By Jolene Ketzenberger
Picking up some steaks at Kincaid’s this weekend? Say hello to 27-year-old meat cutter Loreal Gavin while you’re there, and you just might be chatting with the next Food Network star.
While living in California last fall, Gavin answered an ad and tried out for “Food Network Star,” the reality program that aims to find the next big-name food celebrity. The show, which airs at 9 p.m. Sundays, began its latest season with 10 finalists – including Gavin. (You can vote for your favorite finalist here.)
I caught up with Gavin while on her lunch break recently to find out how the young meat cutter and private chef — who grew up with her grandmother, attended culinary school at Sullivan University and has worked at about “a million jobs” — wound up competing for her own Food Network program.
So how did it all happen?
I sold pretty much everything I owned in September of last year, and I bought a one-way ticket from Indianapolis to Oakland, Calif., to reunite with a guy I had been dating. After about a week of being there, I realized the honeymoon period was pretty much over, and I’d made a horrible mistake. I figured I had already screwed myself, so I figured I might as well laugh my ass off and try out for Food Network. I saw an ad on Craig’s List.
What did you have to do to try out?
At the time, the BART subway system was shut down, so I had to take a ferry from Oakland to San Francisco all by myself that day. I remember chaining my bike up once I found the hotel and putting these high heels on and running up the street like Peggy Bundy, all behived up and everything.
How’d it go?
I was actually an hour late. You could tell like hundreds of people had been there, but no one was there, and it was just two producers from JS Casting. And they were like, come back Monday.
What’d you have to do that next time?
So I made a dish, and once again I had to take the ferry over with a basket on my bike. I had a frozen apple dumpling in a foil ball. And I tried to find somebody in San Francisco to let me bake the apple dumpling off, but no one would let me for health code things.
What’d you do?
Chefs have to think on their feet, you know, so I saw Sur la Table, and I was like, I have an idea, let me demo one of your ovens. So yet again, it was just like Peggy Bundy for days. I’m in high heels again with a hot apple dumpling walking down the street in San Francisco. I was like excited and kind of laughing at myself, and not really taking it all that seriously, because I didn’t believe that out of all the hundreds and thousands of people or whatever that would try out, that I would be one that they would call back.
But they did. What were you doing at the time?
It couldn’t have happened at a better time, because I was struggling. I was living in a hostel, where I was paying with my significant other at the time over a thousand dollars a month for a room with no kitchen or no bathroom of your own. I’m an artistic person, and I had no guitar out there; no transportation. I was just like dying inside, and every night when I would lay in bed, I would put all these mantras out to the universe, please let me be on Food Network, please let me be on Food Network, and please get me out of here, please get me out of here. Because I was like, I can’t leave this guy, because I have nowhere else to go right now, you know. So it really sucked.
How’d you find out the news?
About two months later, they finally got in touch with me. I had just enough money to get back home to Indianapolis. I bought a one-way ticket back, and I worked at the butcher shop at Christmas, and then I flew out. It didn’t feel real until I saw myself up on TV for the first time.
What was that like?
I’m like, I’m fat, is what I thought. And then my other thought was thank God for Spanx, because I wore those all the time on the show.
What’s it like working at Kincaid’s while knowing you’re on TV?
It feels really, really weird. I don’t own a car; I just ride my bicycle everywhere. And I don’t own a TV. And it’s just the weirdest thing sometimes to be like, I’m on TV and in magazines, I’m all over the internet, and I have no car. I’m like the epitome of limited resources, but I feel really free. I think it’s just the universe telling me stay humble and count your blessings and good things will come to you.
Do you feel like you’re a good fit to actually be on a show?
I think I am a really good fit. I know I can cook, but being around the cameras is the thing that I struggled with, finding your happy place when like all hell has broken loose.
Does the show really capture what goes on — the stress, the challenges?
I’m sure the producers try their best to really capture our stress levels – I’m saying that in a laughing way, you know? Everyone was really nice. I learned a lot from everyone; I learned a lot about myself. It was just such an amazing experience. It felt like we went to war together, like we were in the trenches. Man, the look on each other’s faces sometimes when we’d hear what was gonna happen next; we were just like, oh, hell no. It’s just a trip. And the days are really long. Like I remember leaving and being like, I’m getting ready to go on vacation. I really remember thinking that, and I bought a new bathrobe and face masks, and I was like, I’m going to be sitting around by the pool. Oh, no. Like, I should have been working out at the gym to get my endurance up, because we worked 14-, 16-hour days, sometimes.
Was there hair and makeup and that sort of stuff?
Yeah, there was hair and makeup there for us. It was really nice to be treated like a star. I come from pretty humble beginnings, and so to be treated like people are investing so much money and time into you, that really opened my eyes as a young woman as to my worth in 2014. And especially being a woman in a man’s world, particularly in the culinary industry, you get kind of taken for granted, you don’t make as much money, there’s not as much respect.
