Cheater Chef

In a recent Chopped episode titled Offal Surprise, the contestants were indeed treated with a surprise as bull testicles were one of the ingredients in the basket. This proved to be no obstacle for Chef Mindy Merrell, who was was crowned Chopped Champion. We reached out to Mindy to learn more about her and her experience on the show.

Chef MIndy Merrell
Chef Mindy Merrell

FP: How did you get your start with cooking?

MM: I’ve been cooking forever. Can’t remember when I didn’t want to get in the kitchen and mix things up. I guess it all began with a box of jello or a brownie mix. My parents are from Carlsbad, New, Mexico so I was weaned on flat enchiladas and tacos. During childhood, my family moved around the U.S. quite a bit and we lived in Italy and Amsterdam so I was exposed to interesting American regional food and beyond. I lived in Naples and was chowing down on real Neopolitan pizza at the age of 10. When we moved back to the States, I remember wondering why we couldn’t get fresh basil in the supermarket (this was back in the 1970’s). In high school, my mother, who never really liked to cook, was gracious enough to allow me to make huge messes in the kitchen. I went through lots of phases–bread baking, desserts… I was always trying something.

When it came time for college, I enrolled in the college of home economics at Virginia Tech and really loved all the food classes including food chemistry and science. I stayed for B.S. and M.S. degrees. Next, I moved to Chicago and worked for the doyenne of food marketing at the time, Marian Tripp. I worked in the office test kitchen developing recipes and publicity materials for lots of big clients including Kraft, Quaker Oats, Pace Picante Sauce and Uncle Ben’s Rice. I ran tons of recipe contests. We also put together big food media events for the Pillsbury Bake-Off, the National Beef Cook-Off and the Food Marketing Institute. I got to meet the up and coming movers and shakers in the food world including Martha Stewart way back in the 1980’s. I remember having to escort Craig Claiborne around the 1988 Beef Cook-off in Jackson, MS.

I moved to Nashville and worked for a P.R. firm and handled culinary marketing for two iconic Tennessee brands, Martha White Flour and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. I managed all the Jack Daniel’s involvement with the James Beard Foundation for many years. Since then I’ve co-authored two cookbooks for Jack Daniel’s and one with my husband R.B. Quinn called Cheater BBQ. I also wrote a popular column in the Tennessean called drive-thru review where I analyzed the latest fast food trends.

FP: Sounds like you were born to be in the kitchen!

Tell us about your experience on Chopped. 

MM: Filming Chopped was one very, very, long, long day. I was a nervous wreck for months before the taping and even afterwards. I think I suffered from PTSD because I just couldn’t stop thinking about what I could have done differently. It’s quite an experience. The show is exactly how it is on the set, except distilled from many long hours to 45 minutes. I found it so interesting to finally see how the episode was edited. All the chefs were interesting people whom I’d gladly share a meal with. I loved seeing how different all our dishes were. The creative process within certain constraints is the most interesting part of the show to me, not the fear factor. I guess that’s why I get such a kick out of recipe development. The judges told us the truth. Our mistakes were quite obvious to us! The staff on the set was very professional and on task. I kept thinking how they would be doing all this again with four new nervous chefs the next day and the day after and the day after that.

FP: We love your website,! Tell us more about the concept and how the idea came about.

MM: My website came about after our book Cheater BBQ. We just went with the name. We try to offer good ideas that are not intimidating, but that inspire folks to get in the kitchen and roll up their sleeves. I’m more than a bit bored by the chef guru and fancy ingredient chasing going around. I guess it’s my home ec background. I want us all to make well informed decisions about our foods, not set impossible standards. Do the best you can with what you have.

FP: We’ll have to try some recipes from the book!

What are some of your favorite meals to cook at home? 

MM: We’re big on experimenting at my house. Making mistakes is the best way to learn about food. Who knows what jag we’ll get on next. I love color and texture so tossing a giant salad always appeals to me. R.B. is from Rhode Island and Rochester, NY, and I’m from all over so we have lots of favorites like Texas smoked brisket, New Mexico green chile, Rhode Island clam cakes, spaghetti Carbonara, any kind of pizza, southern biscuits and cornbread and anything with Jack Daniel’s!

FP: Sounds like your kitchen is the place to be!

We’ve heard that Nashville is a great food town. When you go out to eat, name some of your favorite places in Nashville or other cities you’ve visited.

MM: I moved to Nashville in the dark ages about 25 years ago, so I just can’t get over the food scene explosion here. Much of the up sell and exploitation of southern foods seems like smoke and mirrors, so I’m more likely to be trolling through the ethnic neighborhoods. I think we’ve taken pimiento cheese as far as it will go.

FP: What are some of your guilty pleasures? We like to call them foodie pleasures, hence the name 🙂

MM: My last meal will probably include an icy gin martini and a big handful of cheetos.

FP: What are some of your non-cooking/food related interests and hobbies? What’s a day off like for you?

MM: When I’m not in the kitchen, you will find me in my sewing and art studio or taking my sweet dog Copper for a walk. I love to paint, quilt, knit, and crochet. I’m a traveler, reader, gardener, birder and hiker. I love to go anywhere I haven’t been before and and always visit art museums.

R. B. and I try to get to Vegas often to enjoy the restaurants and the fantastic swimming pools. That’s always a great escape and we always come home with tons of great food ideas. My two kids are off to college, so they’ve left me in their dust. They are both good eaters.

FP: Half of FP (Kristina) is a knitter also and can relate! Thank you so much for your time. 

Learn more about Chef Mindy and her husband R. B. Quinn by visiting their website

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