"I don't like to play it safe": What professional golf taught Soo Ahn about competing on "Top Chef"

"To compete against such talented chefs and make it onto the show, that's a feeling I can’t really describe"

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published July 9, 2024 12:30PM (EDT)

Soo Ahn on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)
Soo Ahn on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

One unique aspect of the recently concluded season of "Top Chef" was the way Chef Soo Kyo Ahn —  a Korean-American chef based in Chicago, currently leading the kitchen team at Adalina — entered the kitchen. For the first time ever, a cheftestant would join "Last Chance Kitchen," a challenge normally reserved from competitors eliminated from the main competition, to fight their way into the "Top Chef" kitchen. Ahn was that chef. 

 "In a move that's never been done before on the long-running series, a new cheftestant is set to break into the competition late — after the show's premiere," Antonia DeBianchi wrote for PEOPLE

This threw some fans for a loop — as I discussed in my recap back when this was announced — and if Ahn didn't win his LCK battles against the first few eliminated competitors, he would be eliminated from LCK and would never have the opportunity to compete in the actual competition

But alas, that never came to fruition: Ahn wound up conquering LCK, along with fellow cheftestant Kaleena Bliss. and they both entered the main competition. For Bliss, she was re-entering, but for Ahn, he was meeting the cheftestants and experiencing the "Top Chef" experience proper for the very first time.

Ahn performed well in the competition itself, making inventive, out-of-the-box dishes, but unfortunately fell victim to the Door County Fish Boil challenge and was sent back to LCK, where hw as He re-entered his old domain of Last Chance Kitchen, but lost a three-way battle to Amanda Turner and Laura Ozyilmaz, who eventually won LCK round 2 and reentered the competition before ultimately finishing in fourth place.

Salon Food has the opportunity to connect with Ahn to speak with him about his culinary background, his food experiences, his transition from golf to professional kitchens, the whiplash of getting married and then immediately competing in a ferocious culinary competition and much more. 

Top ChefSoo Ahn on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Hi! You talked about the differences in growing up in Korea and then moving to the states. How do you think that impacted you  and impacted your food?

I think being able to experience two different cultures definitely helped shape me into who I am today. When it comes to food, it definitely helped with my style of cooking because I love to mix and match different ingredients, techniques, flavors, etcetera. 

I’d love to hear all about your pivot from golf to cooking — and how that translated into your applying for and being recruited for Top Chef?

I've played golf my whole life: Played in high school, little bit of college and even some at a professional level. Towards the end, I was getting burnt out. Not playing well and traveling a lot definitely took a toll physically and mentally. I decided to do something totally opposite of golfing, so I decided to wait tables and bartend.

At the place I was bartending, I was lucky to have a chef who always showed me cool ingredients and techniques he was working on. One thing led to another, I enrolled into culinary school and eleven years later, I am chatting with you guys. 

Alum Joe Flamm [ed. note: LCK victor and ultimate winner of "Top Chef" season 15] posted on Instagram that the show was casting and [I] decided to give it a shot. I didn't really think that I had a chance but somehow got lucky. 

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What overlap, if you will, is prevalent between golfing and chef-ing? 

I think in both industries, you have to work hard. Talent can only get you so far and hard work beats talent any day of the week. Just like in golf, I knew that I had very little talent when it came to cooking.

I knew that I was far behind the other cooks/chefs that had been doing this for a longer period of time. So I had to work twice as hard as anyone else to catch up. Even after a long shift/week, I would push myself to read more books, sharpen my knives or cook random things to better myself and catch up. 

Did you do any sort of special preparations for Top Chef?

I didn't really have any time to prepare. If I had time to prepare, I would have done more cardio and meditating. 

Top ChefSoo Ahn and Tom Colicchio on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

What was it like to be the "mystery 16th cheftestant?" I don't know what you can or cannot say, of course, but just from your perspective, what was the motivation like to get into the "real" competition? How did that inform your dishes, your strategy, your approach? 

Being the 16th contestant was pretty cool. I honestly didn't know what was going on until I got to Milwaukee. Since I had no idea what was going on, my strategy never changed. Cook your heart out. 

What would you say is your favorite or best moment of the competition thus far? 

Working my way onto the show was definitely my favorite moment. Coming onto Last Chance Kitchen, I had no ideas how far I would get. Honestly, I just wanted to make it to round two.

But to compete against such talented chefs and make it onto the show, that's a feeling I can’t really describe into words. 

Top ChefSoo Ahn on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

Winning LCK round 1— along with Kaleena  must’ve been amazing. Talk me through what that was like for you? 

It was an honor to compete against so many talented chefs and come up on top with Kaleena. Anybody could have [had] a bad day and gone home. Thankfully, luck was on my side and I came up on top during the first round of Last Chance Kitchen. I was able to stick to my gut and put out some good food that got me onto the show.  

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I love some of your unique flavor profiles that we’ve seen on the show. Do you have a few favorite ingredients you primarily love working with? 

I was fortunate to have worked under so many talented chefs who have shown me so many different techniques, flavor combinations, ingredients, etcetera. When I cook or create dishes, I try to pull from what I've learned from the past.  

I don't have any favorite ingredients. I try to incorporate a little sweetness into all dishes, even if it is a savory dish. 

You had such an amazing run on the show  and an unprecedented trajectory, coming exclusively through LCK and making it all the way to the top six. It was a bummer seeing you go out when you did. What were your proudest moments on the show? Favorite dish?

I think my proudest moment was making my way through LCK to come onto the show. 

One Bite Caesar is definitely my favorite dish. We are known to take your everyday ordinary dishes and put unique spins on them at Adalina. I tried to do that with the Caesar salad and have it be an amazing bite. 

To take something so common and to put my own twists on it to make it onto the show was definitely something I will remember forever.

I loved watching your turnaround in episode nine, from gnocchi that didn’t seem to work that well to a dish that wound up in the top three. Can you describe a bit about that process, as well as your pivot? (Huitlacoche always boggles my mind, also — what was it like to work with that ingredient?) 

Chef Elena told us a story about how her kids would love to eat wild rice and berries for breakfast. I took that and tried to put my own spin on it. Obviously, cooking with the limited ingredients that were given to us was hard but as chefs, that's what we do. We pivot and try to make the best out of a situation. 

Huitlacoche was an interesting ingredient. I have never worked with it. Thankfully, Amanda was nice enough to shed some light on the ingredient for me. I feel like it has very truffle-like properties. 

Top ChefSoo Ahn and Tom Colicchio on "Top Chef" (David Moir/Bravo)

You said on the show that you’re a risk taker now because of your upbringing. How is that shown in your cooking? 

I think you can see throughout the show that I don't like to play it safe. I like going for bold and unique flavors. Come up with dishes that tilt the guests' heads in confusion, but when they taste it, they understand and nod in approval.

You got married just before "Top Chef." What was it like to have such momentous experiences back-to-back like that? 

2024 was quite a year for me. My wife had mixed feelings about me going away for "Top Chef," just because we wanted to enjoy our time together as a recently married couple, but in the end she understood that opportunities like this did not come often. 

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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