“Hey, JENNIFER!”

 

The voice cut through the din of the dining room and settled over the open kitchen like a fog. The voice was hoarse and harsh and British, the unmistakable dinner-rush snarl of international food mogul Gordon Ramsay.

 

“Are you OK? How do you burn risotto in the first minute?” Ramsay roared in the direction of Little Rock’s Jennifer Maune, one of six chefs tasked with preparing dinner service in Ramsay’s swank Hell’s Kitchen restaurant in southern California.

 

“I need the risotto!” Ramsay roared. “I’m DYING HERE!”

 

For months, Maune had been solid to stellar through Ramsay’s various challenges on FOX’s MasterChef: United Tastes of America, with only a couple of flirtations with weekly elimination. She had also avoided the drama typical of the show’s previous seasons, deftly skirting vendettas and one-on-one bickering by casting herself as the motherly Southerner: gracious and supportive, comforting to those bounced from the competition each week, yet with a steely resilience and resolve to win, a wolf in red velvet clothing.

Now, 17 episodes into Season 13 of the hit television cooking competition, Maune’s fate hung on a searing panful of Italian rice. Worse, she was getting verbally blasted by one of the most infamous tempers in the food world, before millions of people no less.

 

To be blunt, she didn’t like it. Not. One. Bit.

 

“I had two main emotions during the Hell’s Kitchen takeover,” she said. “One, it was exhilarating to me because that was the first time working on the line in a kitchen, and I loved it. I really did. I loved every minute of it. I want to open a restaurant. That’s the path I want to follow, so it was needed experience for me for my future.

Jennifer Maune

“Secondly, Gordon was so brutal. I just have never experienced anything like that before and probably don’t care to again. Out of all the challenges, that was probably the one where I got a little annoyed. Gordon certainly became a mentor to me, and I genuinely am very fond of him as a person, but that particular challenge was a little much for me because he was ruthless.”

 

As anyone who watched the series knows, Maune rallied to make it through the challenge and then some, advancing to the final three competing for a $250,000 first prize, a cookbook deal and the right to brand oneself after one of the most popular reality food programs on television.

 

Although she did not win — a decision that regular viewers will debate for some time — the conclusion of the show allowed her to finally speak at length about the experience, the toll it took and the opportunities it has brought since the style influencer and mother of six has returned home to Arkansas.

 

“Eight weeks; it was tough,” she said. “There were a couple times I almost threw in the towel and just said, ‘I need to be at home.’ My husband and the kids all rallied me and said, ‘Mom, we’re fine. You chase after your dreams. Don’t come home. We want you to win this thing.’ So every time I would feel like I needed to come home, they would encourage me to stay. Of course, it had a pretty happy ending.”

 

Maune granted AY About You a rare firsthand look behind the scenes of MasterChef: United Tastes of America, described what it was like to stare down Ramsay and the other judges — restaurateur Joe Bastianich and Chef Aarón Sánchez — and discussed what lay ahead for Little Rock’s newest star.

jennifer maune

AY About You: This season was unique from previous ones in that the first part of the season featured regional teams battling before everything went head-to-head. Was it what you expected?

 

Jennifer Maune: It didn’t really matter to me at all how it started, but we did not know ahead of time that they had divided [contestants] into regions. I don’t think it was clear until we walked onto the set and did the intro where the theme was United Tastes of America, so we didn’t realize until that day that 40 of us who’d been chosen would be fighting for five aprons just to make a regional team.

 

As we got into the competition, I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen the regional format. I’d much preferred to have gone against all of the other contestants. The South region was so strong that even when I was at the bottom for the chicken challenge, my dish was likely better than others across the kitchen, but because of the format, one dish had to be the top and one had to be the bottom for each region.

 

Another example is the cake challenge. My cake, hands down, was better than anyone else on that stage but my teammate Kolby Chandler, and had it been a top three out of the entire room, I would have been called up and everyone would have seen how I could build a perfect cake.

AY: When you were in the room, could you kind of gauge where your dish ranked, or were you really just on pins and needles over what the judges were thinking?

 

Maune: I certainly think there were hints along the way, just gauging their comments during the judging process, where you think, ‘This might be my day to either be up top or on bottom.’ Joe wasn’t aware that Arkansas is the rice state and we grow arborio rice here and there are dozens of Southern risotto recipes, so when he comes around, he’s like, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ I knew then that he was probably going to pick that apart. Sometimes it’s just too late to pivot. You’ve already gone down one path for too long.

 

AY: Every episode, they showed empty plates with five seconds left, and yet everything magically got plated. How much of the editing was spliced to create tension?

 

Maune: There is a ton that the viewers do not see that, really, I think would be so helpful if there was a way to showcase more of certain situations. It would give the viewer a better idea as to either who the cook is, who their character is, or the full picture of the dish and why it was at the top or bottom.

 

In the tag team challenge, my partner Charles [Calvino] actually had a panic attack. He stopped cooking, backed away from the stove. It was probably a five-minute ordeal where Gordon’s telling him to breathe and had his arm around him, and they didn’t show it. I’m sure it was a decision by the editors to not show a potentially embarrassing moment for Charles, which is fine, or it could be that they didn’t have time to show it, but had the viewers seen that, they might have understood more as to why the dishes looked like they did at the end.

