'Top Chef: Wisconsin's Laura Ozyilmaz Reveals She Wanted to Go Home After Her First Elimination

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.

Laura Ozyilmaz would be the first to admit she got in her own head during her time on Top Chef: Wisconsin. She had one of the most unique POVs of the season, a Mexican-born chef who fell in love with Middle Eastern ingredients. But throughout the first half of the season, her time was marked by a few instances where she was shown to be nearly too focused on the task in front of her rather than her surroundings. That culminated in the Supper Club challenge, where the dessert stretched her team's budget incredibly thin.

Laura being in her head came to bite her during the Indigenous challenge. She was criticized for trying to do too much at once, and was cut from the competition in a double elimination. However, it wasn't long before Laura walked back into the game, the latest victor from Last Chance Kitchen. She made good on her second chance, winning the next Elimination Challenge with an impressive table display. She used that momentum to make it out of Wisconsin to the final location in Curacao. Unfortunately for Laura, she did not prove to be the catch of the day. For the second week in a row, the eliminated chef has undercooked their fish, and there were enough issues in Laura's two dishes to cast her off right before the finale.

Read on to hear Laura'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 invited to participate in the show right after opening my restaurant, Dalida. I didn’t do much training specific to Top Chef. But I have been preparing for 16 years, cooking in some of the most highly regarded kitchens in the world, including Michelin-starred restaurants Mugaritz, Eleven Madison Park, Café Boulud, and Saison. I have also attended three different cooking schools: The Culinary Institute of America in New York, Basque Culinary Center in Spain, and Centro Culinario Ambrosía in Mexico City.

The process of opening a restaurant also gave me many opportunities to develop my own culinary approach, and kicking off the competition with that creative mindset helped me navigate the challenges that were thrown my way.

You spoke about working with your husband for the past 6 years. How tough was it for you to be without that support system in such a tough competition?
It's hard to be apart from my husband for even an hour. I love him, and I love being around him. Even with a strong support system, this would be a tough competition, so being away from him definitely made it even more challenging. At the same time, competing on the show reaffirmed my love for cooking, and that was what kept me going.

You talked about loving the Quickfire Challenges. What did you like most about doing them? And how did it feel to win the first one of the season?
I love Quickfire Challenges. They’re such a fun way to test your skills as a chef. You need to be quick on your feet, figuring out which cooking techniques will deliver the best dish in such a short period of time. I was thrilled to win the first one of the season, especially because rice pudding is one of the desserts we’re known for at Dalida.

We got some comments from fans throughout this season about how you were someone who was both hyper-competitive and in their own world while cooking. Do you think there is any truth to that?
I am definitely a hard-working woman, but I wouldn’t say I am hyper-competitive. I was drawn to the show because food is my passion. I love everything about it, from selecting ingredients to developing new dishes with my team to connecting with guests at my restaurant. That dedication has also given me opportunities to support others who are passionate about this work, and that has been one of the best parts of being a restaurant owner and a chef.

As far as being in my own world, as chefs, we are always trying to find balance between being attuned to our environment and letting distractions fade into the background. As I’m sure you can imagine, that becomes even more challenging in the context of a competition show–I can’t say I’ve ever had multiple cameras following me while cooking in my own restaurant!

Let's talk about the Supper Club challenge, as there were some disagreements within the team on how the money was spent and Danny wasn’t able to get all his ingredients, causing him to walk out in frustration. Talk me through how everything happened there. Would you have done anything differently in hindsight?
We all know how intense it is in the kitchen during a challenge, but even grocery shopping is high pressure on Top Chef. You’re running around a store that isn’t familiar to you, trying to grab everything that you and your team need, and you’ve got a bunch of numbers flying around in your head–both the countdown and the budget. Manny, Charlie, and Amanda checked out first because they had to buy the proteins. I went fourth and Danny went last. Things were happening so fast, and when I looked up and realized that there was so little money left, I started removing ingredients in hopes that the budget would become more balanced. Of course, I never had the intention of spending too much money.

