Kansas City chefs are competing on national TV to represent their 'underrated' culinary scene
Laura Comer, executive chef of the Kauffman Center, has come out victorious from both Hulu's "Chef vs. Wild" and the Food Network's "Guy's Grocery Games." She's just the latest Kansas City chef to be featured in national cooking competition shows.
For cooking show “Chef vs. Wild” (Hulu, 2022), Laura Comer was dropped by helicopter into the Canadian wilds for five days with a trained survivalist.
Comer, the single mom of two Boy Scouts and the executive chef of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, subsisted on oysters and water as she focused on constructing a shelter from the elements.
The premise of the show: Two professional chefs compete to create a three-course, restaurant-style meal using foraged ingredients. As she learned the lay of the land, Comer was able to create a meal incorporating huckleberries, duck eggs, insects and witch’s butter, a fungus that grows on trees.
“I went with the mantra, ‘I can do hard things.’ I was shocked by what I could come up with. I discovered I’m really good under pressure, and not a lot intimidates me anymore,” recalls Comer.
Unlike most of the competitive cooking shows out there offering a hefty cash prize, “Chef vs. Wild” is about the thrill of victory. But a year earlier, Comer also won $16,500 on “Guy’s Grocery Games” (Food Network, 2021). Round one required her to make a chicken dinner using 13 ingredients, one from each letter of the alphabet A-M, and round two a seafood dish using 13 ingredients starting with the letters N-Z.
A shift away from purely educational culinary programming to entertainment came with the 1993 launch of Food Network shows designed to fuel competition in the kitchen by adding gameshow-style challenges.
Over the past three decades, Kansas City has had contestants – both professional chefs and amateur home cooks – on a variety of competition cooking shows. With two starkly different competition formats under her belt, Comer keeps in contact with producers and remains interested in returning to yet another competition cooking show, in part to break stereotypes about Kansas City.
“We have a really vibrant culinary scene which is underrated nationally. People don’t see us as a food town … we aren’t just barbecue,” she says.
Comer’s best advice to wannabe contestants?
“Put yourself out there. Be who you are.”
Here to slay
As the pandemic sent the hospitality industry reeling and workers lost their jobs, Kyle Hopkins had a three-week-old baby and few full-time job prospects.
“It was my job at Boulevard (Brewing Co.) to drink beer with strangers in public, and that became illegal for six months. Like, never did I think with the job I carved out for myself would there ever not be a need for someone personable to talk to people about beer,” says Hopkins, a cicerone, or certified beer expert.
He was scraping by doing recipe development with his wife for a high-end sous vide appliance company when he got the screening call for “MasterChef: United Tastes of America” (Fox 2023). As part of the audition process, he started making videos in the kitchen and telling his story on Zoom calls.
His interviewers were captivated by his kitchen snippets. For example, he once built a makeshift Thanksgiving feast while living in Seoul, South Korea, by converting a birdcage into a grill. He also hosts an annual whole hog roast to celebrate his wedding anniversary.
“Through some of that, it helped my confidence because I thought: ‘Wait! I don’t think everyone has done that,’ says Hopkins, who now works full-time for Surly Brewing Co.
“It felt like at the very least this could be something cool where I go out and make myself vulnerable. I figured at the very best I win a quarter of a million dollars and they’d name streets after me in Kansas City.”
A survey of 2,000 adults by the luxury appliance brand Signature Kitchen Suite found six in 10 home cooks think they could compete on TV with a celebrity chef. Only 27% believe they’d be eliminated in the first round.
About 7,000 cooks applied for Season 13 of MasterChef. The show features 20.
After signing a strict non-disclosure agreement, Hopkins flew to Los Angeles for the taping. When he began to unpack his suitcase, he found a notecard. His son, Teddy, age 7, had scrawled the message, “You can do hard things.” The was the same message that Hopkins had tucked into his son’s lunchbox when he started kindergarten.
