When home chef Alice Phillips served stuffed salmon over vintage white cheddar grits with a drizzle of raspberry chipotle sauce to friends at a dinner party, the dish was greeted with “oohs” and “aaahs.” But when Phillips served her signature salmon to Gordon Ramsay, Graham Eliot and Joe Bastinach on Fox’s MasterChef, the dish was met with raised eyebrows and criticsm.
“Raspberry. … Salmon. … Chipotle. … Grits. … Damn! It’s like you’re wearing the wrong clothes and putting lipstick on your big toe,” Ramsay says to Phillips during Episode 1 of the second season of MasterChef.
Phillips, who lives part time in Edwards and part time in South Carolina, was one of 100 cooks selected for MasterChef, a show much like American Idol where amateur chefs (instead of musicians) are chosen to compete for $250,000, a cookbook deal, the chance to become a real chef and fame to boot. Episode by episode, contestants cook, compete in crazy contests (like peeling 1,000 apples) and then are either given the coveted MasterChef apron to advance or are voted off the show.
Phillips received a lot of airtime, considering it was the first show of the season and there were 100 other contestants baking, sautéing and stewing. Promos showed her stirring her grits, and viewers watched a still shot of the finished salmon as Chef Ramsay launched into his harsh commentary — the dramatic nugget of all reality TV. But what edits didn’t show was how the drama continued. Ramsay went on to insult not only Phillip’s cooking, but her age, too.
“‘What are you doing on this show? You’re old enough to be my mum,’” Phillips said in her best Scottish accent imitating Ramsay. “Talk about intimidating. It’s as if the man was weaned on a dill pickle.”
It was hard enough to endure jabs on her salmon, but her age? Phillips, who in her early 60s looks closer to 40s, says this is when it turned from reality TV drama to humiliation, but she wasn’t going to bite.
“I wanted to say, ‘You can kiss my white-ass grits,’ and I probably would have gotten more air time. But I’m a Southern girl, and I was on national TV. So I took a few deep breaths and thanked the judges for the opportunity,” says Phillips, who grew up in coal mining country in West Virginia.
At least she didn’t cry; advice from her youngest son, Andrew, before the show.
“MasterChef is one big mind game,” Phillips says. And she should know. For 30 years, Phillips was Dr. Alice, a psychologist. According to her, everything about the show is set up with psychological undertones to cause a reaction, from the way the judges are positioned on stools to look down on contestants, to how contestants are sequestered and forbidden to speak to one another during tapings, to the stage entrance — huge metal doors reminiscent of the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz. Even after Phillips was voted off, a van whisked her away from the set.
“Now you’re a pariah, a leper, contaminated. They take you to the other side of the building, the driver gets out and a psychiatrist gets in, seriously, and asks how you feel about not getting an apron,” Phillips recalls.
For Phillips, who has sent her youngest son to Iraq twice, losing on MasterChef hardly ranks as tragedy.
“Despite all that, and being punked, I would not give it up for anything. I can cross it off my bucket list,” Phillips says.
To see Phillips replay her experience on MasterChef is like watching a Saturday Night Live skit. She nails Ramsay’s accent and mimics the other judges’ disgust and lip snarls with comedic effect. Acting is what prompted Phillips to audition for MasterChef in the first place. She was temporarily living in Boston, reinventing herself from psychologist to actress – even garnering Boston Playwrights’ Theatre Best Actress award – when the opportunity presented itself.
“Let’s just say I’ve never been a shrinking violet,” Phillips says, with a laugh.
If acting helped this southern girl adjust to new life in a northern city, food has served as her encore career. Had she won MasterChef, she would have named her cookbook Bohemian Bold: Recipes from Ally’s Kitchen. Bohemian Bold is how Phillips describes her style of cooking. It’s peasant fare with a sense of chic, like taking good ole fashion fried green tomatoes and topping them with scallions and a zesty lime yogurt sauce. It’s an unexpected twist on a traditional southern favorite.
“It’s about coloring outside the lines,” Phillips says. “That’s the way I’ve always been and that’s the way my cooking is.”
At Ally’s Kitchen, her Facebook page, home cooks can find all sorts of inspiring Bohemian Bold ideas, like her Plain Janes, simple tapas that highlight food in its natural state, showing off its colors, shapes and textures. Phillips for example, combines a slice of yellow tomato with a segment of pink grapefruit with a dollop of ricotta. Or, she might stack slices of bright red strawberries and green cucumbers and then drizzle the tower with a balsamic reduction.
At Ally’s Kitchen, you can also find Phillips’ winning contest recipes, including her Bohemian Divino Bolognese, which won her grand prize in the Gallo Winery family recipe contest and a photo spread in Taste of Home’s November issue.
“There are so many amazing home cooks and that’s the cook I want to identify with,” Phillips says.
More than 1,000 people follow her on Facebook, and Phillips hopes she’s inspiring them — and not just in the kitchen. Ally’s Kitchen, she says, is about more than food. It’s about lifestyle. It’s about helping women over 40 find their groove again, she says. She wants to inspire women to set the table with cloth napkins, make that mango salsa and to take risks with their food and beyond.
“I want to show women when you’re 60 you can still get on a bike, still do yoga and you don’t have to dress old,” Phillips says. “You can still do big earrings. Just put your reading glasses on to see how your eye makeup looks.”
Not bad for a woman old enough to be your “mum.”
Find Ally’s Kitchen at http://www.facebook.com/allykitchen