MasterChef: One Year Later

Today is February 2, 2012.  Exactly one year ago on this day, I flew to Los Angeles to film MasterChef.  It was a cold day and Dallas was buried under a foot of ice.  A storm-of-a-century had descended on Texas the day before, and I awoke at 4am in hopes that I’d be able to make my 8am flight from Love Field.  I had foolishly parked the driver’s side of my car facing north, and it was coated in solid ice.  I poured hot water over it to melt the ice off the lock so I could get my key into it, but the lock mechanism was frozen solid and I couldn’t even get into my car.  This did not bode well.

I got out a big orange extension cord and strung it along the frozen driveway to the car, and used a hair dryer to try to thaw out the frozen lock mechanism.    After about 15 minutes, I realized, “If I’m having this much trouble just getting into my car, I seriously doubt the flight is even going to operate.”  As if by magic, my cell phone dinged a new text message from Southwest Airlines: “Your flight has been canceled.”

Paranoia struck.  “What if I get replaced with another contestant if I can’t get to LA today?”  It didn’t register in my brain that half the country was buried under this epic ice storm.  I had to get to LA.  Knowing that nobody from MasterChef in LA would be awake at this hour, I tried to go back to bed for a few hours, but all I could do was stare at the ceiling and fret.

At 10am (which was 8am Los Angeles time) I called MasterChef and told them I was stuck.  They said, “Don’t worry, half the cast is stuck.  Just call the airline and get on the next available flight.”  After a 2 hour hold time, Southwest informed me that the next flight with seats was 3 days out.  That just wasn’t going to work.

I drove the 6 miles from my front door to DFW airport.  It took an hour and a half.  Of course, the airport was deserted…precious few travelers were braving the ice.  Consequently, all the planes were going out with plenty of empty seats, so I grabbed one and got to LA several days before all the other Texas constants.  (I hoped that would score me brownie points.  They were impressed and a little confused, but no brownie points were awarded.)

Today, a full year after I left to be on MasterChef, I’m taking stock of my life and seeing how things have changed.

In a sense, very little has changed.  I still live in the same house in the same Dallas suburb, surrounded by my family and friends.  I still wake up around 10am most mornings, do some work on the computer, fix breakfast for whoever is in the house plus my neighbor Sharon…(it’s lunch for her)…then spend the afternoon blogging, working in the garden, DIY or building projects, doing a bit of income-producing work, grocery shopping, taking Oliver to the dog park, answering dozens of emails, investing time on any of the numerous projects I’ve going in the works, and visiting with neighbors.  I start dinner around 5 or 6, to serve around 8 for whomever shows up (various friends, neighbors, etc.)  My partner gets home around 11 and we spend some time playing with Oliver, catching up, having a night cap, and I head to bed around 1 or 2am.

Very little of that has changed.  That’s what I was doing 366 days ago.

Yet EVERYTHING has changed.  Friends, for one.  I have always been fortunate to be surrounded by an unusually large number of very close friends.  I call it my friendfamily.  People I’ve known for a decade or longer.  Who I communicate with every other day or so.  Who are every bit as important to me as my family.  Now that family is quite a bit larger.  New names and faces…Adrien, Tracy, Christian, JK (Jennie), Alejandra, Tony, Alvin, Christine, Derrick, Peanut (Esther), Jennifer…well, if I start naming all of them, your eyes will glass over and you’ll stop reading.  Not just acquaintances.  Not just friends.  Fellow survivors.  People I’d actually take a bullet for.

While we were together for only 2 months, and 366 days ago I didn’t know they even existed, we ate, lived, breathed, and endured one of the most frenetic, desperate, turbulent, trying experiences together.  You watch MasterChef and laugh, but we were biting our nails, pulling our hair out, and contemplating suicide and worse 18 hours a day for 2 months together.  We were completely isolated from friends and family and had no one to lean on but each other.  There is truly no way I can possibly communicate how stupendously stressful the reality TV experience is.  Severe sleep deprivation, extreme cold and heat, disgusting (and in many cases unhealthy) food at impractical hours, the inability to hear even a word of comfort and encouragement from any family or friend, the constant questioning of your life choices, the constant doubting of your intelligence, skill, and even your worth as a human being…  It’s like boot camp, maybe even worse.  One of the psychologists from the show mentioned to me that it has the same impact on the human mind as going to war.  You return home dazed and disillusioned, without the ability to reconnect to those you love who have missed you so much.  It takes time to learn how to function again in the normal world.  And the only ones who understand are the ones who lived through it with you.

So when I mention that I have new friends, I don’t mean some new and interesting people I’ve spent a little time with.  I mean they are fellow survivors of an indescribably traumatic experience, who I’d truly give my life for.  We are bonded.

