by TIffany Derry

Growing up, I never could have imagined this is where I would be today. It has taken a lot of hard work and quite a few sleepless nights but it has been an amazing journey.

My love for cooking started with my family. We’re all very close and food has always been an important part of our lives, but cooking wasn’t my main focus growing up. I originally started in acting when I was 14. I would do anything from writing poetry to performing at my church. When I was a bit older, I got into sports. I played everything from volleyball, basketball, soccer, track, golf and tennis. Everybody thought I was going to be an athlete. That’s what I thought at the time, too, but something happened when I got into high school.

I wanted to make some extra money so I took a job at IHOP, which was opening down the street from my house. I told them I wanted to be a cook, but at that time there were no women allowed in the kitchen. I thought that was kind of crazy, but I ended up taking a job as a waitress instead. I would always stick around after my shifts to see what was going on in the kitchen and ask the cooks what they were doing.

One day, my manager asked if I was still interested in a kitchen job—one of the guys didn’t show up and they needed someone to step in. I jumped at the opportunity, and that’s where my desire to become a chef started. I went on to attend culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston, and did everything in my power that I could do to become a success. I got a job with IHOP in Houston and also worked a second job as an assistant to help pay tuition. It was a lot of hard work. I remember I would often sleep in my car between work and class. Looking back, it seems crazy to have worked myself that hard but it all paid off eventually.

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From there I took a job at Pesche in Houston, a seafood restaurant with all kinds of different influences. The owners were Italian, and there were chefs from Cambodia and Mexico. The Executive Chef was African American—something I had never seen before. I had read about all of these great chefs, but none of them were like me. It was very inspiring to learn from somebody like me. During that time, I started traveling to different parts of the world. I wanted to immerse myself in the culinary cultures of different countries so I could learn everything that I could—and learn it right. I traveled to China, Mexico and Costa Rica. Those trips have proven invaluable to my career, as the experiences have really influenced my cooking style.

After Pesche, I returned to the Art Institute—this time as a teacher. It was an amazing opportunity and allowed me to get back to the basics. Teaching allowed me to think about things differently since I was teaching people who had little to no experience in a kitchen. I studied more because I wanted to give them the best, most accurate information that I could. It pushed me to be more thorough, and it was great to be able to help aspiring chefs get started. I loved every minute of it—if I ever retire, I’ll go back to teaching. Eventually, I got the itch to get back in a kitchen. An opportunity came up with Go Fish Ocean Club in Dallas—it was a great gig because I was able to design it they way I wanted and help with training.

And then Top Chef happened.

One day during service, the host came back and said a producer from Top Chef was on the phone. I thought he was joking, plus I had a rule that I didn’t take calls during service. He insisted that I take the phone and it was actually the production company! After a long casting process, I made it onto Season 7. I had no idea what to expect—I had never lived with people or competed at that level. The show pushes you past your limits. You have the choice to either give up or keep cooking. I chose to keep cooking, which eventfully lead me to be cast in the next season of Top Chef: All Stars. I had no idea the impact Top Chef would have on my life. It’s crazy that people recognize me on the street! I love that people look to me for inspiration—I strive to be a positive role model so that I don’t disappoint them.

After All-Stars, I was presented with an opportunity to go into business with Patrick Halpert, my current business partner. I was able to be involved in the entire process from selecting a location to designing the kitchen and space. We built it from scratch with no boundaries. Owning my own restaurant has truly been a dream come true, but that’s not to say it’s all a piece of cake. It’s important to realize that there are challenges to winning your own place, too. More than half of restaurants fail within the first year of business. People don’t understand the business side of things. It’s crucial to know that there is more than just great food that goes into operating a successful restaurant.

Looking back, I realize the importance of all the different experiences I had growing up. The acting, sports and cooking—I use skills from all of those areas now. Growing up in a family that loves cooking gave me a passion for food. Acting taught me to be myself in front of the camera. My days at IHOP taught me the importance of hard work and determination. At the time, I didn’t understand why I was always changing career paths, but it all makes sense now. It’s crazy, but sometimes life comes together in a way you might not have expected!