After six weeks of competition, one home cook has separated herself from the rest and proven worthy of the title America’s Best Cook. Being mentored by a Food Network chef has helped her become a better home cook and a better competitor. The rigors of the competition strengthened her resolve to win, and helped her get to the finale, where she excelled in defeating three other finalists. She has made her region proud. America, meet your best cook.
Congratulations to Stephanie from Team North. With the help of her dedicated mentor, Michael Symon, she proved that she could make it to the end, climbing over all obstacles in her way to win the title of America’s Best Cook and $50,000 in prize money.
What does it feel like to win the title of America’s Best Cook? And to win for the region you represent?
Winning America’s Best Cook ó it’s corny to say, but it feels like a dream come true. If you had asked me if I would be here six weeks ago, I would have said absolutely not. I am really excited to bring it home to Chicago. Chicago is a very proud city.
On Day 1, what did you think when you found out Michael would be your mentor?
From the second I saw his face I was like, ìThat’s my guy.î I thought to myself, “I have the best mentor,” absolutely. I knew that I was going to walk away ó at least from that day ó learning one thing, and that would have made the whole experience worth it. I learned a lot more than one thing, though.
What was the number one thing you learned from him?
Self-editing. As a home cook it is easy to overdress a plate or add ingredients for the sake of them being there. What I learned from Michael is that every ingredient on a plate should belong there and if I can’t defend its existence, then it’s got to go. So I have learned to use ingredients much more thoughtfully and respectfully, and to really coax flavor out of them in really interesting ways.
What would you like to say to him?
Thank you for taking a risk on a recovering vegetarian. Thank you for maintaining a sense of humor with me as I was learning. And thank you for opening my eyes to new and better ways to do what I love to do. I will never forget it and I will never forget you.
What was the most difficult part of the competition for you?
The most difficult part of this competition for me was surrendering the conceptions about food that I came into it with and adapting new ones. That doesn’t mean that I in any way gave up who I was, but it means that I allowed myself to be open to new ideas and new ways of cooking. It has absolutely changed my outlook on food and the part that I do.
When you found out Bobby Flay would be your judge in the finale, did that make you change anything about how you approached the cooking challenges?
It made me think about using flavors in more focused ways; specifically, I wanted to make sure that I used a lot of citrus and that I balanced sweet and heat. It’s very easy to overpower somebody with a lot of heat, and I wanted to make sure that if I was going to feed this chile-eating icon chile peppers that I wasn’t going to blow his mouth off.
You mentioned many times during the competition that you’re a recovering vegetarian. Now that you’ve cooked all this meat, do you think you’ll ever go back to being a vegetarian?
I never thought meat wasn’t delicious. The reason why I wasn’t eating meat is because the mass meat industry really freaks me out and I ethically can’t abide by it. But while I’ve been working in this competition with proteins that have been sourced from sustainable and local sources, I’ve learned that meat can be something that can be incorporated into my diet and it’s something that I can get behind as a cook. It doesn’t mean that I’m any less thoughtful or any less ethical. If any ingredient is used in a thoughtful and respectful way, that is the important part.
What’s next for you when you go back home? Could cooking be a new professional career for you? What will you do with the prize money?
When I get home, I am going to go back to work as a social worker at the Jewish Federation. I love my job. It means a lot to me. I’m good at it. However, the work that I do with my supper club, raising money for my organizations that need it, organizations that are important to me, and using food as a way to do it, is something that I am going to use the prize money in order to invest heavily in. There’s some kitchen equipment I desperately need. I’m considering buying a car, because I can’t do much catering or cooking without one. And this prize money will help me to do the work that really is my life’s passion, which is combining food with charitable work. And I think that I’m finding a way to do it, and winning this competition will only help me further that.