SARAH JANE SANDERS 2014_SMILEY PETE_Dan Wu-7
Five Lessons I Learned from Reality TV
This is the final segment of Lexington“culinary evangelist” Dan Wu’s four-part series, in which he has invited readers into his kitchen to share his palate-broadening tips and
insights. In this last installment, Wu imparts five lessons he learned from his much-heralded appearance on Fox’s reality cooking competition show “MasterChef,” which he credits with giving him a name, a voice, and a calling in the Bluegrass “foodie” community.
In one short year, I went from unemployed slacker with a dream to a nationally known aspiring chef. “MasterChef” was the catalyst that changed everything. Here are a few things I discovered on this journey.
Reality TV is NOT reality.
The whole audition process, which started in Columbus, Ohio, in October 2013, felt unreal to me. That surreal feeling built as I was informed several months (and several reams of signed contracts) later that I had been selected from thousands of hopefuls to appear on the show, and it culminated as I landed in Los Angeles this past January to begin taping. It wasn’t until I stepped foot in the “MasterChef” kitchen — a giant studio with its bright lights and a phalanx of cameras — and stood face to face with culinary icon Gordon Ramsay that it hit me: I’m on a friggin’ reality TV show! And what a show it was — full of characters and drama and story arcs. It didn’t take me long to realize I was just a tiny piece of a larger puzzle, one that came together piece by piece, like improv. Or controlled chaos. I knew I was not one of the bigger personalities on the show (nor could I pretend to be someone I was not). I knew I could cook, had passion and could throw down the occasional killer sound bite. Other than that, all I could do was throw my hands up and enjoy the ride.
SARAH JANE SANDERS 2014_SMILEY PETE_Dan Wu-8
I hate baking (or baking hates me).
The notion that cooking is an art while baking is a science never rang truer than during the competition. I felt like every other challenge was some pastry or dessert. For a cook like me who already has trouble following recipes, the exactitudes and unforgiving nature of baking was a nightmare. Tossed in front of a KitchenAid stand mixer with a bag of flour, all of my bravado faded. Dessert Mystery Box? I landed squarely in the middle of the pack. Doughnuts? Ditto. Blueberry pie? Safely on the catwalk. Red velvet cake? The harbinger of my demise. My confidence waning, I overcooked the cake (my first time ever attempting a red velvet cake) and didn’t properly level it, presenting an uneven, un-velvety cake that judge Joe Bastianich likened to “boiled wool.” Ouch. And like that, my MasterChef journey ended. I laid my apron back on the cutting board and boarded the next flight back to Kentucky.
How to be famous.
Back in Lexington while my fellow home cooks continued to film in L.A., I found myself in a strange sort of purgatory. The show didn’t air for several more months, and of course, I couldn’t tell anyone how far I made it. It took me a full week to adjust back to civilian life and then I hit the ground running. I start connecting with as many local foodies as I could, from chefs to bloggers to restaurateurs. I started laying the groundwork for the career that lies ahead. And as “MasterChef” hit the airwaves, I was ready (as I’d ever be) for the waves of attention that came crashing my way. Being recognized on the streets took some getting used to: Strangers wanted to shake my hand, take selfies with me, and ask me “was Ramsay really that mean?” I had to maintain my “look,” with the long hair and the signature Fu Manchu moustache and beard; I had to make sure I didn’t look like a slob in public. Fame was and continues to be surreal.
Lexington kicks ass.
I soon realized I was in THE perfect place to start a food career. Lexington in the past few years has grown in leaps and bounds as a foodie town. Everywhere you look, breweries, gastropubs and food trucks are springing up like morel mushrooms after a late spring rain. But it was the connectedness of this city that made my dreams seen attainable. Friends and strangers alike came out in droves, not only to cheer me on the show but also to support all my various culinary endeavors. Guerrilla pop-ups, dinner parties, classes, volunteer work; I was soon up to my elbows in the work that I love. My “MasterChef” cohorts in places like New York and Chicago could only look on with envy as I began my career in earnest.
Evangelism is in my future.
So, what is the “culinary evangelist,” this title I’ve given myself? Food is my religion, and I want to share my fervor for things delicious and nourishing. I want to teach people to shop and cook for themselves, to not be afraid of handling a knife or using too much butter. I want people to know how to properly sauté shiitake mushrooms or gently reduce balsamic vinegar. I want to see the look on someone’s face as they taste grated Grana Padano or smoked pork belly for the first time. This journey has taught me what it is I want to do with my life: to educate, to feed and to inspire. cc