Foodie Earns Spot on ‘MasterChef’s’ Top 40

Out of the yoga studio and into the frying pan, University Park resident Jessica McPhaul has earned a spot on MasterChef’s Top 40.

In August, McPhaul and her husband Jeffrey drove to Austin equipped with Crock-Pots and Tupperware full of gnocchi, osso buco, and cooking sauce.

“I had no idea what to expect, but it was such an arduous process,” McPhaul said.

For her audition, McPhaul made an Osso buco alla Milanese, which is a Milanese specialty of cross-cut veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine, and broth. To make it special, she added her own twists to lighten the dish for summer and used flavors that would hold up well in crock-pots.

“The judges’ feedback was fantastic,” she said. “They loved everything about it, especially the nontraditional touches I made.”

Several hours and three shots of tequila later, the former IT network security consultant and self-professed yogi was told to come back the next day for another round of auditions. This time, she’d have to answer questions from the judges, one of which was about the worst dish she ever made: a “mixed-meat loaf.”

“I’ve made lots of stuff in my life,” McPhaul said. “I was confident that putting together veal, pork, and beef into one loaf would be a great idea. Turns out, it wouldn’t solidify and just looked like cat food. My husband tried it at his own risk. We still get a kick out of it today.”

Though her love for cooking and baking dates back to childhood, McPhaul didn’t start honing her skills until she had to survive living as an intern in the ‘90s. Relying on her own culinary instincts, she slowly ate her way through cookbooks, magazines, and textbooks.

“My mom couldn’t cook and never taught me, and since I was on my own in L.A., I had to figure it out,” she said.

McPhaul was notified in January that out of 27,000 people who auditioned, she had earned a spot to compete in the top 40. Now was her chance to make all those years of note-taking, sliced fingers, and burnt palms worth it.

“I never doubted her once,” Jeffrey said. “I knew the moment she decided to audition that she’d make it.”

When she walked onto the set for the first time, McPhaul and the other contestants were warned: “Welcome to the worst experience of your life.”

“All I could think about was, ‘How could it get worse?’” she said.

According to McPhaul, once they started filming, the contestants felt like roaming sheep, with no idea what to do next. With no cell phone or internet, the experience felt much like sequestered jurors, she said.

Getting used to the camera and always wearing a mic was the greatest challenge, other than the actual cooking challenges themselves.

“I’m not great with authority and rules,” McPhaul said. “So I would often ask, ‘Who is this yelling at me?’ I was in trouble all the time.”

According to McPhaul, she was known for her colorful language on the show.

“One girl said my language offended her, but then one of the producers was like, ‘You’re offended by her language and you want to be on a show with Gordon F****** Ramsay?’ Come on,’” McPhaul recalled.

It didn’t matter how far McPhaul made it, because simply speaking to Chef Gordon Ramsay for the first time was the moment that mattered to her most.

McPhaul’s culinary career is looking bright after MasterChef, with an offer to be an executive chef, a cookbook in the works, and potential TV opportunities on a different network once MasterChef has finished airing.

“I can’t give a lot of details at the moment,” she said. “But I’m totally going pro. It’s so exciting.”

McPhaul’s advice for those wanting to learn to cook and seek a culinary career: “Use the recipe as a map, and choose which path you want to take, adding in your own detours and pit stops. Work hard. Be passionate. And eat. A lot.”

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