A notable quote from MasterChef US, Season 10 - “Southern Food is like an ugly duckling”, voiced by its ultimate winner, Dorian Hunter, succinctly explains her principal cooking philosophy. Her cooking POV has always been about “elevating” the Southern cuisine, and in turn, changing people’s perception of it. Born in Canton, Ohio and now residing in Georgia with her family, Dorian has always been a Southern woman, through and through. And, that has been best personified by the food that she has always loved to cook.
“..One part of that we've missed as a culture is by presenting Southern Food respectfully. That is where I now see chefs coming on the scene saying - hey, we are beautiful people, we have so much culture and so much love. Now we need to show that not only are we not dysfunctional, but we are not going to show a dysfunctional plate..”
Plating Southern dishes in a sophisticated and respectful manner, without compromising on its authenticity and taste, is her way of paying homage to her ancestors. She considers this as her duty as a professional chef, but more so because she wants to do justice to the generational recipes that have been passed down to her.
"..I really believe that what you put in your mouth is what you feed your spirit. So if I put dysfunction in my mouth, my spirit is going to be dysfunctional. So I have to be careful of how I present food to people. And I want to be sure that I give them the same effect as if their grandma or their mom cooked the food, but it's just presented in a more beautiful way..”
During the course of the show, Dorian proved to be one of the strongest contestants of the season, due to her grit and unfading passion for cooking. She broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first African American female to win the MasterChef US title in 2019 and made a strong case for home-cooks amidst a gourmet driven industry, on the world stage.
Hunter was one of the most consistent chefs on the show, claiming the most number of challenge wins during her triumphant run. Her passion for cooking was palpable for all the viewers to see when she plated sensational dishes in time-crunching pressure situations, time and again. Her delectable final serving of seared sea scallops with pickled Swiss chard, an entrée of Applewood smoked rib with potato and horseradish gratin, all but sealed the victory.
We got a great opportunity to have a conversation with Dorian Hunter on a variety of subjects: her cooking journey dating back to her childhood, her culinary expeditions, the MasterChef experience, life after the show and her first impressions on a cooking robot who is going to make some of her signature recipes..
QnA with Dorian Hunter, Winner of MasterChef US, Season 10, and a specialist chef of the Southern Cuisine..
"..When people eat your food, they're taking a part of your soul and you can see it. Now I know when I hit that spot - when I don't hear anybody talking, just the dishes clinking and I see eyes rolling and closing. That’s when I know I did it. It gives me pure joy and that adrenaline rush that I love so much because I'm able to give a part of me, every single time, I send out a plate.."
N: At what instance in your growing up years did you discover that you wanted to be a chef? Could you share some of your fondest kitchen or cooking experiences from childhood?
D: I come from a very large family - Yes, there's ten of us and I'm number five out of that ten. Right in the middle. One of the things that I had to do was cook breakfast for my dad. And that's when my mom first introduced me to the kitchen. Now see, I was twelve at the time and I didn’t want to be there (like any other twelve year old). But it was something about me that my mom and my dad saw that I couldn’t see for myself at the time. I have to say though, the more I did it, the more I began to love the process of cooking. I struggled a little, of course, but slowly it became a part and parcel of my life. So throughout my younger years, I came across people who nurtured the skill that I had. And soon, once I left high school, that skill that I had started to perfect, turned into a passion. And now when I can't cook, I honestly get sad. Like, if I go and do just an appearance where I'm just showing my face - I'm like, are you sure you don't want me to cook? So it's a part of me. It's something that I love to do. And not very many people can say that they love their job. And I absolutely love my job. It's instant gratification.
When people eat your food, they're taking a part of your soul and you can see it. Now I know when I hit that spot - when I don't hear anybody talking, just the dishes clinking and I see eyes rolling and closing. That’s when I know I did it. It gives me pure joy and that adrenaline rush that I love so much because I'm able to give a part of me, every single time, I send out a plate. In my belief, chefs are artists in their own right. To be able to put out this art that people can eat and enjoy? It's the best job in the world.
N: Your specialty lies in elevating Southern food without losing that traditional Southern taste. What has it been like to be on a journey to constantly refine the food culture of the place you’re from? What is your cooking POV?
D: I believe in upholding tradition, while also allowing for those old school techniques and ways of presenting food to be elevated. I want my daughter to be able to know how to make my mom's turkey and dressing, but I also want her to know that it can be presented to her guests or to her family in a beautiful way. That's really my form of cooking - I want you to be able to experience the beauty that I found in my culture. Everybody loves who they are, and what better way to present that than through food? And I don't consider myself a five. I feel like I'm a ten. Then why not present my food as such too?
Being on MasterChef made me appreciate not just who I am, but the food that my family brought me up on. Being on MasterChef was something that I had always dreamed of and what better way to say thank you to my parents, to my grandparents, to my great grandparents than to present the food that they raised me on? So that's why my journey on the competition was extraordinary, to say the least. It was an emotional journey because I got to show off who I was, where I came from, and where I'm going through my food.
