For the next installment of my MasterChef: Where Are They Now? series, I’ve chosen one of my personal favorites from Season 2…Tracy Kontos. Tracy is one of those people that, upon meeting, you instantly feel like you’ve been bosom buddies for decades. She immediately sweeps you into this comfortable familiarity and makes you feel like the most important person in the world.
Tracy’s MasterChef journey began in southern Florida, where she lived with her then-husband, a private pilot for a mega-celebrity. Tracy met her husband when she was a private flight attendant for said celebrity, in a time when her life was very spontaneous and free, exploring the world, following her heart and her dreams. After getting married, she applied her rare people skills to a sales position with a major multi-national company and, in no time, she was a national sales manager, making big bucks, wheeling and dealing with Maserati-driving big-wig executives twice her age. She and her husband settled down with a white picket fence and contemplated a family. But something was missing.
The siren song of her beloved kitchen led her to a MasterChef audition, and in no time she was sitting next to me in a grimy warehouse in Compton filming the signature dish challenge. Smooth sailing right through to the big challenge that would decide the top 18, when her chicken skin cracklins caught fire in the oven and Ramsay really noticed her for the first time. But certainly not the last. Tracy is one of those people who is magnetic…when she’s in the room, you can’t help but gravitate toward her.
Tracy did well and went far, but not as far as most of us thought. (We all considered her a definite candidate for the win, and I think the judges did, too. Of course…neither the contestants nor the judges have any say over who the winner will be!) And being on the show affected Tracy more deeply than most of us.
She didn’t return home immediately after the show finished filming. She went on a tour of the country, interning in some of the best restaurants (including Graham’s and Joe’s), getting to know what being a chef is REALLY like. Because, on MasterChef, it’s just a bizarre hybrid of celebrity and slavery.
Upon returning to southern Florida to her husband, her dogs, and her white picket fence, Tracy discovered that she had no job. Because when you leave to be on MasterChef, you have to tell your employer, “I’m going away for an unspecified amount of time…it could be a week, or it could be two months. I can’t tell you what I’m doing, and I won’t be able to contact you during that time. So I’ll see you when I get back.” A major corporation can’t really deal without one of its top national sales executives for 2 months, so Tracy was replaced while she was in LA filming the show.
The loss of a job is no big deal for a woman like Tracy. She could walk into the corporate headquarters of ANY major company in this country and have a corner office that afternoon. She’s that kinda person. But she looked around her home…she looked at her marriage…and she realized that her life had gotten derailed somewhere back along the line. She had lost her creative spirit…her drive to explore life on her own terms…and she walked away from her husband and her beloved pups, packed up a suitcase, and drove to Los Angeles. With a stop at my house along the way, of course, to make sure she was doing the right thing.
Understandably, the only person who could answer that question was her, and I told her as much. But having her in my kitchen, cooking casually without Ramsay’s firey breath on our necks, was a moment I’ll remember all my life. She was scared. But she was excited. Because she had lost track of who she really was during the past few years, and MasterChef had been a brutal wakeup call.
Tracy landed in LA with no job, and she started at the bottom, in the place where most people start: waiting tables. A scant few months ago she was sitting in her corner office in her suit, commanding a sales force. And now she was slinging cocktails and burgers at a beach bar.
“What did I do to myself, BenStarr?” she asked me when I was out there visiting shortly after her move. “What did I give up? Look at me! Look at how I’m living!”
I thought for a bit, and I said, “Are you happy?”
“Happier than I’ve been in years.”
“Then you’re doing the right thing.”
Tracy started a catering company with Alejandra Schrader from our season, which began developing her connections in the LA food scene. Soon after, she was offered a fairly lucrative private cheffing gig with a family who are dear friends of Esther Kang, also from our season. Friends of that family heard about how fabulous Tracy was, and soon she had top-tier clients all over Los Angeles, including some Hollywood mega-stars.
But not only is she resourceful and savvy…she is conscientious and generous. So it was time to give back. And in October of last year, Tracy formed WILFS: Women In LA Food Scene. (And that acronym is no accident, boys!) It began with 15 members…women Tracy had met in her exploration of the Los Angeles food world. They dedicated themselves to mentoring other women wanting to break into that world, to sharing resources and contacts with each other, to support the local farming and food artisan communities, and to educate others on the importance of where their food comes from. Nine months later, they have almost 80 active members. They meet monthly to break bread, network, share new food discoveries, and discuss and explore a different food-related subject each time. The guest speaker may be a local coffee roaster, a farmer, a chef, a vintner, or a brewmistress. Their last meeting was at the home of a woman who owns an urban farming consultation company, and they planted veggies and learned how to care for backyard chickens. (I’d have LOVED to have been at that meeting!) Tracy beams when she reports that at least 10 new jobs have been created for extraordinary women because of connections from within WILFS.