You ran Front of House during Restaurant Wars, and one of your team's problems seemed to be servers having problems with table numbers. How did that issue come up, and how did you try to handle it with everything else going on during service?
The night before Restaurant Wars, I wrote a manual for the servers with all of the information they needed to work Front of House. I wanted to be thorough, so I only got three hours of sleep that night! On a couple of occasions, the servers mixed up the table numbers, so I checked in with them to remind them of the floor plan. As far as how that issue came up, the answer comes down to timing–we only had 24 hours to open our restaurant, so it makes sense that things weren’t running at 100%.

Let's get into your first elimination. Gail commented that it seemed like you had cooked as if the challenge was to put as many ingredients into a dish as possible. Talk to me about your approach to your Indigenous dish.
The Indigenous challenge was one of my favourite ones. I found some similarities between my native Mexican heritage and the Eastern Mediterranean ingredients I cook with at my restaurant, like sumac and some other spices. I made a duck tamal wrapped in chard leaves with charoset and an aronia berry sauce. In my eyes, it may seem like I used a lot of ingredients, but it was really a four component dish: A tamal, a sauce, a fresh garnish, and a puffed amaranth garnish. A tamal is always eaten with a fresh salsa, a sauce, and a crunchy garnish. That’s what I was emulating. But of course when every contestant is so talented and the dishes are so good, sometimes finding fault is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Talk to me about your headspace as you went into Last Chance Kitchen, and your reaction to getting to come back into the competition.
I was ready to go home instead of competing in Last Chance Kitchen. I was feeling so drained, but my husband encouraged me to continue. I went back into the kitchen ready to give it one more try, and I ended up winning. It felt great to make it back onto Top Chef.

How did it feel to win your first Elimination Challenge with the table dish right after returning to the game?
I was very proud to come back and win my first Elimination Challenge. It was an opportunity to showcase many of the flavors we work with at Dalida. I was happy to hear that the baklava table resonated with the judges because the final result also felt so representative of my personality and style of cooking. 

Your last Wisconsin dish was about learning to focus and not put too much on the plate. What was it like to learn that about yourself, and is that a lesson you've brought outside of the competition as well?
My focus grew as I became more confident in my dishes and plating. In a competition like this, it feels like you need to take some risks and find ways to stand out. That said, my cooking style generally feels more simple and organic, and when I made it back into the competition, I realized I needed to lean into that. It was a much needed reminder. 

Let's get into the challenge that eliminated you a second time. What was your reaction to the judges' comments that you did not clean your banana leaves properly in your bass dish?
We went to the Venezuelan market to get the ingredients. And speaking to the vendors, I learned that they come months in advance and set up in Curacao to sell their produce while living in their boats. I used the best banana leaves that I could find, but it was challenging to work with ingredients that had traveled in suboptimal conditions. 

It seemed you had issues undercooking your grouper dish, and Tom even said you had "baked" your fish more than roasted it. Did that surprise you at all?
Yes, I was a little surprised because I thought my fish was overcooked. The kitchen space was extremely limited, and I worked with the resources that I had available at the time. In an ideal scenario, I would have definitely cooked my fish differently.

As you left just before the finale, how did you look back on your Top Chef experience at the moment? And is it all different today?
At the time, I felt demoralized. I was extremely sad and struggling with low self worth. Now, looking back, I am so proud to have competed as a Latina immigrant chef, taking inspiration from the flavors of my home country of Mexico, the diverse cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean, and all of the other places I’ve traveled to and people I’ve connected with. I am proud that I gave it my all in every episode, got back on the show through Last Chance Kitchen, and was able to highlight unique preparations and dishes that have never been shown on Top Chef.

Next, check out our interview with Manny Barella, who was eliminated in Top Chef: Wisconsin Episode 12.