N: Cooking for your family has notably been a major influence in your journey of becoming a chef. So how do you approach cooking for your family as compared to cooking for people on a larger scale as part of your profession, for either restaurants or events? Is there a distinction in your approach?
D: Cooking for my family is a lot harder than cooking for a client because my family are very much my biggest cheerleaders, but also my worst critics. My family is very picky and particular, and I would even go as far as to say spoiled. Cooking for a client? - The client not only wants to eat my food, but they want to meet me and want to get to know me better whereas my family knows everything. So when I cook for my family, I cook to satisfy. When I'm cooking for a client, the client wants to know about me and that’s when I have to bring my narrative to the table, along with the food. That, to me, is an amazing part of the experience. You don't call Chef Dorian just to cook. You want to know more about her. I've had people come in, and they're like, it's almost like you're an Auntie. They feel like they know me already. And I want them to feel that way. Be comfortable, be open. Take your shoes off under the table, enjoy your food while I tell you as much as I possibly can in that time allotted about who I am.
But for my family, I love trying new things out on them. They probably don't like it so much, you know what I'm saying? My family is very straightforward. They don't need the beautiful plates. If they could have chicken wings and fries every day, they would eat it every day. But obviously I can't cook that every day.
N: What drives you to constantly keep innovating as a chef? How do you stay inspired?
D: For me, I follow people who are where I want to go. I follow people who are at that pinnacle that I want to reach. And then once I reach that pentacle, then I follow people who are above them. And that is how I found that, number one, I stay fresh. Number two, I stay humble. And I'm always willing to learn. I am totally and completely embedded in watching some of these older chefs that have reached the spot where I would someday want to be. That's how I stay inspired. I always try to challenge myself and try to never get so big headed to a point where there’s no new learning.
Oftentimes, it can take a really long time to even try something because it’s intimidating to go out of your comfort zone. But once I get over that hump, nine times out of ten, I won't sit down until I nail it. It is very seldom to be able to do something for the first time and get it perfect, right? And if you allow it, that can really work on your psyche. Just because you have an idea doesn't mean that you're going to be able to execute it. From your brain to the plate, it takes a few times. The whole ordeal of trial and error keeps me humble amidst the bigger picture.
N: That makes a lot of sense - what got you here is not going to get you there. So constantly trying and being better? I love that. To build on this, who are some of your culinary idols?
D: Well, number one has to be Gordon Ramsay. I mean, most people will of course mention him, but I have been following Ramsay for years. I mean, for decades. The speed that he has in cooking, his preciseness is something that I've always looked up to. My next chef is Chef Deborah Vantrece from Atlanta, Georgia. She is an African-American chef who has been on the food scene for a very long time and has made her mark. I think that she's underestimated a little bit; not enough people really know about her, but she is a fantastic chef. And the thing that really impressed me the most about her is that at her restaurant during COVID, she was able to maintain not only her style of cooking, but the level of it. Nothing about her food changed. Nothing. There was no down, there was no adjusting. I'm sure in the back, they had to do a whole bunch in order to sustain the level that they had to maintain. When I went in before COVID, it was terrific. I went in during COVID, it was terrific. We went in at the tail end of things getting better, and it was still terrific. That was super impressive to me. I guess I have a ton, but my very last chef that I would love to meet and I admire thoroughly, is Chef Mashama Bailey in Savannah, Georgia. She is the chef of The Grey. And that place? I was like a kid standing outside the window silently asking, “Can I please come in?” We were able to go into The Grey for brunch and it was everything that my mind thought that it would be, and then some! It was absolutely phenomenal. I think that all the three chefs are absolutely terrific and have maintained great integrity. They've lasted the test of time, and they continue to grow. And that's all I want to be.
N: Where do you think Southern cuisine is today, and where do you want to see it go?
D: I think even from the beginning of its time up until just recently, I think that Southern cuisine has been looked at as I hate to say it, but leftovers and scraps, and we had to take what we could get. And we were able to because of our resourcefulness. We were able to take those ingredients and turn them into beautiful dishes. I think that now people are beginning to see the beauty in that.
You give me what you don't want, and then I'm able to turn it into something that is delectable, something that you want to have now that you're willing to pay for. But the one part of that we've missed as a culture is by presenting it respectfully. And that is where I now see chefs coming on the scene saying - Hey, we are beautiful people. We have so much culture. We have so much love. Now we need to show that not only are we not dysfunctional, but we are not going to show a dysfunctional plate.
When you think of Southern cuisine in the past, and maybe some still do, you look at that plate and all the food is piled up on it. No rhyme or reason. It's just a bunch of food on the plate. But now you see that becoming more streamlined. And that's where I come in. Chefs like me and my contemporaries, we're going to streamline this. I'm still going to give you that take off your shoe feeling. But I'm going to present this food in a more respectable way.
