk in every challenge in some way or another, whether the judges saw it or not. For instance, during the challenge during the first part of the finale, when they paired us with an artist, I don’t think the judges thought I took a big enough risk because they thought I was capable of doing something more crazy. But I did push myself, and I thought I had it in the bag. I thought I was going to win the challenge, and instead, I was on the bottom.

At least the head judge, Tom Colicchio, stuck up for you there, right?

What’s funny is that I thought Tom hated me!

Doesn’t everybody think that, though?

Yeah, I guess. The judges are serious. Halfway through the season, I almost got sent home for undercooked lamb, and there were definitely moments where I was like, “I’m going to go home.” Obviously you’re there to win, and you don’t want to go home. It just depends. After a certain point, everybody’s food was on-point. It was on-point. From the Julia Child challenge and on, everybody’s food just tasted good. It was like, “Let the nitpicking begin” then and there. At that point, one little mistake could send you home.

What was it like going against Gregory in the finale?

I think going into the competition, Gregory and I both knew that we were going to be up against each other. We had a lot of head-to-heads throughout the season, and for me he was going to be the one to beat. Going into the finale, I hadn’t won a head-to-head with him, so even last night, I thought I could lose. And in the finale, we both had our highs and we both had our lows—it was kind of even; it was just up to the judges.

The highest high of the night, though, was the dessert you made, a strawberry lime curd with toasted yogurt, milk crumble, and mint that Tom said was the best dessert in the show’s 12 seasons. You didn’t even have to make a dessert in the first place; can you take us through that choice?

For me, you can’t not do dessert. If you’re going to put on a meal, dessert is a must. But if you’re going to do a dessert, it needs to be mind-blowing: Dessert is what’s going to make you remember the entire experience. Going into the finale, I knew for myself I needed to do a dessert; I had an idea of what my finale menu was going to be, but I had different plans based on what I might find at the market. Those flavors were what I was looking for, and I’m glad I delivered.

Your cuisine tends to be really modern, but it seemed like you found a lot of success incorporating the humble ingredients of your past into your food. It worked during the premiere, when you made a congee (rice porridge), and it worked again with a modified version of that last night. How do you reconcile that juxtaposition—complex, fine dining and modest roots?

Congee is one of those things I really enjoy eating—it’s one of my favorite things. At first, I wasn’t going to do it, especially because I’d done it in the first challenge, but I wanted to change it up and put some Mexican flavors into it to play around with it. I think that was the most playful dish of the night, using the market to integrate ingredients into it.

Is that your vision for your food going forward?

It’s definitely comfort food, but next-level. You saw my vision in the finale—me integrating Asian flavors into the food, playing around with traditional flavors, and doing something new.

You talked a lot this season about your relationship with your parents, who own a Chinese-food restaurant, but always wanted you to pursue a career outside of food. This seems like the ultimate validation of your choice, right? What was the conversation with them like after you’d won?

They just said that they were really proud of me and what I’d done. The kind of food I was making—they’d never really seen anything like that before. Their jaws dropped; they were like, “That is what you do?” They know now that it’s an actual career I can be doing.

Additionally, you and Melissa talked a lot about the impact of being a woman and winning Top Chef. Now that you’ve had time to reflect on it, what do you hope it means?

It’s a huge accomplishment, but I’m still just a person. But it is a male-dominated profession, and a lot of the kitchens I’ve worked in, I’ve been the only woman. You just have to one-up them in their game, so I’ve always done that. I’ve played their game, and just been bigger than who they are.

So when you got home from Top Chef, what was the first thing that you cooked for yourself to eat?

Umm… ramen? I’m a simpleton.

And what’s in your fridge right now?

Now? Two bottles of champagne…and some pickles.