That’s definitely the most noticeable difference.  But there are others.  Each time I go to the grocery store or a restaurant, every 10th person I pass looks at me with a flicker of confused recognition.  Every 20th comes up to me and says, “I know you from somewhere.”  Every 100th rushes up to me and embraces me and says, “I was rooting for you, you have no idea.  And my kids LOVE you.”

Every time I log into my inbox, instead of the most numerous emails being from friends, various stores I patronize, and spam, they are emails that begin with “I watched MasterChef and looked you up.”  Some of them continue “Thanks for being so fun to watch.”  Many continue, “I am struggling with an eating disorder,” or “I’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer,” or “We support this amazing project that you would probably find interesting,” or “I’m 8 years old and I wanna be a chef when I grow up.”  (For the record, I’ve received close to 20,000 emails since MasterChef began airing…I still haven’t been able to read them all, much less respond.  (Though someday I hope to be able to.)  But even if I spend only 5 minutes with each email (and many of them deserve much, much more) that’s well over 1,500 hours.  More than half a year of full 8-hour work days.

But keep them coming.  When I get frustrated with the money-hungry television executives…when I think to myself that I wish I had never auditioned for MasterChef…when I feel like giving everything up and going to live in a cave for the rest of my life…all I have to do is open my inbox and read about how many people were touched by the show, how much encouragement and inspiration it gave to so many of you…  And it keeps me going.

My future looks different, albeit much more uncertain, than it did 366 days ago.  I have development contracts with production companies.  I get emails and phone calls from very “important” people.  People who think I have a future in television.  But these people tell me that no matter how entertaining I am on screen, no matter how easily people connect with me…I still have to be able to prove to a network that I can hold an audience beyond the realm of MasterChef…that new people will be drawn to me who’ve never even heard of MasterChef.  And thus I spend my days meticulously documenting my life for those who are interested.  Here’s a picture of what I made for dinner.  Oh, you want the recipe?  Let me upload it to my website really fast.  Here’s me under a waterfall in Hawaii.  I just met a 13 year old homeless kid whose parents tossed him out like a piece of garbage.  I’m headed to Atlanta, anyone have restaurant recommendations?

(My managers tell me that one of the most important things a network is looking for is RESPONSIVENESS with fans, so if you’re one of the people who’s eager to see me back on your TV screen, the best way you can help me is to comment on my Facebook messages, retweet and respond to my tweets, but most of all…share my posts and videos with your friends.  The more buzz I can generate, the more interest a network will have.)

Another new thing in my life is gray hair!  Halfway through the filming of MasterChef, my hair had gotten so long and unruly that I bought a pair of clippers and cut my hair late one night in my room.  Underneath was a veritable FOREST of gray hair.  When I showed up on set the next day, everyone was shocked.  Luckily, because I was wearing my hats most of the time, they didn’t immediately have to take me to have my hair dyed to preserve continuity!  About half my hair has turned gray at the ripe age of 34.  Amazing what a little stress will do to you!  I embrace it, though.  (With any luck, people will be comparing me to Anderson Cooper in a few years!!!)

And there are projects galore in the works.  Jennie Kelley, one of my dearest MasterChef friends who also lives in Dallas, and I will soon be adding a bit of exciting, underground variety to the Dallas culinary scene.  More on that soon.  Due to new connections in Hawaii I hope to make some progress toward opening my sustainable guest farm there.  I’ll also be making some full-length episodes of a show I’ve wanted to make for years, and offering it to my fans on YouTube.  It will be filled with laughter and tears and warm fuzzy feelings, and will honor amazing people who have lived a life of quiet service to their families and communities.

And as we reach the 1 year mark, I get a few emails and tweets from people to the effect of, “You inspired me to audition for MasterChef myself, and while I can’t confirm anything, it looks like you may be watching me on TV this summer!”  In the coming weeks, 100 terrified, hopeful people will fly to LA, just like I did 1 year ago today, to start an adventure that will change their lives.  And I can’t wait to watch it happen!

Thanks to my friends and family who have endured a VERY crazy year with me.  Thanks to Gordon, Joe, and Graham, and especially to the production crew who make MasterChef, for being so wonderful in helping us all through such a challenging time.  Thanks to Suzy and Erryn and Giuseppe and Mark and Angel and Max and Kayla and Donna and Shawn and Bryce and RENEE and (…here I go again…) and ALL the wonderful new family members I have from MasterChef.  You have enriched my life beyond description.

MasterChef has not made me rich, at least in monetary terms.  In fact, I’m quite a bit more financially unstable now than I was 366 days ago.  (As are most of the contestants from the show INCLUDING the winner!)  But the whole experience has blessed me with INCREDIBLE wealth in the form of a treasure trove of wonderful new friends, and a host of the most interesting, friendly, and interactive fans any F-list celebrity could ever hope to ask for.  That’s YOU I’m talking about, by the way.  Thank YOU!

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