Each culture talks about their ancestors, and I get what my ancestors went through. But now I'm going to pay homage to them by making their sacrifice beautiful. And that is what I atone to do. I want our food to be just as beautiful as we are. I can see the dysfunction changing because I really believe that what you put in your mouth is what you feed your spirit. So if I put dysfunction in my mouth, my spirit is going to be dysfunctional. So I have to be careful of how I present food to people. And I want to be sure that I give them the same effect as if their grandma or their mom cooked the food, but it's just presented in a more beautiful way.
N: What was the MasterChef kitchen like? How did you deal with the high-pressure environment and what learning do you value the most from the experience?
D: Yeah, so I learned a lot about myself during MasterChef, and both good and bad. Pressure I'm able to take, but I think that everybody reaches their limits. The amount of pressure that you are under when you're on a competition, on a food competition show is immense. The pressure really builds when you can see the end more clearly and you really want it. But at the same time, you want to go home. You may leave the hotel and say, I'm going to throw it today because I want to go home. But then you get on set and you see that trophy, which I believe they put there for a reason. So you can see it every time you go in. And if something clicks in you and you say, no, I got a little more fighting left in me.
And when you begin to challenge again, challenging yourself to do that and to be able to still have that integrity that I'm cooking soul food and that is still going to have all the flavors with some little changes, it just sparks a new skill. And I'm grateful for the show for that. Some of the dishes, I never thought about cooking in the way that I did on Master Chef until I got there, and now I still do it.
Of course I'm grateful because I won. But had I not even won, I would have come back with that skill and with those skills and being able to touch ingredients that I've never seen before or taste food that I never saw before, it just opened up my eyes and it opened up my taste buds. And I was able to have these experiences that I was able to bring home and I'm able to share them with the people that love me and the people that hire me today.
N: How has the fan community that you've built since last year been for you? What’s it like interacting with them?
D: Oh, man, I love my community so much. And I called them my fan FAM. And I love them because they're authentic and appreciate me for who I am. Before you go to a show like that, you go on as just a regular person, right? And then you win. Now you're somebody totally different, right? That's a lot. It's a lot because it happens overnight. And my fan FAM, along with my family, have really embraced me. They loved me. I didn't buy followers. I didn't go and have people just give me numbers. These are authentic people who want to see my journey and who send me prayers and who send me encouragement on a regular basis. They keep me motivated to be the best chef I can be. It's all because of these people that have given me encouragement. And honestly, I haven’t built this community; they've built themselves around me and the food they love.
N: Switching tracks a little bit - We wanted to know what were your first thoughts when we introduced Nymble, our cooking robot to you?
D: When I got first approached by your team, I thought it was a hoax. I'm like, there's no way. There is no way. I'm like, Dude, there's no way. But then after talking and seeing the video of how it works, I was floored. I was absolutely floored. Like everybody's seen the Jetsons, right? Everybody watched the Jetsons. And I'm thinking to myself - , we are so close to The Jetsons in that kitchen set up, and I see this as being the beginning of that. But seriously, I think this is absolutely phenomenal. I am in awe of being a part of this, and for Nymble to reach out to me. I am overjoyed about being a part of this terrific team leading innovation in the kitchen space. I can't believe it. Personally, I can't wait to see it and to see my recipes being made by this robot? I still can’t believe you guys were able to make something like this.
N: What was specifically impressive to you, and how do you think Nymble is different from other appliances? What is it about a cooking robot that makes you excited?
D: The one thing that I absolutely love about Nymble is that it makes cooking easy. As a chef, we can make things very difficult and very complex. And to be able to follow a chef is very difficult. You need some sort of a skill. But what I loved about it is that I could have this in my kitchen and my daughter can make the exact same meal as me. And to her specifications, that's the best part about it, I think, is that me and my husband may not like the same amount of sauce, or we may not like the same amount of heat, and we program it to fit our liking. And I absolutely love that it actually makes cooking easy and, not taking away anything from the microwave, but it's actual cooking. It's sauteing and it's adding cream, and it's adding all of these things to make life a lot easier. And you're still getting a home cooked meal. That's absolutely phenomenal.
I wouldn't have thought in my wildest imaginations when I made the recipe that it would one day be made by a cooking robot. This is not a grub hub or anything like that, they're actually going to be able to cook Chef Dorian's Cajun Chicken Pasta or Coffee Pasta on the Nymble and get exactly what I would have made at home. Like, it's not an order. It's not somebody coming to your door. You're going to be able to actually make it at home.
Dorian Hunter is one of the many MasterChef contestants who we reached out to collaborate and co-create some of their signature dishes on our cooking robot. This is a candid interview series where the chefs interact with our cooking-robot, as we draw from their experiences as chefs, their own cooking philosophies, techniques, tips and much more.
Join our early access community to try Dorian Hunter's delicious Southern delicacies, only on Nymble!
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