I never really felt like I was entering a contest. I felt like I was auditioning. I just didn’t know for what at the time.
In 2008, when I saw that Mario Batali was conducting a grilling contest, I knew I had to enter. I had basically learned to cook from watching Mario, Emeril, Bobby, et al, and I had developed enough cooking skills — and confidence — that I set a goal for myself: I wanted to cook for them. It would sort of be like my final exam. I had no idea how I was going to make this happen, but Mario’s grilling contest seemed like a start.
First, I had to come up with a dish. That wasn’t hard. I was already toying with ideas on how to make an individual-size turducken, and I could totally grill that. But the more I thought about it, the more mundane that seemed. Why not do something new?
Then I watched an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer seems to be in disbelief that bacon, ham and pork chops could come from the same animal.
In an instant, I knew what I was going to do: Butterfly a pork tenderloin, stuff it with sausage, roll it up and wrap it in pancetta. And I was going to call it Pig-Wrapped, Pig-Stuffed Pig. I knew the dish would be good, and I knew the name would get attention. I just had to hope that those things would be enough to overcome my performance in the video that I had to make:
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Six years later, I am still exactly that suave and sophisticated on camera. Sigh.
But it worked! I won! And as a prize, I got to go to a NASCAR race in Texas and hang out with Mario and his team. And if the story ended there, it would have been a good one, right?
But it didn’t.
I kept in touch with friends I made on Team Mario, and volunteered at his foundation events. I still felt like I was auditioning, but it was fun doing it, and I felt like we were getting closer to figuring out what I was auditioning for.
Eventually, Mario and I hit upon the idea to work on a cookbook together, one that celebrated the relationship chefs have with farmers. Over the next several weeks, I’ll share more about that, and about other things I’ve learned since entering Mario’s orbit. And if I get to cook for Emeril or Bobby somewhere along the way, I’ll tell you about that, too.