Hot pursuit: Meet two of the home cooks repping Tampa Bay on MasterChef

Jeff Philbin and Danny Flores are among the Season 8 contestants competing for a white apron.

click to enlarge MasterChef Season 8 competitors Jeff Philbin and Danny Flores, who live and work locally. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
MasterChef Season 8 competitors Jeff Philbin and Danny Flores, who live and work locally.

I’ve been binge-watching random seasons of Kitchen Nightmares in between new episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale (which I wasn’t supposed to start without my other half, but shhh). I, as I’m sure many of you cooking reality show-watching folks do, get a kick out of the terrifyingly honest Gordon Ramsay. So when I heard a few home cooks were repping Tampa Bay on another Ramsay-led show, MasterChef, I was understandably excited. And you should be, too. It’s always fun to root for one — or three — of your own.

Among the 40 hopefuls duking it out for a white apron in the eighth installment of the FOX series are Clearwater native Paola Annoni Patel, who practices dentistry in the D.C. metro area, Tampa steel supplier Danny Flores, and Jeff Philbin, marketing director for Tampa’s Helicon Property Restoration. In addition to the title of MasterChef, theres a cookbook deal and $250,000 grand prize the contestants are vying for.

I recently caught up with the two locals, Philbin and Flores (Flores lives in Land O’ Lakes, while Philbin is based in Carrollwood), who have several things in common, as they discovered early on. But although the duo both moved their way up the hospitality ranks, work for companies in the same industry, share an affinity for sneakers and have sons — plus the support of their families — at home, their journeys to the MasterChef kitchen have very different beginnings.

Matter of fact, Philbin was surprised to learn he started the audition process at all.

“My brother-in-law surprised me at a dinner and said, ‘Jeff, you don’t have to do anything. All you gotta do is just show up in Orlando, bring a dish. I signed you up for MasterChef,’” recalls the former marketing director for GrillSmith Restaurants, who has nearly 15 years in hospitality and grew up watching Julia Child with Mom, which got him hooked on cooking through osmosis.

So that’s what he did. The Connecticut native went shopping the night before Orlando’s open casting call, woke up early the next morning to prepare a recipe for tasting (one he’d never practiced or tried before), and the rest is history.

For Flores, his shot at MasterChef is a long time coming. The University of South Florida and University of Tampa alum — whose first cooking memory is of his grandmother in Lima, Peru, where he was born and raised — has applied for the series off and on through the years, specifically for the second, fourth, fifth and now eighth seasons. He was asked to go to Los Angeles to film for Season 5, but had to decline the offer, because timing.

At that point, the Holy Crepe! founder had stopped roving around town with his popular food truck, which he started in 2012, opting for more stability and a less demanding work schedule since he and his wife were expecting. Alongside first-time dad apprehension, hesitation from his new employer led to the decision to turn down the show. But he knew that if MasterChef knocked a second time, he had to answer.

“This time I couldn’t say no,” Flores says. “To be able to go through that process twice and be able to be asked to go, I feel like that’s an opportunity that doesn’t come around twice.”

From what he and Philbin tell me, being on the show is competitive and humbling and unpredictable and emotional. After all, you’re instructed to pack your life, and personality, into a suitcase (competitors could be away for a day, or months) — minus the nifty devices that keep you in tune with the rest of the world on a daily basis. You’re cut off, which makes connecting with your fellow castmates essential.

“You’re trying to square everybody up when you’re there, but then eventually you just become friends because we’re all there for the same goal. It’s one of those things that it’s like you have to connect with somebody,” according to Flores.

When you’re in the kitchen, however, you gotta bring it. That’s because Ramsay “sure as hell is passionate,” as Philbin puts it. He and Flores also describe the award-winning British chef with a one-of-a-kind presence as intense, tough because he has to be, and encouraging.

“We’re not professionally trained, and that’s the key. So he’s there to support you and help you get through those moments to get to greatness for yourself. It’s a very special bond that he has, that he brings to MasterChef in particular, where he wants you to do well,” Philbin says. “And that extends to [co-hosts Christina Tosi and Aarón Sánchez] as well.”

With family-first mentalities, the pair of home cooks say they’re battling it out on the show, whose eighth season drew auditions from 35,000 people around the U.S., for their loved ones.

“We went into labor, my fiancé and I, June 1, which was the premiere of Season 7. So it’s really in the DNA of my son now, being a part of this, and that’s who I really went out there for,” Philbin says. “I went hard to make sure he’d be proud of me.”

Flores adds: “Season 5 I couldn’t do it because of my son, because of my wife. And in Season 8, I did it because of my son, because of my wife. I want to show them that you reach for your dreams. Win or lose, no matter what happens, you still gotta roll the dice and go for it.”

Make no mistake, though, they’re in it for the Bay area. The pair plan to use the exposure from MasterChef to pursue their own endeavors, yes. A long-term goal for Flores, who hosts cooking classes at Williams Sonoma, is to open a collaborative kitchen with a cooking school and event center, but he's also exploring writing through TheKickchen, his hybrid of a food/sneaker lifestyle blog and a compilation of services like private dining and catering. And Philbin, with a knack for front of house and operations, sees his greatest opportunity on the consulting side of the food business — think menu development, aesthetics, training and supply chains.

But it’s not all self-serving.

Philbin, for example, is collaborating with Fodder & Shine to host a watch party for the premiere of Season 8 — in support of the Apple A Day Program that provides iPads to pediatric cancer patients — from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. May 31 (the show kicks off at 8). If he moves forward in the competition, more MasterChef watch parties for a cause will follow at the Seminole Heights restaurant.

Charity’s big. That’s really what I want to champion throughout all of this entire experience, not just the self-gain, Philbin says.

“We wanna be able to put Tampa and the Tampa Bay area on the map and get people to realize there’s talent here, there’s food here, there’s a scene here that others may not have seen,” Flores says. “And something like that, that he’s doing, that’s great.”

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