Jennifer Maune, a finalist on MasterChef: United Tastes of America, thanked her family, friends and supporters during a watch party Sept. 20 at Ben E. Keith Foods in North Little Rock, where attendees dined on the same three-course meal Maune served to judges during the final showdown. 

“What was so cool was actually sitting there watching the show on these big screens, and then being served at the exact same time as the judges were being served the exact same courses,” said Heather Baker, president of AY Media Group, who attended the event. “The art that was put into each dish was spectacular. I have to give her 10 stars for all three courses.”

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The judges asked contestants to represent their regions with their dishes, so Maune put Arkansas on a plate.

 

“The menu is incredible,” she said at the watch party. “It’s something I’m so proud of because it’s something I put a lot of thought into not only to represent myself and my skills, but also our Southern heritage.”

 

At the event, each course was paired with a wine from The Prisoner Wine Company. Melissa Fisher, Senior State Manager at Constellation Brands and The Prisoner Wine Company, was on hand to discuss each pairing.

“What I love about Melissa is that she’s such an expert that all I had to do was rattle off a few things, and her mind was already spinning,” Maune told guests.

For the appetizer, Maune served a butter-poached lobster with heirloom tomato succotash, corn puree and champagne caviar vinaigrette, which was paired with chardonnay. Even though fresh lobster is not available in Arkansas, it is available in the South, she explained to attendees, adding that she chose the tomato because it is the state fruit and vegetable.

On screen, the judges praised all three dishes. Joe Bastianich said the lobster was “expertly cooked,” and Aarón Sánchez said the familiar flavors exacerbated the sweetness of the lobster, although he had some misgivings about the vinaigrette. 

 

“I absolutely love this dish,” Gordon Ramsay told her. “It’s fragrant. It’s powerful. It’s you.”

The main course was a rack of venison persillade cooked medium-rare and served with roasted root vegetables, parsnip puree and bordelaise sauce matched with Unshackled Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Maune told watch party attendees she chose the dish to represent her family. A mother of six, she said her husband and three of her sons enjoy hunting. 

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She presented the meat to judges with flair that reflected her interest in French culinary techniques. The judges said they enjoyed the flavor of the venison, even if the cuts were a bit inconsistent. 

 

“There’s a lot of great things that you accomplished with a very difficult protein,” Sánchez told Maune. “I commend you.”

 

Finally, for dessert, Maune served the “I Love You” cake, so named because her husband, Brian, surprised her with it the first time he said “I love you.” Maune served an elevated version of the dessert to the MasterChef: United Tastes of America judges. The chocolate raspberry mousse cake was accented with chambord raspberry coulis and crystalized raspberries. Saldo zinfandel complemented the treat.

 

“I’m glad you put this forward because dessert should be thought-provoking and, at the same time, easy to understand,” Sánchez told Maune.

Maune told event attendees that she began her MasterChef: United Tastes of America journey last September, when she applied to be on the show. One of her daughters wanted to be on Master Chef Junior, and while looking into the casting process, they realized MasterChef: United Tastes of America was casting. After her mother-in-law offered to help care for Maune’s youngest child, the family prayed about the opportunity, and Maune applied at the last minute. 

 

The next day, she received a call from Los Angeles and moved forward in the casting process. The family spent three months recording their homelife and Maune’s cooking skills. Then, in January, she flew to L.A., where she spent eight weeks.

 

“The coolest thing about MasterChef: United Tastes of America as a whole for me is I didn’t even know about casting. I had never planned to go on the show,” she said at the watch party. “Honestly, I really don’t like competing against people, so I don’t know how I made it to the final three except for the Lord.”

 

A fellow contestant-turned-friend, Reagan Sidney, also spoke at the watch party. Sidney told attendees that the two met when Sidney comforted Maune when she was sad because her children could not attend her audition, and Maune also helped her when she was homesick.

“I am so super proud of you. I love you, and I’m grateful for you,” Sidney said at the event. “There were days that I missed home, and she provided that.”

 

Maune shared a story about being recognized at a Houston grocery store with Sidney and said someone at Starbucks asked for a selfie the day of the watch party.

 

During the event, Maune spent the commercial breaks thanking her supporters and the people who helped with the event. In addition to the culinary team at Ben E. Keith, she expressed gratitude to Party Time Rentals and Events, which designed the tablescapes for the night, and to Heather Caldwell, franchise owner of HireQuest Direct in Conway, which provided serving staff.

Maune presented a white apron to the culinary institute of the University of Arkansas — Pulaski Technical College, which she attended. She told guests that several mentors who were in attendance provided her with advice while she was on MasterChef: United Tastes of America. Robert Hall, lead culinary instructor, shared an anecdote about teaching the left-handed Maune to properly hold a knife.

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Maune also thanked her husband and the family members who helped care for the children while she was away. When the judges announced their verdict, the guests at the watch party gave the finalist a round of applause. Held by her husband, Maune responded with a resigned smile. Then she hugged her son and daughter, and she broke into tears.

Although Maune was not named MasterChef: United Tastes of America, she told guests she won in many other ways. She plans to open restaurants in Benton and Little Rock with additional franchise opportunities to come, and she launched a website where fans can purchase her seasonings and more. 

 

“What she wants to do for us, I think, is going to bring another culinary highlight to the state of Arkansas,” Baker said. “She’s putting a huge star on our state.”

 

Pictures by Ryan Parker
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