Six days. Five airports. 4,830 miles round trip. 35 people nationwide.
Over the summer of 2013, I auditioned for Season 2 of ABC’s The Taste, a cooking competition reality show. After a two-month process of interviews, loads of paperwork and intense anticipation and waiting, I was selected out of thousands to be among the Top 35 contestants in the nation to compete on the Audition episode which premiered on Jan. 2, 2014 at 8 p.m. They flew me to Los Angeles, California and put me up in a 24-story hotel in the Hollywood Hills where I had a view of the pool, the palm trees and seven lanes of interstate.
This is my story.
Filled with big dreams, confidence and high hopes, I left rural Georgia with my California-titled iPod playlist including Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway, Eminem’s Lose Yourself and Jay-Z and Alisha Key’s Empire State of Mind. From the airport, I posted LeAnn Rimes’ One Way Ticket music video on Facebook and sang the “West bound train” lyrics in my head.
Fast forward through Day 1: I traveled through four time zones, experienced plane delays, checked in at the hotel and got somewhat acquainted. Day 2: I shopped for ingredients. Day 3: On scene at Universal Studios, I felt like a movie star in a hair & make-up trailer and had my outfit approved by two British people in the wardrobe trailer. On-camera interviews were completed. Day 4: Showtime.
The first 15 minutes of the season on set were mine. I was the first contestant to face the mentors. I’ll never forget the moment I entered the set through the “pantry,” and rounded the corner to step on stage. There were big lights, lots of extras and over 15 cameras–from every angle–ALL pointed at me. That made some contestants nervous, but I reveled in it. “This is it,” I thought. It was my moment to shine. Everything I’d waited for. I gave it to them. I smiled. I played my Southern character with pride, relishing in the fact that I was the only contestant there from Georgia. I lived every moment. As I walked on set, I heard one producer shout to a camera man, “We got a good one!”
Aside from the challenges I faced, like my first time cooking on a gas stove, using pots and pans I’d never used before, along with shopping in a region where ingredients are titled “Southern Style Grits,” I kept a level head and remained cognizant of the time. I was given an hour to cook and plate my signature dish: Shrimp and Grits with a Creamy White Wine Sauce. While chopping vegetables and talking with producers, I burned my first pan of bacon. I also almost mistook lemon grass for my garnish because I couldn’t find green onions in the refrigerator. Nevertheless, I kept going.
I finished the challenge with five minutes remaining, having successfully plated my dish and all six tasting portions–two for beauty shots, four for tasting. I put forth the best creamy white wine sauce I’d ever made. Some memories fade and some feelings are fleeting–but one that will remain with me forever is stepping off the set and feeling that rush of fulfillment wash over me. I had done what I came to do, and I had done it well.
Then I exited the stage and was escorted to the friends and family room where I would see my boyfriend, Kurt, and two of my very best friends, Chad and Charity. They were flown out for a three-day period during my stay. Following a brief touch-up with the make-up artist, I opened the door to the family room and saw the people I love sitting on the edge of their seats with expressions of expectation so vivid. We had been separated since the previous day, and the emotion and excitement I expressed was nothing short of real.
After that high, I faced my fate. I would wait for the producer’s cue, then walk forward and stand on the spoon-shaped “x marks the spot.” There, right in front of my face, just steps away, sat Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Marcus Samuelsson and Ludo Lefebvre–in the flesh. It was one of those moments where you’re present, but beside yourself. I saw their lips moving and heard them speaking, but had it not been recorded, I would question if it ever really happened. There I was, a food blogger from small town Blythe, Georgia and Twiggs County farm country, in Hollywood on a set at Universal Studios, in front of these well accomplished, renowned culinary experts. They had just tasted my food.
British home cook, food writer and bestselling cookbook author Nigella Lawson was the first to tell me what she thought. Nigella’s team is the one I had hoped to join. Nigella and I were wearing the same color–both royal blue dresses, so right off the bat, it was meant to be.
She asked me to introduce myself and tell her a little bit about my dish. She was interested in “the powdered seasoning” I’d used and the spice in the dish. Unfortunately, she’d decided that my shrimp were “slightly overcooked,” and the Old Bay seasoning I’d used was too much. “As you know we made our decisions before we met you,” she said and with what seemed regretful, she pushed her red “No” button.
I was crushed, and I knew my chances of joining the others’ teams were dim. Sure enough, with every comment followed the dreaded red button.
After everything I’d heard about Anthony Bourdain, I must say, I thought he’d be the toughest judge. As it turns out, he was one of the kindest to me. We agreed that food was such a personal thing. “Unfortunately for you, I didn’t have an emotional connection to your shrimp and grits,” he said. He had been surprised that I wasn’t professionally trained though, noting that the Old Bay gave my dish a restaurant quality. That was HUGE coming from a man who’s traveled the world. I’ll take it.
Marcus Samuelsson said my passion was evident, and that he liked how my dish represented the region of the country from which I came. With a quick and succinct comment, Ludo Lefebvre said “It wasn’t my thing. I didn’t like it. It’s a no.”
Everyone has their taste buds, and America would be a boring place if we all liked the same things.
So, as show business would have it, all four of the judges rejected me. It was time to pack it up and head on back to the Peach State, but not before I drank a Shirley Temple on Hollywood Blvd., got my picture taken in front of the notorious HOLLYWOOD sign and took pictures of the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I exited the hotel with my 50-pound suitcase in tow, containing clothes with the tags still on them, as Adele’s Chasing Pavement played over the elevator like the well-timed beat of a drum.
I won’t forget the talented people I got to compete with and the connections I made. I will carry this experience to the grave.
My appreciation for the South has never been greater than when I travel outside the South. I came home with new eyes. At the grocery store in my hometown, as I pushed my buggy through the produce department where I’m known by name, where hardly anything is gluten-free, organic or vegan, and where Johnny Cash plays on the radio, I was home. Home in my Southern, two-lane, suburban, football-loving town. If ever I needed a reminder of exactly who I am, traveling serves it purpose.
One word of advice: No matter the outcome, go after it. Always go after the things that make your heart beat.
“Find something your passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” –Julia Child