The gift of a cookbook changed the direction of chef Tregaye Fraser’s culinary life.
It took her classical training and gave it a whimsical edge, helping her learn to combine flavors into fusion cooking.
That approach took her all the way to winning Season 12 of “Food Network Star” in 2016.
Originally interested in becoming a brain surgeon, Fraser instead turned to cooking, trained at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu and worked in fine-dining restaurants in Orlando and Atlanta.
Fraser, who runs a catering and meal-prep company in Atlanta, works as a personal chef and offers healthy cooking classes for both children and adults, will do a cooking demonstration at the Taste! Lancaster Festival of Food, Wine and Spirits on Saturday.
She will also appear at a booth throughout the weekend, serving bread, pasta and corn made with her own line of plant-based butters.
In a phone interview, Fraser talked about her career and her culinary philosophy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Where did you grow up?
I was actually born in Philadelphia. And I moved to Georgia when I was 12 or 13. I have half my family in Georgia and half my family in Philly. I’m a Georgia peach, but I still have my Philly roots.
How did you become a chef?
I was working as a housekeeper at a Holiday Inn — I was 17, 18 — and I used to go into the kitchen and say, “Man, I want to work in here.” For some reason, I was just drawn to it. I begged and begged, and the chef finally let me shadow her for a little bit. I saw the Le Cordon Bleu commercial come on TV, and I remember saying, “OK. This is it. This is what I’m going to do.”
I told the chef I was going to do that, and she said, “I don’t know why. It’s not like you’re going to graduate.” So from there, I made sure I graduated, and not only that, I graduated at the top of my class.
What will you be making at the Taste! Lancaster festival?
I’ll be bringing my Chef Tregaye’s Plant-Based Butter (to the festival). At our booth, we’ll be doing different breads, pasta and corn. Those are all the things I want to show people how to make using the butter — everyday things people can cook at home.
(For my cooking demonstration), I’m still deciding. I think I may be making vegan pancakes, and then a chicken dish — probably a spinach-garlic chicken wrap.
Can you explain your “whimsical” culinary philosophy, and talk about how it relates to your passion for fusion cooking?
Whimsical is just an imaginative way of cooking. I love to transform food and cook it in an unconventional type of way. I love to take food we all know and love and get beautiful magic out of it, whether it’s fusing it with flavors from another country or American flavors, or taking two old classics and combining them into one. I love to just manipulate and transform food and use my imagination.
How did you get from your classical training at Le Cordon Bleu to this kind of fusion cooking?
I started off in fine dining, doing the classic French cuisine, but when I went to Orlando, Florida, and was working for the J.W. Marriott, that’s where I met my mentor. That’s where I opened up a little bit with my flavors, and I just started to create. And the chef there gave me a book called “Culinary Artistry” (by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page). And he said to me “This is your new bible.” I teach kids out of that book to this day.
And it really changed my life because it made me see food in a different way. The book is basically a food index. It would say, “chicken,” but then it would have every herb, every spice, every seasoning that pairs with chicken.
And I remember coming up with my first recipe that I created myself, which was a banana-fried chicken with coconut rice. It was really that book that gave me the courage to say, “I didn’t know banana went with chicken.” That is where it kind of began.
How did you move from cooking for hotels to becoming a television personality?
I realized I just wasn’t really that corporate. I’m an artist. I’m a free bird. I just want to do me. That’s my idea of a perfect life: Cook good food and see smiles on people’s faces and just be an artist.
I met a chef here in Atlanta, and he asked if I wanted to be (on his team) with a group of chefs to be on (the Food Network show) “The Great Food Truck Race.”
I thought, I’m going to be on TV, like I told people (I would be) all my life. We ended up not getting on (the show), but they ended up calling me back, and they said they liked me and wanted me to do “Cutthroat Kitchen.” I just decided, “I’m still going to go for it.” I won “Cutthroat Kitchen,” and went on to “Guy’s Grocery Games.” I was watching “Food Network Star” Season 11, and was thinking, “I wonder why they haven’t called me yet.” Two weeks later, they called.
I was still a struggling chef (when I was on the show), and I remember going to this boutique and looking at these dresses that were $500. I didn’t have the money at the time. But I thought, “I am going to get this dress. This is the dress I’m going to wear when I win this show.”
And that is the dress I wore when I won. I constantly teach that to young chefs coming up, and to kids: Just believe in yourself. Say what you’re going to do. Mean what you say. Do the work and everything will go like it’s supposed to.
What don’t viewers know about what goes on behind the scenes at “Food Network Star”?
I would say it’s not as easy as it looks. We’re in there a lot longer than you think. A lot of times we’re tired. We’ve been cooking all day in between takes and cuts and breaks. You’re sitting in the dressing room for an hour, waiting to be judged, and having anxiety. A lot of people think it’s not real, or that they tell the judges what to say. It’s very real. We are away from our families for two months. And we are definitely crying when you see us cry, and we are cringing when you see us cringe. It’s all a part of television.
Do you have favorite dish?
Give me some fried snapper. It’s not my favorite; I tell people, you can’t really choose a favorite food. Food is like your children — you can’t pick a favorite. I love fried snapper, though.
You cooked for Barack Obama in Orlando while he was still a candidate for president. What was that like?
I made duck confit ravioli with a béchamel sauce and a cranberry relish. I made it for my chef, and he said, “Do you want to make this for somebody special?” I said, “Who?” He said, “I’m not going to tell you.” The chef took (the dish) out, and came back with the empty plate. I had been working a long shift, and I’m tired. He’s like, “Do you want to see who you cooked for?” And I said, “Not really. I’m ready to go home.” But I went out and there he was, with Michelle. I got to meet them. I’m a talker, but for the first time, I was speechless. It was a great moment I’ll never forget, but I do wish I’d said more.