BY KATHY KNIGHT
"I wouldn't have traded this experience for anything in the world," said Jan Charles of Greeneville concerning her participation in the Restaurant Express Food Network Culinary Competition.
The competition has been going on for several weeks and is currently seen on Sunday nights at 9 p.m.
The competition-style reality show started with eight potential restaurateurs. The premise of the show was eight chefs on a bus. At every stop, the chefs have to pitch an idea or concept, and each episode has a cooking/food element.
At the end of each show, one contestant leaves until finally the "winner is dropped off at his/her own restaurant."
In an interview with The Greeneville Sun she described the actual filming and the overall competition experience as "a real roller-coaster. I did things and rose to challenges I would never have given myself credit for prior to the experience."
She admitted that the challenges were "difficult, tiring, and very real," but pointed out that each challenge was a new lesson for anyone wanting to open his or her own restaurant.
'SOMEWHAT OF A MYSTERY'
How did she even get involved in participating in Restaurant Express?
"That is still somewhat of a mystery to me," Charles said.
"When they were casting for the show, I think someone I was in college with may have mentioned to someone else 'There's a woman back in Tennessee who loves to cook' -- something like that.
"When I learned about it, I decided that would be a great thing to do."
'A TOP RESTAURATEUR'
The show is hosted by Chef Robert Irvine, about whom Charles says, "He is a top restaurateur in the world, and the day he told me that my life experiences had bridged the gap for me into his world -- that was a real boost of confidence!"
"This top restaurateur was offering us a seven-week crash course in opening and operating a business," said Charles, "and there was no way I would say no to such an experience.
"If you're going to open your own restaurant, you're going to have to be able to deal with constructive criticism."
"All of the contestants are talented people," she said. "I was surprised at the level of talent.
"We all liked each other. We became friends. Seonkyoung Longest (one of the three finalists, along with Charles) and I have remained in touch. In fact I got a text message from her earlier today."
"The contestants were really supportive of each other," she said, "and, honestly, I went into the competition knowing I would stand or fall on my own!
"I knew I would have to figure out my own way in each challenge and make it work for me."
She laughed when asked if she thought Adam Goldgell, one of the three final contestants, gave her and the others a difficult time on air.
"No," she laughed. "But we did discuss our cultural differences in New York courtesy and Tennessee courtesy.
"Adam told me he didn't really see me coming -- he thought with no restaurant experience, I didn't stand a chance. I respect him very much."
MOST DIFFICULT CHALLENGE?
When asked about her most difficult challenge, Charles replied, "Sunday's upcoming episode (Dec. 8) is quite" -- she hesitated briefly, trying to decide on the right word -- "WOW!"
The previews are showing that each of the final three contestants has his or her own food truck, and Charles said that she was "kind of blown away" when the blue truck drove up with her name all over it.
"The only thing that would have surprised me even more, was if my name had been in rhinestones," she said with a laugh.
LAST WEEK'S SHOW
On last week's show, on Sunday, Dec. 1, the challenge was for the contestants to prepare gourmet food, and they were allowed to make purchases (such as for decorations, waitresses, etc.) to assist them.
They did this through an auction, conducted by Irvine. (The contestants had a $1,000 allowance fo these items.)
Although Charles bid on and purchased a beautiful decoration package for more money than she meant to spend on it, her work area was strikingly attractive.
However, she gave credit for that to the Food Network designers, explaining that she had no say about the decorations. "It looked wonderful!" she added.
She says she knows "that the normal ratio of spending [in her field] is about 40 percent on décor and location, while 60 percent is about the food and costs that go along with it."
"However, I have had no experience in recent history in gourmet food," she laughed. "My experience is in casual family dinners. Fillets, scallops, and truffles aren't things I normally cook; however I do know the theory of cooking those items."
Chef Robert Irvine chastised her a bit about the potatoes she prepared being overcooked, but, she told the Sun, "What didn't come out on the show was there was a malfunction, and I didn't have enough heat to thicken the sauce. But that's life."
Many Greenevillians and others who have been keeping up with Charles' progress in the competition have commented to her on Facebook and other places about how proud they are of her and how she has faced up to each challenge in an admirable way.
Often comments have included remarks about how "natural" she looks on television.
Asked to comment, Charles said, "My father (the late Tommy Charles) was in television so I grew up around TV, helping him out occasionally. I know about audio, lighting, camera angles and all of that."
Her first television appearance, she said, took place when she was only two days old.
"Ultimately, I enjoy making comfort food," she said. "I spend my time learning as many culinary techniques as I can.
"I might make tomato soup, but you have to understand I want to use roasted fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, real tomato juice so as to not water the soup down ... it's more than just tomato soup. I want people to like and enjoy whatever I have made for them."
ACCENT featured Charles in a cover story on Jan.12, 2011, and at that time, in talking about her love of cooking, she said, "Fast and easy is not my main focus, but flavor is."
Charles, 44, is the mother of four children of her own and now has custody of three nieces and nephews.
She hosts the Thrillbilly Gourmet website, co-hosts Food City Kitchen on WVLT, (Knoxville-based Channel 8) with Chef Walter Lambert, and is a frequent visitor to Daytime Tricities on WJHL Channel 11, based in Johnson City.
When asked if she would ever consider hosting a cooking show on the Food Network, she didn't hesitate. "If they called and wanted me to do a show, I'd be there in a heartbeat," she said.
Of course Charles was not allowed to tell the Sun who the ultimate winner was in the competition. But she was asked anyway.
In response, she just chuckled and replied, "Keep watching!"
Fans who want to support Charles are encouraged to go to the website http://www.foodnetwork.com/restaurant-express and vote for their favorite contestant.
"I appreciate so many folks voting for me. And I so much appreciate Greene County and the many folks who are responding on Facebook," she said.
"When I put something about appreciating Greene County on Facebook, I had people from Minnesota and Denmark, say 'What about me?' I have had followers from Australia and Ireland, to name some others.
"I want to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart. I knew I would have support from my hometown, but it's has been that and so much more."