Marjorie Meek-Bradley on ‘Top Chef’ regrets, and how producers play mind games

Another season of “Top Chef,” another D.C. contestant coming thisclose to the grand prize. Marjorie Meek-Bradley of Ripple and Roofers Union made it to the penultimate episode of the show before being eliminated due to some tricky liquid nitrogen and duck a l’orange. Her new sandwich shop, Smoked & Stacked, opens at the end of April.

Meek-Bradley opened up about her strategy, the funny ways producers messed with her head, and what she would have changed about her performance.

“Top Chef” was never a goal for her. In fact, when Meek-Bradley interviewed to become the chef at Ripple, owner Roger Marmet asked her if she’d ever like to be on TV. She declined. “In the beginning, I was like, ‘Oh, Top Chef, blah blah blah, I don’t know if it’s for me.’ When I talked to people and the opportunity presented itself, I just felt like it might be worthwhile,” she said.  “For me, it was the competition and the challenge that I really wanted.”

She left for the show 10 days after she got the call saying she had been cast. “It was super awkward, I told everyone I was going on vacation. I think people assumed —  there are so many people in D.C. who have done ‘Top Chef.’ I think people just figured it out for the most part but were courteous enough to not dig too much into it.”

Other “Top Chef” alums tried to prep her for the show. “Of course, Jen Carroll and Mike Isabella and George Pagonis had all kinds of advice for me,” she said. “Mike was mostly like, ‘Go in there with a strong head, and remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint.’ Jen told me … ‘Don’t use microgreens, Tom hates microgreens.’ And as I was there I realized that’s definitely true. He’d be like, ‘Why’d you put these microgreens on it?’ George was like, ‘Just don’t go crazy,’ because there’s a lot that’s hard on the production side, and he was like, ‘Don’t let that get to you.'”

The roving season, which took the contestants all across California, presented additional challenges. “I think it definitely made it harder. We didn’t have a home kitchen, we didn’t have a home pantry,” said Meek-Bradley. “I was only ever able to buy stuff at Whole Foods, and if you’ve ever grocery shopped at Whole Foods, you know that it’s actually very limited. So that was really difficult. Also we lived out of hotels. It was a long time to be living out of a suitcase.”

Meek-Bradley presents her food to the judging panel on “Top Chef.” (Photo by: Dale Berman/Bravo)

Also, the producers played some funny head games. “You’re not allowed to have clocks in your room or anything, they’ll come wake you up with cameras. You’ll end up not knowing if you’re going to get woken up to do something for a few hours, or if you’re going to go all day.” As for the clocks: “They say it’s for congruity. I think they just want you to be crazy.”

There wasn’t a special camaraderie between the three D.C. contestants (Garret Fleming and Kwame Onwuachi). “The weird thing about the three of us from D.C., none of us knew each other. Kwame hadn’t moved there yet, Garret and I didn’t know each other,” she said. “I was excited to get the opportunity to know Kwame before he came. But I would say there were probably people I was connected to more than him.”

So that’s why she strategically paired him with Phillip for the fateful fast-casual challenge. “I won an advantage in the Quickfire … I really looked at my toughest competitors, or who I thought were my toughest competitors, and I saw them as Kwame, Amar and Jeremy. Amar can work with anyone, and Jeremy and Philip got along really well, so I was trying to take someone out who I thought was a challenge, and Kwame and Phillip had clashed a couple of times, so I thought, you know, that’s going to be the weakest pairing. And then I felt really bad when he ended up going home. More for the frozen waffles than anything, but it was a little ironic.” But hey, that’s how the game is played. “If I don’t send them home, they’re going to send me home.”

Phillip is just as irritating in real life. “He’s not a bad person, he definitely means well. I don’t think he quite understands how he comes off. I certainly was annoyed by him quite a bit. I certainly tried to be at the other end of the room. He’s passionate about what he does. He’s unable to hear feedback, I think that is his downfall for sure.”

Making bread on “Top Chef” is really scary. “I was super nervous that day,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god. What if I bought dead yeast at the grocery store?’ You freak out because if you screw up you don’t have any time to redo it, you don’t have any time to fix it.”

Watching yourself on TV is even scarier. “You can’t help but watch, you kind of have to, otherwise you don’t know what they show and don’t show. You’re not allowed to talk about what doesn’t go on the air,” she said. “It’s definitely super weird, though. There were some episodes that I was really dreading watching, but nothing was as bad as I was expecting it to be.” With one exception: “Isaac and I were friends. They created this little drama between us,” she said. “I was like, I’m really sorry if I was that rude to you … he was like, ‘No, you were like that to everyone. I think they just chose me.'”

But watching yourself burn your tongue and get eliminated on TV is the worst. “It’s definitely not awesome,” she said. The worst part was watching herself forget to microplane some extra orange zest. “Do I think that would have changed it? No,  I think Amar definitely won that challenge, hands down. Would it have saved me? Probably not, but would it have made it a little better? Yeah. That was probably most frustrating thing, watching it.”

What would she have done differently? “Gone and staged at Minibar for a couple of days before I went [on the show],” she said, laughing. “No I’m just kidding. I honestly wouldn’t change anything, I’m proud of what I did there. I feel like I was able to cook and show myself as the person I am. I feel like that’s really hard to do under those conditions.”

She is Team Amar in the finale — literally. “They show this on the preview so I guess I can say it, but he chose me as his sous-chef on the final challenge. To me, that was a huge compliment,” she said. It was bittersweet: “I went in there not wanting to get picked. They put all of us in the room, everyone from the entire season, and most people wanted to cook that day. I didn’t want to, but the second he picked me, I was really happy … I will have cooked in every single challenge and done every single episode of this — not bad.” Nevertheless, “I really like both of them. I picked a side because he picked me, so obviously, I wanted him to win, and I wanted Jeremy to win too. So we’ll see.”