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“Should I stay, or should I go…” Why I stayed.

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The Alabama Public Radio news team is examining the issue of keeping skilled and educated workers from leaving the Gulf coast. This on-going series of reports is called “Should I stay, or should I go.” Recently, APR heard from a number of Mobile residents on why they left. Today, we meet a south Alabama celebrity who chose to stay, and why…

As more and more young workers continue to leave Alabama, one celebrity has come back home to Dothan.

“I was always very interested in cooking,” said Kelsey Barnard Clark. She won the sixteenth season of Top Chef and was only the fifth woman to do so. She was also voted the fan favorite and was the first Southerner to win the competition.

“It was always something that really always intrigued me, and I think that I was always just really interested in taking things apart when it came to food and figuring out how to cook it and how to combine flavors,” she recalled. “And I started baking cakes and selling them, and then it became this obsession.”

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Clark got her first cooking job with a catering company in Dothan when she was 15 years old. She shortly went on to study and graduate from the Culinary Institute in New York. She continued to train under top chefs until she went to compete to be one herself.

“I just remember watching those episodes,” said Sarina Williams, also from Dothan.

“I was so excited because seeing someone from your hometown on something as big as Top Chef, it just got me really excited, and everybody was rooting for her,” she said.

While Kelsey spent all of her time during a recent documentary sitting in front of the camera—Williams, not to be confused with the tennis player, did her work behind the scenes. She now attends the University of Alabama where she interns with the Center for Public Television. Williams produced a documentary about Clark and her contribution to their shared hometown.

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“Not only did she win Top Chef and she has this background of going to New York and being in culinary school, but she came back to Dothan and has continued to live there and serve our community and just give light to our hometown,” says Williams.

While competing on the show, Clark felt the support from thousands of miles away. It was that support that helped her realize what she values about the small town.

“This story always kind of pops in my head where all of my friends from culinary school, all of my friends from Top Chef, they were like, ‘How do you live in Alabama? How do you do it? How do you deal with the people there?’ I feel like I’m always sticking up for my town, sticking up for my state, always having to give excuses as to why we live here,” Clark contends. “And then, the night of the finale of Top Chef, I had so many of my friends text me and be like, ‘This is incredible. My town would never do this. My town would never shut down to watch a viewing party. My town would never have a whole party to watch me win something. There wouldn’t be thousands of people showing up because they were so proud of me.’ And I think that’s what makes this town unique...Where else can you really think of where an entire town is going to invest in you being successful.”

While many young professionals are fleeing the state, Clark made it a point to come back. She said she wants to be a part of changing it for the better.

“I do think that one way you can make a huge difference in your community, in your state, anywhere, is just set the example,” said Clark. “Even if you create in a small bubble, the bubble becomes multiple bubbles and...it can expand. And I think that we’ve seen that happen just with my little restaurant. It’s a tiny restaurant in a tiny town then I won Top Chef, and then the whole world knew about this town and this tiny restaurant. And you’ve got people from all over coming to eat here now.”

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Her decision has inspired people like Williams, who admits she wants to leave Alabama after graduating. But she wants to stay in the South, as her love of home will always remain. Williams said…

“Her story really inspired me because something that she says in the documentary was…”

“…just because you don’t like where you’re from, doesn’t mean you can’t change it. And just because there are things that you had a problem with, maybe that’s even more of a reason why you go back and change some,” said Clark. “And that certainly is the case for me. I think you just have to remind yourself you can make big changes in smaller places more than you can make them in bigger places. And that really is, to me, the biggest impact you can make on these small towns is really big waves. And that just resonated with me because sometimes the South has negative connotations about it.”

Again, student film maker Sarina Williams.

“Almost everything that you see in the news about the South is probably negative. And for her to go back and try to change some of those things...little things like that and just kind of pushing the boundaries and getting more people on board for that change, it was very inspiring to me, and it made me see things in a new light as far as the South (goes.) So .this project was not only fun, as far as the food and getting to meet a celebrity, but it was also life-changing in a way,” she said.

Caroline Vincent is a digital producer for Alabama Public Radio.
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