'Top Chef: Wisconsin's Amanda Turner Talks Her Gamer Approach to the Competition

Amanda Turner

Top Chef is back in the kitchen! Every week, Parade's Mike Bloom interviews the latest chef told to pack their knives and leave Wisconsin.

Amanda Turner is a self-proclaimed gamer, and her journey on Top Chef: Wisconsin had a journey like a well-made RPG. The tutorial level was rough for the Austin chef, as her risk-taking in the first challenge put her into a sudden death cook-off for elimination. Luckily, she prevailed, and used that momentum to keep her performing consistently well. Her cooking was as steady as her voice, and she grew more confident in expressing herself through the plate. Unfortunately, right when it seemed like momentum was picking up, her grind stopped short. Her Quickfire sidequest left her wounded, and her Elimination main quest failed to deliver on what was promised. And so Amanda was summarily told "game over," sent out in the season's second double elimination.

Read on to hear Amanda 's thoughts on her time in the game.

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Top Chef Season 21

How did you end up getting onto Top Chef, and what was your preparation to get on, if any?
I was considering the possibility of competing. I had just had my first ever surgery that took me out of the restaurant for a few weeks, and it left me with a lot of questions about longevity and ability. I thought it would be sad if I never even attempted to be on the show, as it had always been a long term goal of mine. So I reached out to my friend Jo Chan and she connected me with the casting folks. They told me I was already on their list, so it really just went super smoothly from there!

You are a self-proclaimed gamer, and you mentioned you approached Top Chef with that gamer mindset. Talk to me about what that entailed.
I think that something that isn't well understood is that most gamers are competitive and incredibly serious about whatever game(s) they play. There is a level of dedication that goes into playing anything to make you good. I have always viewed Top Chef as a game. There are a series of challenges (levels), a group of competitors or players, and there is a goal at the end. Considering the parameters of the challenges and the skills of each player is a part of it. To be clear, [just] because I viewed the show as a game, doesn't mean that I wasn't very serious about it. To prepare to go on the show, I reviewed some of my old recipes/skills, practiced a few things that I haven't done in a while, and did research on Wisconsin. My best friend Daniel is from Milwaukee, so he gave me the low down on all kinds of things: Supper Club, Fish Boil, Fish Fry, Brandy Old Fashioned, etc. That was incredibly helpful and I do think it paid off!

You had worked with Danny before this season, and you proceeded to work together in every team challenge. What was it like to transition that relationship to competitors instead of coworkers?
I actually hadn't worked with Danny before. We worked together during the first team challenge (Miller Caves) and then for Frank Lloyd Wright we were in the same car (along with Dan and Rasika). The four of us dubbed ourselves Eagle 1 and we were all super close and supportive of one another (we still are)! It was really a blast getting to know everyone better on that drive. But Danny and I did call each other our station partners. I think when you just click with someone it's comforting to work alongside them - and we got along very well! When they announced we could choose our own teams for Restaurant Wars, the first thing we did was look at each other and were like, "Duh! Let's go all the way! Eagle 1!!" But yeah, I have so much respect for Danny and his style of cooking. We are very different, but I think it's important to have differing perspectives in friendships.

You get put in the bottom in the first Elimination Challenge after trying to do all 3 of the challenges in one. How did those results and surviving the cook-off affect the way you approached the rest of the season?
To be honest, it was very jarring. I don't think it was intentional, the combining of all the challenges. I really have a soft spot for chicken and dumplings and I make it well. But I was recovering from a cold and couldn't taste as well. Plus just the anxiety from being there, you know? I should have pivoted, and I didn't. It certainly wasn't the first impression I was trying to make. It's also interesting to me how much that one blight kind of stuck in people's minds. Like, it's the first challenge, you know?? Having to cook again immediately after was nerve-wracking, but I was actually really excited to hopefully show the judges that I could cook and execute well. But 20 minutes is no joke! After Kévin, Danny, and I did the double 20-minute quick fire (flambé/char) Kévin remarked that I had the most cooking time in the competition (up to that point), and he was right. I think that experience definitely cemented in my mind that I was capable. After watching it on TV, I felt really proud of myself for accomplishing a comeback, and I think I was grateful that it was evident.

You were clearly very tight with Dan. Talk to me about how you developed that relationship with your "fellow nerd."
As I mentioned earlier, Dan and I became homies truly on the car ride to Madison and during the Frank Lloyd Wright challenge. But behind the scenes, we all played a lot of games! During our downtime, I read the entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dune while there. And sharing that with everyone really made me realize that Dan and I had a lot in common! He let me borrow one of his Batman comics he brought, and it was just cool. My original idea for the duality challenge was Batman (he's Bruce Wayne, he's the caped crusader!), but we ultimately went with Poverty and Wealth. We are both very politically minded and wanted to make a statement about who gets to have a "seat at the table" per se when it comes to dining.

