Jennifer Brulé: My Time on Food Network’s #UltimateThanksgivingChallenge

The New Vegetarian South by Jennifer BruleToday, we welcome a guest post from Jennifer Brulé, chef and author of Learn to Cook 25 Southern Classics 3 Ways: Traditional, Contemporary, International, as well as The New Vegetarian South: 105 Inspired Dishes for Everyone.

Earlier this month, we were pleased to cheer Jenny on as she competed on Season 2 of Food Network’s Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge, in which five chefs from around the country put their spin on Thanksgiving dishes and competed for first place and a $25,000 grand prize. Here, she reflects on the experience of meeting her fellow chefs and competing on the show.

Both of Jennifer Brulé’s cookbooks are available from UNC Press in print and ebook editions. Use code 01HOLIDAY on our website to receive 40% off and free shipping on orders of $75 or more.


My Time on Food Network’s Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge

My flight landed on time at LAX. It was early August and although Los Angeles was hot, it (thankfully) lacked the humidity for which southern summers are known. The air felt lighter against my skin.

I was in L.A. to tape a Food Network holiday series, Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge. Five other chefs and I were recruited from around the country to compete against one and other. That was all I knew, all any of us knew—we were there to compete. What the challenges would be, how they would stump us, remained a mystery.

I rolled my tight shoulders and circled my stiff neck as I waited for the network shuttle that was going to take me to the hotel. It arrived quickly; I exchanged pleasantries with the driver and hopped in the passenger seat beside her. “Just picking up one more competitor,” the driver told me. I felt my shoulders tense a bit.

I had no idea what to expect from the other chefs. Should we behave cordially, keep to ourselves, or could we form friendships? Those questions were answered as soon as Mary, the other chef/competitor, got into the shuttle. “Well, howdy! I’m Mary, from Houston. How was your flight?” This is actually how Mary speaks—she’s almost like a caricature of a Texan, except that she’s real. I knew immediately that we would be friends. I felt my shoulders relax a bit.

The next morning, we were to be in the lobby of the hotel at 6:30 AM. This first day would be long, but we wouldn’t start competing and filming until the following day. We were encouraged to eat breakfast beforehand because it would be a minute before we broke for lunch. I walked out of the elevator, heading toward the lobby when I heard, “Jennnnnnnnnnneeeee… Come over here, girl!” Of course, it was Mary. She had found two other chef/competitors and wrangled them around a tiny, cramped table. All three held their breakfast plates on their laps. I joined them. Robin was an experienced chef from San Francisco, Eric was a proud, third generation firefighter and restauranteur from Manhattan. From the first moment, and due largely to Mary’s gregarious, warm prompting, we all clicked—chatted non-stop, asked questions of each other, laughed and gave each other grief. The muscles in my neck began to loosen.

I think it was Eric who asked aloud, “Wonder where the other chefs are?” That’s when a big, blue-haired bear of a man walked over and said, “Hello, I’m Christian.” He’d played it safe, sitting quietly just behind our boisterous table, eating his breakfast in silence and sizing up his competition. He joined us, placing his breakfast plate on his lap, jumping right into the conversation and giving all of us a good ribbing.

Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge competitors (L-R) Mary Bass, Jennifer Brulé, Christian Gill, Kelli Ferrell, Eric Howard, and Robin Song.

I thought, “This group is good people, they’re my people.” Although I was older than them all by ten to fifteen years, we connected over our passion for food and cooking and a shared sense of humor. The idea of the competition became secondary. Without a doubt, we would all bring our A game, but these friendships forming under such an intense condition was what would keep us grounded, sustained. We wanted the best for each other—we truly did.

Mary was the first to be knocked out of the competition. I was shocked and saddened when her name was called. Backstage we hugged her tightly, and she handled the situation with grace and humor.

The next day, I was cut from the competition. It was a surprise, but I was okay. Backstage, Christian and his big, blue hair barreled into me with a hug that almost knocked me over. He was visibly upset. The other chefs followed behind, sharing hugs and kind words.

I went into the competition not knowing what to expect, but hoping for a positive experience. That week surpassed what I thought possible. I didn’t win the game, but the friendships made will be prized forever.


Photo by Monica Galloway

Jennifer Brulé is the executive chef and owner of the flexitarian restaurant Davidson Ice House, in Davidson, North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter.