Kendal Adair has competed in over 200 cooking competitions and taken home trophies in some of the country’s top barbecue cooking competitions, including twice winning the Memphis Barbecue Invitational Championship.
But nothing could prepare him for the pressure of having a world renowned chef like Gordon Ramsay looking over his shoulder while trying to prepare a mystery dish in 45 minutes under the hot glare of the tv lights and a national audience watching on TV.
The 27 year-old Olive Branch native who now lives in Coldwater, recently advanced to the Top 19 on the Fox TV cooking show “MasterChef,” after he wowed Ramsay and the other celebrity chefs with a perfectly cooked filet mignon.
The show, now in its 13th season, takes one chef from four regions of the United States – West, Northeast, Midwest, and the South – who compete in a variety of cooking challenges for a cash prize of $250,000 and the title of America’s MasterChef.
To get there, Adair not only has to out-cook the competition, but he has to wow the taste buds of celebrity chef judges like Ramsay, who along with acclaimed chef Aarón Sánchez and renowned restaurateur Joe Bastianich, offer critical commentary as contestants pre their meals under a tight deadline.
“I was definitely surprised by the intimidation factor of being around Gordon Ramsay,” Adair said in a telephone interview. “I’ve talked to judges my whole life at barbecue competitions, but these judges are definitely top notch when it comes to their regions and what they do. So cooking in front of them and being in that atmosphere was really intimidating for a while.”
Adair said it took him a while to adapt to the format of “MasterChef” because it was unlike any other cook-off experience has has ever been a part of. He likens the experience to a baseball game where you have to be able to anticipate and see which pitch is coming and then knock it out of the park – every. single. week.
“I was not a huge MasterChef fan,” Adair said. “I love cooking competitions, but it took me a couple of episodes to see the game. MasterChef is more than just a food competition. There is strategy involved. There are twists and turns all throughout the process. It’s like playing baseball. If you can see the ball as it is released from the pitcher’s hand and know what pitch it is, it is a lot easier to hit that pitch. So it took some getting used to. The competition is very steep. Everyone there has a passion and a love for food.”
Adair started cooking when he was about 12 years old. His parents introduced him to a man named Bill Fuller from Arlington. Fuller taught him how to build a fire, how to go through the steps of cooking, and gave him 100 recipes.
“They were chicken and burgers that he printed off the internet,” Adair said. “He said to find a good one.”
His first cooking contest was at Southaven Spring Fest in 2008.
“I used one of the recipes and a buddy and I that I played baseball with won second place,” Adair said. “I was hooked from there. I wanted to cook every weekend, everywhere, anywhere – it didn’t matter what it was, what contest, what brand. I just enjoyed the competition side of it. It reminded me of football on Friday nights. I played against some really good football teams in Olive Branch. So to be a part of that and then go cook the next morning, was a dream come true for me.”
Adair got serious about cooking when he about 15 years-old and began entering cooking competitions all across the United States, including the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Competition at Memphis in May and Kansas City Barbecue Society sanctioned events.
“Harrah’s Casino (in Tunica) had a contest for years called the ‘Smokin’ Aces Festival & BBQ Championship.’ We won quite a few thousand dollars there a couple of times,” Adair said. “I love that parking lot. Ducks Unlimited had a contest up at their headquarters and we’ve done very well there. And then of course this year in Memphis in May, we got a fourth place and then a perfect score in beef. So barbecuing has been a big part of my life for a long time. There are definitely a lot of good ones out there.”
In the last episode, the judges were impressed with his filet mignon. Adair said he added some salt and pepper, garlic, and basic seasoning to the one-and-a-half inch cut filet mignon, cooked it to a perfect medium at 127 degrees on a cast iron skillet, sautéed some onions, bacon, garlic, and thyme with it, and basted some butter on it.
Adair said while barbecue is his specialty, he also knows how to cook the perfect steak. Since 2018, he and his wife have competed in 38 Steak Cookoff Association sanctioned events. Adair was ranked No. 1 in steaks for about six weeks, but then life got in the way and he had to return to work and put cooking on pause. He ended up being ranked 13th overall in the country.
“So I learned the proper way to cook beef in that Steak Cookoff Association journey,” he said.
Bastianich called it the best steak presentation in the 13 year history of the show.
“To get that compliment was definitely one of the highlights of my career,” Adair said. “There has been some amazing steaks and cooks who have competed in that arena, and to be considered one of the best is a pretty big accomplishment.”
The episode was also notable for Ramsay accidentally knocking Adair’s championship BBQ ring into the fire grill. The celebrity chef had to fish it out using tongs, only to then drop the ring into Adair’s crawfish cream sauce and nearly knocking over a bottle of olive oil.
“It was one of those blackout moments for me,” Adair said. “It took me about 10 or 15 second to even realize what happened and to process it because I was so focused on my cooking. He came up and asked about the ring. It was from the Memphis Barbecue Invitational Championship from 2014-15. It meant a lot to me and my family because it represents Memphis and barbecue. I took it off because I wear rubber gloves for sanitary purposes because the ring busts the gloves a lot of times. So I took it off and put it on the side.
“He was just looking at it and dropped it. The first time it dropped in-between the grate on the stove top and we couldn’t get it out. We had to turn the burners off and move pots and pans. Then he got it out and he went to clean it off and he dropped it again in the sauce. It definitely was a funny moment.”
With “MasterChef” in reruns for the next couple of weeks, Adair is enjoying some family cooking time at Pickwick Lake. His website, www.smokednspiced.com, will be going live this week and will feature tips on how to make sauces and rubs, grilling tips, and other cooking techniques. Then, in late July, he will be traveling to Galax, Virginia, where he will compete in a KCBS/Memphis Barbecue Network/Steak Cookoff Association sanctioned event.
“So it is actually a triple,” Adair said. “We will do whole hog, a shoulder, brisket, chicken and a ribeye.”
“MasterChef” will return in two weeks with an apple challenge, which Adair said was one of his hardest days on the show so far.
“You’ll have to watch and see what happens,” Adair teased. “But I get to thank my friends from the Midwest. It was definitely a tough day for me.”
Adair said getting to cook on TV has been a lifelong dream. While he definitely is in “MasterChef” to win, he said he is also extremely proud to be representing the South.
“You want to be the best overall,” Adair said. “My main goal for MasterChef was to put myself out of the box and get out of the barbecue only work. I want to expand my culinary experiences. But I also wanted the South to be represented properly. All over the South you will find great food. So my big goal was to make sure the South is well represented.”
Adair said “MasterChef” has been an amazing experience and that he has met some great chefs along the way.
“I will say the MasterChef family is amazing and I really appreciate them,” Adair said.