Sarah Grueneberg came up short to Paul on the Top Chef finale, but if you ask her, she did win. "I feel like I won too," she tells TVGuide.com. "I truly believe that. I woke up [the day after the finale aired] with this great calm. There is no more nervousness and nothing to be ashamed about. I'm really excited for my career now. It was overall a positive experience. I can't be more proud of how I did. If I'm going to be second, I couldn't think of a better way and a better place to be." But what part of her final meal cost her the title and $125,000? See what she thinks below. Plus: What's up with her and Beverly?
Top Chef's Paul: I felt the pressure to win
You were confident that you and Paul would be in the finale. How confident were you that you could win after Judges' Table?
Sarah: I don't know. I wasn't in Paul's restaurant, so I couldn't taste his food, which I think is one of the hardest things about being on the show. So I can't really comment on how his was versus mine. But I do think we both gave the judges something new and interesting. The last thing you want to do is disappoint them and give them a boring meal. I thought we both really represented well.
You got raves for your dessert and that's usually the chefs' Achilles Heel. Padma said it was the best one she's ever had on the show.
Sarah: Oh my God, I know! [Laughs] It was really important for me to have a few ideas, especially for the dessert. We don't get to take recipes in, so you really have to memorize everything. I just practiced. I went to a pastry-plating class taught by Chef Patrick Fahy and that really taught me a lot. I worked with my pastry chef, Celeste Campise. She showed me how to use liquid nitrogen and things like that. I didn't want dessert to be an afterthought and I think a lot of times it is for savory chefs. It is our Achilles Heel. For Padma to say it's her favorite dessert in the show's history — wow! Like, that's pretty cool.
Gail said you took more risks. Was that a goal for you during the break before the finale? You had made a lot of comfort Italian food in Texas.
Sarah: Yeah. The Sarah that left Texas left inspired by her fellow chefs. Beverly made Kung Pao Chicken and taught me how to velvet chicken and how to make a sauce from scratch like that, and I was like, "Wow! This is so freakin' cool." Paul taught me how to make Filipino adobo and I was like, "This is freakin' delicious!" And Lindsay taught me how to make stuff. There are no words to describe being around people who are passionate about your same passion, but in a different way. During the break, I knew I had to branch out from what I did in Texas, but I didn't force it. I think the meal I cooked in the finale was very much Italian at heart, but it was inspired by different techniques and ingredients.
Tom didn't like your beets and he says in his blog that you should've sous-vide them. Do you think that's why you didn't win?
Sarah: It could be. Probably. I'm trying really hard for my sanity to not really dwell on those little things. [Laughs] I can't change it. When I worked on that dish before I left, the critique from Chef Tony [Mantuano, her mentor] and my fiancé, Jamie, was that the beets needed more texture because I had sliced them thin and pickled them. I went with my gut. It was unfortunate, but I can't focus on that. I focus on the positive: the pasta, the fish, the dessert. Emeril — for him to say there were strokes of genius in my meal, you can't get a better compliment than that.
Top Chef's Lindsay: I didn't take enough risks
Your fiancé really came through for you there with the heads-up about the fish bones.
Sarah: Yeah! Actually, the first day, I fileted all the fish, and Nyesha and I found all these baby bones that were hidden. They didn't really pop up out of the flesh, so we were like, "Oh my God. We can't do this." So Day 2, I had to butcher all new fish. We're talking 100 portions in three hours. It's a lot to be able to prep fast and furious, and also lead the team to cook everything to how you want to be done. I had to trust Grayson and Heather to completely braise the veal cheeks without me. Nyesha did the sauce. Believing in your team and trusting them is what I will walk away feeling most rewarded with. To have your former competitors knock it out of the park for you is a great feeling.
But you got stuck with Tyler.
Sarah: [Laughs] You know, it's fine. I knew he could get outpaced by the ladies and it could be disastrous for the team. I just kept trying to motivate him and to let him feel like he was part of the team while keeping a really close eye. I didn't get to cook with him [on the show], so I didn't know his personality or what his strengths were. I had to find out how to use him. I knew what the girls' strengths were. Tyler was part of my success that night and part of my kitchen's success, so regardless of what it looked like on the show, he really played a role.
He made a lot of suggestions, which you dismissed. You said you were being nice, but you really didn't "give a sh--." Were you joking or did you really not care?
Sarah: [Laughs] The thing is, when somebody is telling you what to do for your final meal that you have to defend to the judges yourself, you have to make your own decisions. Regardless of what he told me he felt I should do, I didn't feel comfortable with it, so I had to dismiss those things. He was a dark horse and that's all I can say. I think that he is a good guy and is probably going to be hurt by some of the things I said, but at the same time, I was hurt when he was walking around with his headphones and sharpening knives during our prep. Like, be more prepared to be part of the team. ... He's so young. I hope that he learns from this experience and that he doesn't take any negatives from it. I really do think he's a talented a guy and he is quite the character!
And you didn't let him butcher anything, right?
Sarah: No! [Laughs] But he didn't want to either. I asked him, "What are your strengths?" And he's not ashamed to say no butchering. He came back defending that he doesn't butcher.
Top Chef's Beverly: I definitely felt the fan support
You were very emotional — lots of excitement and even more tears. Is that what you're like or were you overwhelmed by the show?
Sarah: I think females are just more emotional in general. I was raised by a single mom and had a much more female experience growing up, so I think I'm much more in touch with my emotions. I wear them on my sleeve. When Paul won, I burst into tears because it was just an overwhelming feeling of emotion because a) you're so proud of him and so happy for him and b) you still want to win. It takes a few days to step back and really see it. When you're there, you're too deep in it. It becomes your reality, it becomes what you think is all there is — and it's not.
A lot of fans thought you should've been eliminated last week because of your frozen mousse. Did you think you might go home for that?
Sarah: Absolutely. ... I took a risk by using the anti-griddle and flavors I wouldn't use. But we were judged on the cocktail and I had the judges' favorite cocktail. I think it's hard for people to grasp what the challenge was. The mousse was frozen, but in Tom's blog, he said my dish was ambitious and I nailed it. You have to take risks. ... I tasted Lindsay's dish and it was absolutely delicious. Lindsay is my best friend from the show. It was really hard when it came down to us. But I knew it would always be either her and Paul, me and Paul, or Beverly and Paul in the final even before the final four. I knew Paul would always be in the final. When they called my name first, I was hoping they would say, "Three go to the finale!" You never know what crazy things they'll pull out. I never thought we'd be breaking ice on a side of a mountain and cooking frozen food or barbecuing all night. That was hard when I [got heat stroke]. You just don't think of these things, but you just have to go with it.
There was lots of drama with Beverly and you had a few less-than-flattering words and actions toward her. What was the deal with you guys?
Sarah: With Beverly and me, there was so much more than what you saw. The situation and the show really put you into extremes. You can never be ready for it and sometimes you don't know how you would react until you do. There's so much more that go on in the episodes than what makes it on air in 40 minutes. At the end of the day, if it was that bad between Beverly and me, would we be friends right now? I think people can ask themselves that. I have huge respect for her, she is so talented and taught me a lot, and we had a lot of good moments together — a lot of laughs. I wish they would've aired more of that, but they didn't. I think there was some [angle that the producers] wanted to show with her. It is what it is.
So you guys got along?
Sarah: Absolutely! Beverly is a character herself. [Laughs] But we definitely got along better and got closer as the show went on. We all did. We are friends and I know she will tell you that too.
What's next for you?
Sarah: I'm just enjoying life. I want to do some traveling. I want to get back to Spiaggia and put the final menu on and hopefully [do] some other things. I'm just excited for everything.