By Rebecca Cahilly
When La Tasha McCutchen sees herself on television, she says it’s a surreal experience. As the winner of Season 13 on the popular FOX television series Hell’s Kitchen, McCutchen learned to hold her own in high-pressure competitive cooking challenges, especially when her performance and dishes were under the intense scrutiny of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey. “I felt like Rocky facing Apollo for the first time,” she says of the experience. “It was the fight of my life, but I knew it would change my career, open doors and be an invaluable learning experience.”
McCutchen’s winning menu featured Prime Filet Mignon Tartare with shallots, capers, whole grain mustard, cornichons, chives, lemon zest, sunny-side-up quail egg and waffle potato crisps; Pan Seared Chilean Sea Bass with beet risotto, glazed thumbelina carrots and herb gremolata; and Spiced Bread Pudding with pumpkin spice ice cream, praline crumble and spiced chocolate anglaise.
“La Tasha is an incredibly determined leader with unwavering passion and drive,” Ramsay said. “Throughout the season, she has proven that she has what it takes to make her mark on the culinary world.”
McCutchen isn’t the only chef in the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort’s 3030 Ocean restaurant with television experience, following in the footsteps of Executive Chef Paula Da Silva, a Hell’s Kitchen Season V competitor; and Sous Chef Adrienne Grenier, winner of Food Network’s Chopped in 2011. “They are my superheroes, my mentors,” McCutchen says of Da Silva and Grenier, whom she joined at 3030 Ocean after working with them at previous posts in Miami. “They give me the freedom to create and influence dishes.”
Growing up in South Carolina, McCutchen says food was a central component of her family life. “My grandmother fed the community, pretty much. Food brought our family together to solve problems; to celebrate.” She started out in the hospitality industry as a server and was struck by how people would change after a good meal – even after being presented with a beautiful dish. “Food just does that,” she says. “So I decided I wanted to become more involved behind the plate.”
At age 22, McCutchen switched gears from educational studies in Computer Science, Math and Nutrition to attend culinary school at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in Myrtle Beach, S.C. After receiving an Associates Degree, in 2007 she moved to South Florida to attend Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts. “The first chef that hired me hired me as a line cook,” she recalls. “I was still waiting tables; the money came from serving and I didn’t want to let that go. My chef told me, ‘If you love what you do, the money will come eventually. You have to decide if it’s really what you love.’”
McCutchen soon became a full-time line cook and within a year was promoted first on the line as line supervisor. Her passion for cooking ignited, she dove into her new career. “You gotta love it as a career,” she says of being a chef. “It’s a different life. You have to be committed to it and it really has to be what you want to do.”
As lead cook for 3030 Ocean, McCutchen’s wide-ranging role includes making all of the sauces and ensuring each dish is executed to perfection. “Here we remain seasonal and Chef Paula keeps it simple and gives the guests something they may not have otherwise.”
McCutchen likes to be diverse in her cooking styles and loves working with fresh ingredients, hot and spicy habañero peppers and fresh local seafood, “Our seafood comes in daily and is the freshest – sometimes when the snapper comes in there’s still a hook in its mouth.
“I like the finer side of this business,” McCutchen says. “When I’m in the kitchen I get into the zone; everything reflects me.”
When she’s not learning and creating in the kitchen, McCutchen enjoys fishing, mountain biking and getting in touch with nature. As she continues her culinary journey, she says it’s her strong family foundation that keeps her grounded. “When I’m home I don’t cook,” she laughs, “I’m with my mom and my sisters who say, ‘You don’t know how to cook soul food,’ and ‘Don’t you tell me how to chop an onion.’”
As winner of Season 13, McCutchen earned an opportunity to be head chef at the new Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at Caesars Atlantic City, “a total prize value of $250,000.”
PHOTO Richard Taranto
Watch McCutchen’s reaction to winning HELL’S KITCHEN :
YouTube Link: http://youtu.be/jfEjYRdwFxs