Hopkins still gets emotional recalling the journey: “In the first episode, I say I think I’m a great dad, and I think I’m an amazing man, but COVID made me feel a lot less like that. Being a parent during COVID, there were no right answers, only wrong ones.”
Once on set, he was exposed, filmed from every possible angle by 28 cameras and another birds-eye camera positioned over the cooking station. Interviews were frequent and, at times, repetitive as interviewers looked for the right mix of humor and pathos.
Hopkins established himself as a front-runner in an early episode when celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey, who is known for withering critiques, fairly gushed over the results of Hopkins’ state fair challenge: beer-battered lobster fries, served with a fennel slaw in a tarragon beer vinaigrette.
“The batter is crisp and delicious. I don’t know if you actually understand how hard it is to accomplish fried lobster. You’ve done it beautifully!” Ramsey enthuses.
“It’s MasterChef, Gordon, and I’m here to play!” Hopkins responds.
At the ACA International Club in a Lenexa strip mall one night in June, close to 100 of Khela Brewer’s friends, family and co-workers filled their plates with baby-back barbecued ribs, beans, coleslaw and cheesy corn.
They were gathered for Brewer’s watch party and the menu served was the same one she cooked up as a contestant during the second season of “The Great American Recipe” (PBS, 2023).
As the show’s promos flashed on the screen, an avid fan of TV cooking shows turns to those around her and makes a prediction: Brewer will go far based on the sheer number of outfit changes she spotted.
The premise of this competition show featuring home cooks is less cutthroat and, monetarily speaking, less high stakes: Nine home cooks celebrate the multiculturalism that makes regional American cooking unique. At the end of the first episode, none of the cooks are sent home.
“That’s sooo PBS!” the cooking show fan comments.
When the show’s producers reached out on social media for an audition after discovering Brewer’s hashtag #HomeCook, she thought it might be a hoax. Her friend, JC Gregg, a Kansas City amateur baker and a two-time competitor, encouraged her to pursue the opportunity.
Brewer describes her cooking style as “love on a plate.” The cooking challenges have included beloved family dishes, bake sale favorites and regional culinary specialties, all for the chance to be featured on the cover of “The Great American Recipe Cookbook.”
Over coffee a few days after the watch party, Brewers shares she was initially worried whether her story, without a specific cultural tie, was compelling enough.
“Everybody else had these rich family stories,” she says. “These beautiful stories! It’s what PBS is about, right?”
But the producers reassured her: “They said, ‘You are the middle-aged woman who is watching the show, and you’re cooking from the middle of the country, and that’s what this show is about.’”
But only the first two episodes aired. When a judge was accused of sexual misconduct, the network pulled the plug on the rest of the season. (Gregg was not on track to win the $250,000 prize money. Ironically, the baker known for his French macarons was eliminated on, well, a macaron challenge. It’s a long story…)
“It was a great experience and taught me more about patience than anything,” he says.
Gregg was chosen again to compete on “The Hallmark Christmas Cookie Matchup” (Hallmark Channel 2019). That show aired, but without an appearance by Gregg, who contracted food poisoning and was unable to finish the taping.
Although some contestants view competing on cooking shows a possible career springboard, Gregg has remained an amateur who bakes for charity and recently tallied his 400,000th macaroon.
Fame and fortune aside, Gregg says for him the competition was never about winning. Instead, he wanted a chance to interact with other serious bakers. Fron the experience, he wound up making close friendships with other cast members.
He’s also thankful for the random people he met along the way, like the fashionable 88-year-old woman walking down the street who happened to compliment him on his trademark bowtie. They struck up a conversation and wound up having a random yet memorable lunch together.
He also encountered a dancing couple on a walk through a park. He approached the couple because he wanted to take their photo, but when he asked their permission, he wound up dancing with them instead.
“If you are even considering it, I say go for it. You won’t lose,” Gregg says. “Even being around the process was fun. Do whatever you can to get on a show because it doesn’t matter if you win.”