Jennie Kelley may possess no more or less an unusual background as preparation for being one of the latest contestants to face the kitchen fire of notable British hothead, Gordon Ramsay on his second season of the MasterChef series, which debuted Monday night and airs tonight at 7 p.m. on Fox.
After all, the 37-year old Dallas-raised Kelley (she's got fond memories of West Mesquite High and SMU where she double-majored in film and art history) owes most of her love for cooking to her years on the road as one of the founding members of the orchestral-sized, multi-faceted, symphonic-rock band known as Polyphonic Spree -- or the "polys" as David Bowie enjoyed calling them while they toured with the music man once known as Ziggy Stardust.
While on some of the Spree's seemingly never-ending road tours (some of them eight months long), Kelley became the group's unofficial discoverer of indigenous restaurants and authentic dishes and tastes everywhere from England and Japan, Canada to Sweden, and Australia to some obscure dim sum place in San Francisco, or a great falafel place near Manhattan's Irving Plaza. With every one of Kelley's trips, she grew more infatuated with cooking and food preparation -- with an ardor that slowly began to match her love of the Spree's music.
So with the mammoth group on a momentary hiatus from the road's grind, Kelley decided to pursue her other passion: food.
It turns out, at least when it comes to the kitchen, that Kelley was doing well enough to be selected out of a brutally huge list of aspirants for the privilege of being berated and scolded and, maybe once in a while, praised by chef Ramsay during his cooking bootcamp otherwise known as MasterChef.
City of Ate caught up with Kelley, one of show's six contestants from Dallas and 15 from all over Texas, in her Deep Ellum home only a few days away from her first episode on MasterChef. Catch our Q&A after the jump.
Growing up, you really didn't have one of those "ah ha"moments when you discovered that you loved food and cooking? I actually had very few formative experiences cooking while growing up. I was an only child and a bit of a latch-key kid, so though my Mom was a great Southern-style cook, I still remember having a lot of macaroni and cheese and pop corn. It just wasn't very exciting in a culinary sense around my house.
So it was really when you hit the road with the Spree that a world of tastes opened up to you? For us, being on tour meant a different city every day. So that meant that I could tell you about places to eat two in a 2-mile radius from where we would play. And I would make most of my restaurant discoveries in the time between the sound check and the beginning of the show. I started a journal about it, noting that great Greek or Indian place in London, for instance. I also knew I had to burst out of that 2-mile-radius bubble and find that great sushi place in Tokyo. It really just came from walking around and asking a lot of questions.
But you also did a fair bit of culinary and restaurant research before you went on your tours? I became a massive reader and my reading led me to all sorts of different discoveries of fabulous French-Mediterranean places in San Francisco, or Asian-fusion places in New York, or funny little wine bars with great pizza in Seattle. And when I got off the road, I started enrolling in cooking classes, and I would read a ton of cookbooks and start exploring more things to do in my own kitchen.
You became quite driven at this point? Yes, I really started getting into being a chef in that I started with French cuisine, reading all of the books written by Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. I learned how to make a real French onion soup and then how to make a classic coq au vin. I bought a whole chicken and taught myself how to break it down. Food was such a way to be creative and inspired. And it was purely my thing. With cooking, it is just you. You can be in control and also cook for your loved ones.
There must have been a key dish that you sampled on the road that sparked that vital bit of culinary creativity in you? It was in Philadelphia and I found this place called, I believe, the Continental that made this incredible lobster mac and cheese. I just loved that so much that I told my boyfriend that I wanted to make it for him. So a few weeks later, when we were home, I surprised him with it. Now, keep in mind, I didn't have the precise recipe from the chef so I did it from a kind of memory, recalling it had orzo pasta, Gruyere and fontina cheeses, and lobster. I made it with breadcrumbs on top.
But you also put your own spin on this recipe as well? Yes, I did modify it by adding peas, which gave it a nice crunch and pop. Now, its become one of my signature dishes.
It;s more important than that, isn't it? Kelley: Yes, it became the dish that I auditioned with during the open call for MasterChef in Dallas that, I guess, eventually won me a spot on the show.
That audition process for MasterChef couldn't have been easy? I just remember a lot of standing in lines in very cold weather. I had to bring a dish, that was already prepared, and plate it in front of a panel of judges in three-to-five minutes. So I brought my lobster mac and cheese. And I just remember seeing one of the judges was Ferdinand Metz, a top guy of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, this really amazing guy, and I could feel my heart racing knowing that he was going to be judging my dish. I just wanted some feedback from him -- a little bit less nutmeg, a bit lighter on the peas-to-lobster ratio, anything -- and I knew I would be golden.
Eventually they whittled down that huge number of applicants to you and a few others from that day of auditions? Yes, they eventually called my name to join around five within my group. At one point we had been something like 500. I then told my personal story to three producer-judges from the show, essentially what I thought about food and why I should be cast on the program. Two of us, of those five, were then asked to stick around and come back and be filmed. More paperwork followed along with me talking more about what inspires me, and then to film myself cooking, really producing a filmed diary of my cooking life. I made the cut after they whittled the entire pool of applicants across the country down to around 100.
How would you describe, in a nutshell, the MasterChef show? It's really like the American Idol of cooking shows where you are cooking for three judges who, if they like your dish, will send you on to the show's next round.
Now that the filming of the show is complete, how would you evaluate your overall experience? It was very cool. What I liked at first the most was the experience of meeting all these other aspiring contestants who immediately want to engage you about food. Not music, not what you saw at the movies last night. I was immediately on the same culinary page with so many other like-minded people. A lot of my current friends, I can't really talk to them about chefs or cooking techniques but with these other chefs on the show, we could talk about sous vide, and how might they treat a certain dish. How will we all do what we need to do in one hour?
Sounds like it was a very supportive atmosphere? It was very really very supportive, with everyone cheering everybody else on to get that MasterChef apron. Its pretty cool to be with a group of people who are as passionate about food as you are.
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What was the hardest hurdle you had to overcome on the show? The hardest thing was cooking my signature dish, a rustic Bolognese sauce combining veal, pork, lamb, and chicken livers as my proteins with pappardelle pasta, and doing that in just a one hour time frame.
Now that its over, and I know you can't reveal yet how you did, what did you most glean from the experience? I took a real chance by diving in at the deep end. I had always been the back-up singer in so many projects, no pun intended, and I wanted to do this for Jennie. And I decided to go out and get it with no holds barred. I treated the program like a food bootcamp and it became a great culinary experience for me.
And the final result of that pursuit? Well, all I can say is that I'm actively pursuing a career in the culinary world.