On our final day of culinary week we interviewed Christina Verrelli. Christina is a local home chef, mother, and blogger, who took her home cooking skills all the way to fame, fortune, and the Food Network, with a little million dollar stop at the Martha Stewart Show along the way.
WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. My whole family on both sides is from Cincinatti. I’m the last of six children. My family moved around a lot. My father worked for General Electric so we moved around. Before I was even a year old, we moved to Audobon, PA and I’ve lived here my whole life.
HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED COOKING?
My mom has told me that I was about 7 or 8 years old.
WHO TAUGHT YOU TO COOK?
I guess my mom was probably the biggest influence, and my two older sisters as well.
A LOT OF KIDS HELP OUT IN THE KITCHEN WITH THEIR PARENTS BUT DON’T REALLY TAKE THAT TO THE NEXT LEVEL. WHEN DID YOU REALIZE THAT YOU WERE ACTUALLY REALLY GOOD AT COOKING?
I don’t know. I always liked cooking. People tell you that you’re good at it, but I guess I didn’t really believe them until I started winning contests. I guess I thought that if people like it and it’s good enough to win contests, then maybe I can actually cook. I mean, I always liked my food, and my family liked it, but I guess winning contests validated it.
DID YOU EVER THINK THAT IT WOULD TURN INTO WHAT HAS BASICALLY AMOUNTED TO A CAREER IN FOOD?
No, I never thought that. I was just doing what I loved to do. I was feeding my family. We all need to put food on the table and that’s just what I was doing.
SO, YOU WON THE PILLSBURY BAKE-OFF!?
HOW DOES SOMEONE EVEN ENTER INTO SOMETHING LIKE THAT?
Well, I think it is the biggest contest of its kind in the country. It’s been around since, I think, 1949. It’s older than the Super Bowl. I had heard about it. My mother had one of those Pillsbury Bake Off cookbooks. I remember making a cake from one of the cookbooks. But it wasn’t until, I guess, 2010 when I saw an advertisement in a magazine while I was sitting and waiting for my daughter’s dance class to finish that I thought about it. It was when the recession was going on and I figured, hey I’ve got nothing else going on, I have nothing to lose. So, I went online and you have to read all the rules and agree to use certain ingredients. Then you just play around with their food and come up with a recipe and submit it online.
ANY IDEA HOW MANY PEOPLE ENTER?
I know they always say it’s tens of thousands or something like that. I did read somewhere that it’s closer to like a quarter of a million recipes that get entered.
WOW! SO WHAT DID YOU MAKE?
For that one I made some breakfast items actually. I made three different items and served them to my family with a score sheet. We were just kind of joking around with it. I didn’t think anything would actually happen with it. The recipe we all liked the best was this savory and sweet breakfast slider that I made. It was breakfast sausage mixed with spinach and made into a patty. Then we put strawberry butter with strawberry jam on it and served them on little mini biscuits. Sliders were all the rage then. So, I made it in with that, as one of the 100 finalists. I got the call months and months later. I had forgotten about it actually. Deep down I didn’t really think that would be the million dollar winner, but I was just thrilled to go. They fly you to wherever they’re holding it that year. It was Orlando that year. I had a great time, made a lot of friends, we did T.V. and radio interviews. It was exciting. Then I decided I really wanted to go back again and try in 2012 when they were having their next bake-off. So, I took what I had learned from my first experience and really tried to make it in. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it in. I thought maybe I was just a one hit wonder, you know? But I worked really hard on my recipe for the 2012 contest!
AND YOU SAID THE PRIZE FOR FIRST PLACE WAS A MILLION DOLLARS!?
It is. I know, it’s unbelievable!
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN THEY TOLD YOU THAT YOU HAD WON?
Oh my gosh! It was so surreal. It was just unbelievable. I was standing onstage at the Martha Stewart show. Which was just surreal in and of itself. Confetti started flying and I started crying. I was in disbelief. It was pretty amazing!
YOU HAD MENTIONED YOUR GIRLS. YOU HAVE TWO CHILDREN?
I do. I have two girls. They’re 10 and 12.
WHAT’S THEIR FAVORITE THING FOR YOU TO COOK FOR THEM?
I would say [my 12-year-old] likes just about anything. She’s a big fan of cheeseburgers. And my [younger one] likes pasta. She’ll take any kind of noodle, anytime.
DO YOU DO ANYTHING SPECIAL TO IT?
Honestly she just likes it with butter and a little salt. She’ll allow tomato sauce, but it has to be smooth. If it’s chunky she’s picking things out.
SO YOU WERE THE RUNNER UP ON THE FOOD NETWORK SHOW ‘AMERICA’S BEST COOKS‘. HOW DID YOU GET ON THE SHOW?
I actually was contacted through Facebook by one of their casting agents. I had been contacted by other shows and you go through this long process of forms and videos and it never really amounted to anything, so I wasn’t really thinking anything would come of it. But, it kept progressing to the next step, until they had me come to New York for an on-camera interview. There were a lot of challenges in traveling to New York with your dish and all of your stuff, and keeping it hot, and all of this on the train to New York City. I felt like maybe they were preparing us for the unpredictability of what was going to happen on camera.
HOW WAS IT WHEN YOU FOUND OUT YOU HAD MADE IT TO THE SHOW?
I was scared to death. I was going to have to go to New York City and leave my family, and we didn’t even know for how long exactly. Could have been a couple of days, or a couple of weeks… It was right before the holidays too. And they don’t really tell you a whole lot about it ahead of time, maybe so there’s more real reaction to things on camera.
AND YOU WERE PAIRED WITH CHEF ALEX GUARNASCHELLI. WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH HER?
She was my mentor. We were the east coast team. She was just amazing. She is so strong. She’s really competitive but she is really, really caring too. She’s so down to earth. Everyone, the camera guys, the sound guys, they would all say how much they liked her. She spends time with everyone. She’s not full of herself at all. She doesn’t act like she thinks she is some big A list star.
YOU SEEMED VERY CALM AND FOCUSED. YOU WENT VERY FAR IN THE COMPETITION (RUNNER UP). WHAT WAS IT LIKE COMPETING WEEK TO WEEK?
I was just so grateful to be there. It was a neat cast of people. I was worried that I’d be up against these big nasty competitive personalities and it wasn’t like that at all. We all just wanted to stay another day so we could meet somebody new. We didn’t want the experience to end. For me at least, it wasn’t even as much about the prize as the experience.
AND WHAT WAS THE PRIZE?
It was fifty thousand dollars.
I THINK I NEED TO BECOME A BETTER CHEF.
There are so many contests out there. There’s actually a website called Cooking Contest Central. There’s this whole little microcosm of people who just do all these different cooking contests.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ASPIRATIONS FOR A SHOW OF YOUR OWN?
Oh, I don’t know. I feel like there are so many people who want to do that. I don’t know if I have the special sauce for that. But I certainly love creating recipes and sharing them with people. I teach some cooking classes here and there. I have learned though never to shy away from any challenges. I won’t walk away from whatever life throws at me.
YOU HAVE A WEBSITE CORRECT?
I do. It’s www.epicuricloud.com
YOU HAVE A RECIPE YOU’RE GOING TO SHARE WITH US TOO?
I do. I’m going to share my Irish Coffee Brownies.
(You can find Christina’s recipe for Irish Coffee Brownies here.)