Cheer on Detroit chef Sarah Welch on this week's season premiere of Bravo's 'Top Chef'
It's possible that no Detroit chef's star is shining brighter than Sarah Welch's is right now.
She's got two popular restaurants — Marrow in West Village and Mink in Corktown — that are respected and appreciated for their commitment to locally sourced food and fostering a good working environment. Last fall, she teamed up with community hub BasBlue to launch a public cafe on the first floor of the Midtown mansion.
Last week, Welch was one of the area talents listed as a semifinalist for the James Beard Awards "Best Chef - Great Lakes" category. Thursday, she'll appear as a competitor on the Emmy Award-winning cooking reality show "Top Chef" on Bravo.
The Ann Arbor native will compete against 14 other chefs from around the country in a series of challenges. The show, which this year is based in Houston, Texas, is hosted by Padma Lakshmi who judges along with chef Tom Colicchio and food writer and cookbook author Gail Simmons. The winning "cheftestant" gets bragging rights and $250,000, plus a feature in Food & Wine magazine and an appearance at the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen.
Welch, who is engaged to Mink's executive chef Cameron Rolka, is taking to the spotlight in a way many of her friends would expect her to, with a down-to-earth outlook and a willingness to not take herself too seriously.
"I think that people that know me will be unsurprised at how I'm portrayed (on the show), but people that don't know me probably don't know what a dork I am," Welch told The Detroit News. "I think that from what I've seen in the promos they've done a good job at capturing me in my natural element. I'm both horrified to see that and excited. My team is already cracking up at the promos."
Her team is so important to Welch that she said not having them while she was cooking on television was one of the hardest aspects of being on "Top Chef." Marrow is a "high collaborative" kitchen, she says, and Welch depends on her chefs de cuisine, line cooks and prep cooks to make the operation run smoothly.
"We all collaborate on the menu together, it's certainly not like 'the Sarah show' here and so being in an environment where I did have to rely on myself entirely ... like, I didn't have a team of really awesome talented people or a pantry of really local, special ingredients, that was was a hard transition for me," she said. "I definitely cook from a sense of place."
Her place is Detroit, but in Houston she battled it out against chefs from coast to coast and places in between, including Ashleigh Shanti from Asheville, North Carolina. Possibly an early favorite, Shanti was named by the New York Times as one of "16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America." The chef and sommelier was also a 2020 semifinalist for the James Beard "Rising Star Chef of the Year."
Another competitor to watch for is chef Evelyn García, who has hometown advantage. She's a Houston native who specializes in southeast Asian cuisine.
Welch, the only Michigan chef on this upcoming season, said she loved the other chefs on the show, which was filmed last fall.
"We all have so much in common just being chefs that survived COVID and not just remained in the industry but remained passionate enough about it to dedicate two months of our lives to this," she said. "The commonality has made for fast friendships. Right off the bat, you know you've been through a lot of the same things."
While in 19 seasons "Top Chef" has never decided on Detroit as a location, the show has had a few chefs with local ties cast as competitors. In 2014, season 12 featured Mabel Gray chef James Rigato and that year's winner Mei Lin, who grew up in Metro Detroit and was part of the opening team at Michael Symon's Roast. Last spring, season 18 included Detroit chef Kiki Louya. Both Louya and Rigato were eliminated on the fourth episode of their respective season.
Watch Welch and her fellow competitors on the season premiere of "Top Chef" at 8 p.m. Thursday on Bravo.