 

AY: This season had less back-biting and fewer villains than previous seasons. Wayne Lewis from Ohio started like he was going to be the one everyone hated, and he seemed to mellow over time. Was that building the character in a certain way? He started off insufferable, and people seemed to like him in the end.

 

Maune: He was definitely the villain of the season, and he carried that over behind the scenes of the show, especially toward the end, when he was really focused on trying to get to the finale. There were a few people that probably took on that attitude from the beginning — certainly not the majority of us because we all enjoyed each other.

 

What we’ve heard from wranglers — the staff that manages us outside of the filming and production staff — is that our cast got along so much better than they have in the past. At first, they didn’t even want us clapping for the other regions, and I was just like, ‘That’s just not me. I love this person. They’re doing well. I’m going to clap. I’m going to be happy for them.’

 

Kennedy [Grace] and Grant [Gillon], who were in the finale with me, we had a great relationship. I prayed with them before each challenge started. They respected me for my faith, and I had a lot of respect for them for that. It was sort of a beautiful thing that I think they weren’t used to.

AY: The whole premise of the show was to cross over from cook to chef, and it was hard to envision some of the contestants doing that. You yourself were in a gray area until you did that red pasta. Was that a particular turning point for you?

 

Maune: It was because most of the challenges we had prior to that were stadium food or state fair food or cooking with an MRE or cooking for firefighters or cooking for kids on a baseball field. I never had full rein of this type of elevated food that I’m capable of and that I also enjoy making. I make pasta — not on a regular basis, and I’m certainly not an expert — but since I had the knowledge, this challenge gave me the opportunity to finally create something I felt represented me.

 

Talking about editing, I couldn’t believe they didn’t show this, but when I took the dish up there, Gordon said, ‘Let’s get the elephant out of the room.’ I thought, ‘That’s usually a bad sign,’ and he said, ‘This is absolutely gorgeous and belongs on the front of a food magazine,’ and they cut that part out! I’d been waiting all season for him to say something like that.

 

AY: How have you grown as a chef through this experience?

 

Maune: I think overall the biggest thing I learned was I have this foundation, a cooking foundation. It was how to then take that knowledge and, especially on a whim, come up with a balanced, composed dish.

 

Being a baker and having started in pastry arts, that’s all science, and it matters how much flour. It matters how much baking soda. Those things matter. Well, in cooking, a lot of times it’s just based off of taste and building flavor and heat. That’s one of the best things that Gordon imparted to me. He would say, ‘Jennifer, you start at the beginning with your onions and your garlic. When you’re making your sauces or doing your marinades for your protein, you start at the very beginning building that flavor.’ That was one takeaway.

 

The second would just be how to put quality ingredients together that make sense, that kind of tickle all the senses. You’ve got your spice and your heat and your sweet and your savory and textures. All of that makes a difference for when someone is going to really enjoy and experience a meal. That’s the thing that I’m excited about focusing on here at home when I open my restaurant.

 

AY: About that — that is just one opportunity that has come along very quickly for you. Where do you go from here?

 

Maune: I can’t even tell you how things have exploded. It’s really just unmanageable.

 

I have a seasoning brand, and it’s called Heritage Taste. It will be available on my website to ship. I’m going to start preorders now.

 

My cookbook will come in the fall of 2024. I’m doing a holiday cookbook where we’ll show inspiration on how to decorate your dining table for various holidays and also sample menus and the recipes that go along with that for all the major holidays.

 

I’ve signed with a talent agency out of L.A., and I have a publicist and a team of people who are all working to help me develop a concept for my own show. That’s in the very early stages and would be on a major network. That’s something fun that is looking really good which I hope comes to fruition.

 

The biggest thing for me is wanting to open my farm-to-table breakfast, brunch, lunch restaurant. I am looking at Benton and west Little Rock for locations and have some investors on board to help with both projects. My overall hope is that I can perfect the model here and then open locations across the South and maybe even beyond. That’s a 5, 10-year goal.

 

The other thing I would love to do is open kind of a homestead/farm event venue where you can come and do lunch tours, and you can host events, weddings, celebrations, corporate events where I’m able to cook and give people tours of the property. That’s the other thing. We’re looking for real estate options and planning how to move forward.

maune

Maune made it to the final three on one of America’s most popular televised cooking competitions, and her journey is still not over.

AY: It doesn’t sound like coming in second cut into your future opportunities any.

 

Maune: Something Gordon and Aarón often told me throughout the process: They’d pull me aside and say, ‘Jennifer, I’ve seen you grow with your confidence. I see it. We all see it. The culinary team sees it. You can just take this and do whatever you want with it.’

 

Then Gordon said something to me that I haven’t said publicly out of being respectful to the other finalists, but he pulled me aside when it was all over and said, ‘You were second runner-up, and it was just by the smallest detail, but we all just feel you don’t need this. You’re going to be a star regardless.’ Having them breathe such positivity and life into me and offer mentorship, it really helped me with my confidence level.

 

MasterChef was, like, the greatest joy and high in life professionally and the single hardest thing I’ve ever done.

 

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