Tracy has also carved out time to join me in my support of YO! House, an outreach program for homeless youth in Hawaii. Many of the nation’s homeless kids (and there are many…it’s an epidemic) prostitute or drug-sell their way to a one-way ticket to Hawaii, because it’s the one place in the country where it’s always warm, and they hear tales of picking fresh fruit from trees on the beach and living the good life. Unfortunately, they land in Honolulu and discover horrible gang violence, the nation’s worst crystal meth problem, and just about the only comforting thing for them is that they don’t shiver at night when they sleep in the park. (At least not from the cold.) YO! House is an extraordinary place where these homeless kids can come and get a medical exam, birth control/STD prevention, take vocational classes or get their GED, have a hot meal, and keep a locker in which to store their few valuables…making them a less likely target for assault and theft by older homeless and gangs. And you’d be deeply troubled to learn about many of these kids. At one event, an 11-year-old limped up to YO! House with blood running down his leg from a “fall” (ie assault). His parents had left him there on a recent vacation. Intentionally. Tracy has joined one of several trips down there, coordinated solely by MasterChef contestants and our amazing friends Dr. Cristy Kessler and Rev. Liz Zivanov, and her amazing flock: the Parish of St. Clement in Honolulu. We’ve been honored to visit with these kids, hear their stories, help inspire them, and most importantly…to cook for them. When I see people who are extraordinarily gifted at making money and being successful, I am impressed. When I see people who are like that, but who spend just as much time and money giving back to others, I am in awe. And Tracy is one of those people.
As always, I ask MC survivors what advice they would give to a passionate home cook who wants to be on MasterChef. Tracy says, “So you wanna be on MasterChef? My first question is: why? What is it that you’re looking to achieve? Having the MasterChef name behind me has definitely helped me quickly achieve a certain level of credibility. So if you’re looking to be somewhat recognizable quickly, go for it. But if you’re trying to find out if this is your life’s passion and if it’s the direction you should be going in, MasterChef (or reality TV in general) probably isn’t the best testing ground for that. Especially if you’re sensitive, because the judges make lots of unfounded criticism that could easily crush the dreams of someone without a thick skin. You can learn so much on your own in a safer environment than the reality TV route. I mean look at what happened to me! I lost my job. I lost my marriage. My life was a whirlwind of change. Of course, it was all for the better in the end. But it wasn’t an easy road to walk.”
I also normally ask people if they had it to do all over again…knowing exactly how everything turned out…would they do it all again given the opportunity. I think Tracy is probably the single most interesting MC survivor to ask this question to, because I believe her life was changed more than any other contestant from any season. And here’s her answer:
“Absolutely. Yes. I would sign on again in a heartbeat. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been through a WORLD OF HURT. I’ve broken hearts and I’ve broken promises, and I’m not the kind of person who does either of those things. But at the end of the day, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my entire life. And that would never have been possible without MasterChef. It catapulted me out of an existence I had allowed myself to get into, and it wasn’t an authentic existence for me. This is where I was supposed to be all along. I had gotten off track. And it wasn’t easy getting back on. And I hurt a lot of people in that process. And I hurt a lot myself. But without MasterChef as the catalyst, I might still be stuck in my old life, pretending I was fulfilled and happy with myself.”
I also like giving these folks a chance to send out one message to my audience and to the world at large. And the message that’s on Tracy’s heart right now is this: “We’re in a time where people really need to start focusing on the source of their food. Start paying attention. Asking questions. Ask your grocer which farm those cucumbers came from. Ask the guy behind the butcher cabinet what the farm is like where the animal he’s cutting up was raised. We really need to know WHERE our food is coming from. Organic food isn’t always available to everyone, due to cost or location, but seeking out responsible food is always a worthwhile endeavor. I would prefer to have quality food in my body that is truly healthy and was raised responsibly, than to have a new pair of shoes. (And I love shoes!) I’ve discovered that I’ve actually cut back on my food intake over the past year, because I’ve become very conscious of what it took to get that food on my plate, whether it’s a veggie or meat. I don’t waste anything any more. Pay attention to the food you’re consuming, and have a voice. And grow your own sh-t, people! Grow your own sh-t.”
Tracy is an easy person to love. Her smile is bigger and brighter than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s so damn big that when I talk to her on the phone, the western horizon brightens about 10 shades. I haven’t met many people on this earth as extraordinary as Tracy. In the 2 short years since MasterChef turned her life upside down, she has not only been a voice for change in her Los Angeles food community, she has pulled together like-minded ladies to be an even larger force for good. And she has touched many, many lives. Including my own.
When people leave a reality TV show, they always say, “You haven’t seen the last of me!” Unfortunately…that’s often not the case. But we most certainly haven’t seen the last of Tracy Kontos. We haven’t even seen the beginning!
Follow Tracy on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn. Check out her wonderful website, and if you are a woman in the food industry interested in helping WILFS branch out into other cities, get in touch with them through their website!