Food & Drink

Top Chef‘s Kelsey Barnard Clark on How to Be an Imperfect Host

The accomplished chef and Alabama native says “perfection is never the goal” of entertaining (but a Tupperware of supplies doesn’t hurt)

A woman in a blue top and blonde hair holds a bouquet of yellow and red tulips

Photo: Antonis Achilleos

Kelsey Barnard Clark.

“I always wanted my house to be the one with swinging doors, so to speak,” says Kelsey Barnard Clark from her home in Dothan, Alabama. “You can come in here no matter who you are, or what you’re wearing—you’ve got a seat. Or a stool. Or, well, you might have to stand,” she says, laughing. “But you’re welcome and there’s a place for you.”

Stay in Touch with G&G
Get The Skillet, our weekly food and drink newsletter.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Clark, who catered her first wedding when she was fifteen, is no stranger to the swinging doors of the restaurant industry. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, she worked in both savory and pastry roles in a few Michelin-starred New York City spots before returning home to Dothan in 2012 to open her titular catering company and restaurant (KBC). Since bagging the big win on Top Chef’s season sixteen, Clark has stayed busy. She regularly makes television appearances across the country, helms her businesses, responds to her roughly 90,000 followers on Instagram (you can find her @kelseybarnardclark), and added “author” to her list of accolades in 2021 with her cookbook, Southern Grit. 

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by @kelseybarnardclark

She’s now at work on her second book, Southern Get-Togethers, scheduled for a fall 2024 release. Her new book is all about the fine art of hosting, a topic she’s more than mastered by now. Her first individual win on Top Chef came mid-season, when the challenge was to throw the best yacht party. Kelsey’s dish, and her thoughtful idea of sending guests home with bags of puppy chow, wowed judge Emeril Lagasse. “The winner of this challenge is Kelsey,” Lagasse crowed near the episode’s end. Kelsey then reflected to the camera: “I threw a party, which is what I do for a living, I served an Alabama oyster, so I got to represent my state, and I got to serve it to Emeril. The fact that I won for literally being myself? I couldn’t ask for anything better at this point, I really couldn’t.” A beat passed. She grinned and added: “Besides winning Top Chef.”

We spoke with her about her forthcoming book, the importance of putting together a hosting “toolkit” and the fun of making new traditions.

Why was writing a book about hosting so important to you?

Southern Get-Togethers is the book I’ve always wanted to write because I’m so passionate about the art of hosting. So many hosting books on the market put forward these ideas that simply aren’t achievable—they’re beautiful to look at, but they’re incredibly out of touch with everyday realities. I thought, No wonder people aren’t hosting anymore! To cook and host like they do in those books, you have to have a staff, a sprawling mansion, and gobs of money. My book is all about the smart ways to take shortcuts: There’s not a single event in it that takes more than thirty minutes to set up. I’m a chef, and I’m even saying, “Don’t make the food!” Get your favorite takeout and set a beautiful table. Nobody cares. We don’t have to be our grandmothers.  

If someone comes to you and says, “I really want to start hosting, but I have no idea where to start,” what’s your first piece of advice? 

It’s similar to the advice I give to people who are just learning how to cook: Don’t make a soufflé when you’ve never scrambled an egg. People see these gorgeous spreads online where someone’s made individual soup bowls out of pumpkins. I wouldn’t even do that as a professional chef! In the same way that you wouldn’t cook unless you had your ingredients prepped, or as we call it, a mise en place, you can’t host without a good mise. Don’t emulate a professional entertainer or cook: You only need one set of silverware, two tablecloths, two sets of napkins, six votives. Those are your staples you’ll re-use. The flowers and food are things that will be your personal touches, and those will change every time.

That almost feels like a toolkit.

That’s exactly what it is. It’s very practical. And it needs to be, because the tablecloth and the napkins are going to be used repeatedly by your guests. I’m not in a place in life where buying a $100 tablecloth makes sense for me, because my kids are going to get neon green slime on it, or a girlfriend is going to spill red wine. Go to HomeGoods, go to TJ Maxx and grab a tablecloth for $14.99.

You’ve shared on Instagram about your party storage and organization systems, including a closet of tablecloths on hangers to have at-the-ready for hosting.

I really believe in an organized space to store this stuff. If you don’t have that, hosting is going to feel stressful right out of the gate and that’s already not fun, so it’s de-incentivizing. It doesn’t have to be a closet—it can be a Tupperware under your bed. Be proactive in the beginning and you’ll be so much more likely to host often.

Sometimes people say, “That really feels like a lot.” And I ask, “Does your husband have a garage or a closet where he keeps his tools, his hunting equipment, or his golf bag?” They almost always tell me “Yes,” and I ask, “Why don’t you do the same for yourself? You deserve your space, and he damn well needs to share.” Period!

Your home is beautifully designed and so thoughtfully decorated. Tell me a little about how you approach interior design.

I was twenty-six when I bought a 4,200-square-foot house on the biggest lot in the neighborhood. [My husband] Deavours thought I had lost my mind. But it’s been the most wonderful project. As far as decoration, I tend to lean into elements of family history. I have a lot of framed recipes and vintage photos, an open-ish floor plan to allow for an easy flow of people. It will forever be changed and tweaked, and it’ll never be done. Perfection is never the goal.

photo: Antonis Achilleos
Clark and her family in their breakfast nook.

With family tradition at the forefront, what are some new traditions you’ve made in your family? 

We host so many parties and dinners here that have become such a beloved part of our lives. I’ll send out a note to friends about what I’m making plus a dress code, and have people show up for food and conversation. I try to explore new cuisines every time. Recently we tackled ancient Chinese cuisine, and even though I felt like I knew a lot about it, I learned so many new things. People were so excited to try new things with us! Those are my favorite nights: good people, really great food.   

You’ve got a delightfully full plate in life right now. What things tend to help you feel anchored?

When I was on Top Chef, I wasn’t allowed to have my phone or music. It made me nuts, but it was also like a little ten-week therapy session. At one point in the season, they gave everyone a little plot in the backyard and encouraged us to garden, and it gave me such solace. I was feeling really anxious through a lot of that experience and I’d be up at 4:30 a.m. watching the deer in the backyard of our big house. I kept thinking, Why do I not have this at home? When I got back to Dothan, I wanted to integrate those lifestyles. Enter: the chicken coop. Whenever I get home from traveling, I often go straight to the garden or straight to the coop and clean it out, get my hands dirty. The transition can be really hard for me to go from super-work-mode to super-mom-mode. It feels like a beautiful ritual. In those moments, I am literally grounding myself.

photo: Antonis Achilleos
Clark’s chicken coop.

Garden & Gun has an affiliate partnership with and may receive a portion of sales when a reader clicks to buy a book. All books are independently selected by the G&G editorial team.