We also played Magic the Gathering (MTG) during our downtime, and I may or may not have (mostly) stomped him [Laughs.]. But it was all in good fun! I am a tabletop gamer these days, and being able to share some of that with everyone was awesome. Dan and I were the only ones who played MTG! Dan and I also think and have a similar sense of humor. We just vibe well together. As far as our cooking goes, we're both very inspired by Japanese flavors and Chinese technique. So we vibed in that way as well. But I think Dan is incredibly skillful and I have learned a lot having him as a friend. I also love his wife Kate. She is a badass ceramicist and person. I hope we have a long friendship!

Let's get into the challenge that eliminated you. You wanted to embody the spiritual experience you had of hunting and breaking down venison. Talk me through your approach to this challenge through that lens.
I never in my life imagined that I would learn to use a gun. I am just not really that kind of person - or so I thought. But I had a very moving experience hunting with James Beard award winner Jesse Griffiths, who is a great friend/mentor of mine. He has supported my career over the years. And when he asked me if I would like to go hunting, I couldn't say no! He has so much knowledge and reverence for the land and the animals on it. I came to understand that hunting is a necessity in some areas, and should not be taken lightly. The venison tataki I made for the final dinner of our hunting trip was something I was truly proud of, and I wanted to show that level of reverence with this challenge, as I think thematically there was a lot of similarities between the experiences. And I was really honored to have the opportunity to learn from Elena and Sean about the indigenous foods of the region.

How did you respond to the judges' feedback, between the sauce contrasting with the elk, and their confusion as to whether it was a taco, tartare, or tataki?
Respectfully, I understand their confusion but I believe that things can become something new and are not necessarily just the parts. I always try to combine things in a way that I think is fun and entertaining. However, I did recognize that my pipian was very flavorful. It didn't strike me as a problem until the very end. But there are always things we think we could have done differently. I can confidently say all the components on my dish really came out well. But the dish didn't harmonize in the way I had envisioned and I didn't get to honor the elk in the way that I would have liked to.

Given both your challenge performances in this episode, were you surprised to be eliminated alongside Laura?
Restaurant Wars Judges’ Table was kind of a low point for me. And I think I mentally struggled to get out of that headspace going into this challenge. My Quickfire dish wasn't nearly as good as it could have been, and I felt uninspired. That's the thing about Top Chef, one bad day can send you home. Although I had been on the bottom before, it had been a very long time, and I was hoping I could bounce back. But it just didn't work that way. I was disappointed in myself primarily for not honoring the challenge and the ingredients, because that is very important to me. When we were at Judges’ Table, before they announced it would be a double elimination, I thought I might survive. But if it was double, I figured I was going home, and I was right. Same with Laura. I think that she just had a bad day on two fronts. It is incredibly crushing, but you know LCK is still there. I cried when I saw Dan and Danny, and the shock on their faces. After leaving the stew room I immediately turned my energy towards LCK.

What are you most proud of showcasing on the show?
I am definitely most proud of showcasing that we, as chefs, don't have to fit perfectly into any one single box. My style of food is based on my experiences - which are incredibly varied. We even had a chaos cuisine challenge! I think that the modern world is ready for innovation and to stop grouping people into expected groups mostly based upon their ethnicity. With as much reverence as I have, I have cooked in Japan at some of the best restaurants in the world just because I love the cuisine! It's truly inspiring to me, and I don't think that's a bad thing. I also can confidently say I was myself. I am proud to be all of the things that I am, and the amount of love I have gotten from people saying that they could relate to me being a nerd, being biracial, being a Black woman, is just really overwhelming! One of the main reasons I wanted to compete on the show was not only for the chance to win, but to show people that you can be yourself and still succeed. I like D&D, Magic the Gathering, Gundam, and anime, and I'm also a badass chef. You don't have to be only one thing in this life! Go cosplay and make great food! Whatever people are passionate about they should do and just shine. Don't get caught in the trap of other people's judgements!

What do you hope the viewers take away from your time on Top Chef?
I hope people take away that I was genuine, and authentic above all else. That I was able to take risks, and they paid off. That I represent the new school of chefs that values their employees and teaching people above profits and exploitation. Especially for my Austin fans, I hope I represented my city well. Keep Austin Weird - Keep Amanda Weird! We are the same, you know? There is an energy here and I like to think that I am the embodiment of that sentiment. And ultimately, I just want people to know that I had a blast. I am so grateful that I got this opportunity, but this isn't the last you will see or hear of me! I want to be able to parley my success into success for others and continue to uplift my communities and thrive. Meeting and getting to cook alongside my peers was exactly what I was looking for at this point in my career, and I see it as one amazing experience that I can't wait to build more upon. I am truly so humbled and grateful to the entire cast and crew. TC21 and Eagle 1 forever!

Next, check out our interview with Kévin D'Andrea, who was eliminated in Top Chef: Wisconsin Episode 7.