‘MasterChef’ winner Whitney Miller brings a little home cookin’ wherever she goes.
More than nine years have passed since her victory in the first U.S. season of “MasterChef” with Gordon Ramsay, but Whitney Miller still receives social media posts about the TV show from around the world.
The triumph at age 22 launched her career as a chef, cookbook author, recipe and menu developer, and food stylist. The Mississippi belle has showcased her Southern cuisine in China, Dubai, Malaysia, and South Africa.
In August, she launched a new cookie business in the Nashville-Franklin, Tennessee, area, where she lives with her husband, Ryan Humphrey, and sons Miller, 3, and Harrison, 8 months. Ryan played baseball at Lake-Sumter State College, and the couple formerly lived in his hometown of Plant City.
Whitney spoke by phone recently about her career, favorite recipes, and goals:
Q: What are your memories of “MasterChef”?
A: For my season, being the very first and the show had never aired in the U.S., we had nothing to go (by). We were going in blind not understanding what we were going to experience, so that in itself was pretty interesting, and then the fact that there really just wasn’t any kind of competition shows. We were just trying the best we could to take what talents that we had, what knowledge of food that we had and then apply it to these crazy scenarios.
We had to do team challenges, which they still do, and that’s challenging itself because you have all these dominant personalities and it’s like too many chiefs in the kitchen and everybody wants control and (to) lead, so that was interesting. And then the stress of the time; you’d have 45 minutes on some challenges, or you’d have an hour. It just never failed that you always felt like you didn’t have enough time.
Q: How did it feel to win?
A: It was a very exciting finale because it was me and another guy (David Miller) going up against each other, and his style of cooking was a little bit more like high end, and I was being true to my Southern roots but elevating it some. I remember it was just a very intense two hours, the most stress I’ve ever experienced probably in my life. And then, without fail, I’m down to the wire doing my plating and things, and thankfully, at least I plated my chicken right before the 10-minute mark because I wound up dropping it as I was taking it from the skillet to my plate. In the one moment I thought, “You’ve come way too far to fail.”
So, I hurried back and got another piece of chicken…and that piece of chicken cooked perfectly, according to Gordon Ramsay, in seven minutes. I remember Gordon being stressed, nobody thinking that that piece of chicken was cooked until it got into the judging, and that really was my make-it-or-break-it on whether I was going to win the show, that one piece of buttermilk pan-fried chicken.
Q: Describe your first cookbook, “Modern Hospitality: Simple Recipes with Southern Charm” (2011).
A: The first one is a good mix of what I grew up cooking and some of the things that I learned from the show, and how my cooking had matured in just that short amount of time and its influence in my recipes. But you definitely get a sense of where I came from, the small town (Poplarville) in Mississippi, the foods I grew up cooking, things from my great-grandmother. She taught me how to make biscuits and all those traditional Southern things, like a big Sunday roast. I have two different versions of shrimp and grits in that book. I do a grits soufflé, and then the other is just a good, hearty, creamy shrimp and grits. If you want something a little elevated but then if you really want some comfort food, there’s a mix of everything in there.
Q: What was your approach in your second cookbook, “New Southern Table: My Favorite Family Recipes with a Modern Twist” (2015)?
A: It’s definitely, I feel, like more of an expression of who I am and continue to be, because I actually had more time to write it. There are twice as many recipes and it has a good influence of my travels. I actually have some dishes in there that I learned from my time in China and then I take Southern ingredients. If you’re intimidated to make an Asian dish, well, by adding those Southern ingredients, I feel like it kind of breaks that barrier; it makes it more comfortable to make. (There are) sections for the weekend and just basic weekday, like spaghetti and meatballs, but I actually use venison, and there are some wild game recipes in there and that’s influenced from growing up and my husband is a big hunter, too.
There’s a new biscuit recipe in this cookbook…another rendition where I use olive oil instead of vegetable oil or something (else). It’s super-easy to make, they’re fluffy, and people just rave about those biscuits.
Q: Is that one of your favorite recipes?
A: I think so, just because it’s something I grew up learning from my great-grandmother and she being one of my biggest cooking influences. When I make that, all these food memories come back of me learning to cook with her, so that recipe’s very special to me and it’s probably one that I worked the most to perfect to be just like hers.
Q: What are some other favorites?
A: When I was 12, I wanted to be a pastry chef. My love of cooking began by the time I could walk, and by the time I was 12 years old, I was making homemade croissants and eclairs and crème brûlée, so I always had a love of sweets, mostly because I have a sweet tooth. In my “New Southern Table” cookbook, one of my favorite recipes is the brownie cookies. It is so easy to make so it’s the best mix of if you like an end piece and if you like the middle piece on a pan of brownies. You get it all in this one cookie with a little bit of that crunch on the edge, that little crackle on the top, and then you get the good fudgy in the center. Then I actually take that same recipe with the batter, and you can make my Mississippi Mud Pie, which has a graham cracker crust and then a cream cheese whip cream, and toasted, salted pecans. It’s definitely been a favorite.
Q: Do you also try to appeal to health-conscious eaters?
A: I have some healthier takes on Southern foods, and I’ll tell people those are great options, and then for dessert, just portion control, because I don’t want to try to use anything that’s not natural. In the first cookbook, I have a cauliflower mac and cheese recipe, so instead of pasta, you use cauliflower, and then I use low-fat milk, and that recipe was featured in People magazine. It’s a really popular one, a great way to try to introduce kids to vegetables.
Q: After launching a cookie business this year, what else would you like to accomplish?
A: Definitely a cooking show and a restaurant, I think, that I am working to come to fruition. They’ve always been dreams of mine. A cookbook was the very first thing that I ever wanted, and then to be able to have a way for people to taste my food, so doing that through this cookie business, it will be my first step towards a restaurant.
Being a mom of two little ones, it definitely changes things. I’m trying to go into this new business where I can still manage my little ones but make it slow enough growth to where I can figure out how to be a mom, an entrepreneur, and a chef all at the same time.
Working with the master
Whitney Miller recalls what it was like to work with chef Gordon Ramsey on “MasterChef”:
“I remember the first time he walked into the room and he just has this presence of (being) very intimidating, and then he always demands perfection. Whether it was when we got to go to one of his kitchens in Los Angeles and we’re in that setting or we’re in the ‘MasterChef’ kitchen with cameras on us, he just has this presence about him that he means business and he demands perfection on everything. And then off-camera, he has a really good personality and sense of humor, so it was fun to be able to see those sides of him.”
Gordon wrote the foreword to Whitney’s first cookbook and influenced her approach to her career:
“I think the one thing that I really took away from my whole experience was that perfectionism and just, if you’re going to do something, do it to the best, and also that risk-taking that I did on the show. I always look back when I’m doing any kind of project and think those risks are rewarding, and I always think about that anytime I try to get a little bit in my safe zone that, no, you have to step out and take a risk. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t, but you’ll never know until you try.”
What’s for dinner?
Whitney Miller just got back from the Farmers’ Market and is planning a dish:
“I still love a challenge, so when I visited, I found a new kind of okra that I never worked with before. It’s called Star of David and it definitely caught my eye because it doesn’t look like your typical okra. Instead of long, slender okra, they were squatty and thick, and typically, I don’t go for those because I think they’re going to be more fibrous and tough. But, actually, they’re a more tender type of okra.
“And I also picked up some beautiful little cherry tomatoes that had the golden color and the red, and I’m going to make roasted tomatoes and okra. You just roast the vegetables in olive oil and salt and onions, and it’s very simple, very flavorful, and I think roasting is one of the techniques that I’ve found really plays up vegetables’ flavor.”