Was it fun working with some of the big Food Network stars? Did you interact much with them?
I did interact with them a lot. Not as much as I thought that I would, like I never got to hug any of them, which I wanted to, just so we could feel like friends. For a while I felt like I was on Star Trek, and they were like little beams of people. Like sometimes they still don’t feel real. Honestly.
I know you can’t talk much more about it, but no matter how it comes out, you’ve really done a lot in the past couple of years.
I really have. I’ve always been a gypsy of sorts. Some of my happiest moments have been when I was living in my car in Louisville, Ky., or like couch surfing and crashing with friends, and I’ve definitely always taken the path less traveled. It sounds really corny, but Robert Frost is awesome, and I love poetry. But taking the path that I have has made all of the difference. Life is too short to be caught up in doing things you don’t like to do around people that bring you down. And some people might say I’m flaky, but I’ve always been really true to myself.
Tell me about your background.
Ever since I’ve been a little kid, most of the pictures of me were up on stools cooking, smearing around icing, running around in gardens. When I was a little kid, I didn’t get presents for Christmas; I got like goats and chickens. But food’s always been a passion. It’s always been art first. So I started cooking professionally when I was 15, after my first job, which was detassling corn. Then I was a dish washer for a while in Gas City, Ind. I think every good chef has to start out on dish. I firmly stand behind that theory. And then I worked at The Cove in Sweetser, Ind., for two or three years while I was in high school, and then I decorated cakes, and then I moved to Louisville. I’ve had like a million jobs, pretty much. I attended Sullivan University for culinary arts, from 2005 to 2007. And then I was scared to death of being done with school, because I didn’t know what I wanted and student loans still terrify me, so I started to do the baking certificate. And then I got hired at Sullivan University as a restaurant dessert designer.
And then you moved back to Indiana?
I came up to Indianapolis and started to work at a geriatrics facility, because I have a really big heart for the elderly, like I love my grandma to death. And then I started to work at Taste Café and Marketplace, and I was there for about a year. I’ve worked at Whole Foods. I just always end up coming back to the butcher shop.
What’s it like working here now?
I’m kind of like introverted and aloof about it, and in a way, that’s good. I’m protecting myself. I can’t say much. So I’d rather just not say anything. Not that I’m not rooting myself on and enjoying a little bit of the attention, but I just wish the attention would generate more private chef clientele.
Do you want to do more of that?
I’ve done gigs for people off and on over the past couple of years and utilize Kincaid’s meat. I meet the clientele through here, generally. But it’s feast or famine. It’s hard to generate clients so you can have a little bit more peace of mind.
What do you hope this whole experience will lead to?
I’ve always been a big writer, and when I was in college, I was on the dean’s list, and I took all the upper-level English classes that were available there. I hope that I can get a book out there about women’s struggles in the culinary world. These stories need to be told, women need to be lifted up – like, let’s inspire the next generation of women.
So do you want to stay in the food biz?
I’ve had mixed emotions the last couple of years with the faulty economy about staying in the food business. I know people are always gonna eat, so there’s that. But generally there’s no benefits, there’s long hours, the weekends are never yours. Good luck doing something on a holiday, and if you ask a day off three years in advance, you still feel bad about it when you take it. Is the fryer on? Did I order this? Where’s the Saran Wrap? My mind just goes a million miles a minute. But I realize that food is such a part of me that it kind of makes me emotional. And food is my art, you know?
You mentioned maybe doing some workshops?
In my initial demo in San Francisco when I showed them my grandma’s apple dumpling and her waxed paper caramels, I also made a hand scrub. One of my other favorite things about life is just going to the spa and straight up chilling and just taking care of your mind and your body. And I really like to make my own natural beauty products. The hilarity of it – yeah, my name’s Loreal. Yes, it’s like the makeup. So I would like to have a workshop where we make, like, a face mask – and this is like a typical night for me honestly. Put your face mask on, cook dinner, waiting for my awesome boyfriend to get home, and I’m in there cooking up whatever I need to, fabbing some cuts. And then after that workshop, we can have a bourbon cocktail. And so we’d make a face mask together, I send you home with one with a recipe. And then we’ll create a dish together, I send you home with the ingredients to make it, and then we have a bourbon cocktail and we talk about how smooth our skin is. Who wouldn’t like it? Initially it might appeal more to women, but I know some guys who wear facemasks. I can see it. I want to get charming little Ball jars to put the face mask in and explain the importance to not only stop and sit down with a friend or a loved one and enjoy a meal, but also to stop and sit down and take the time to take care of yourself. Because if you don’t cherish and love yourself, you can’t do that for anybody else. I’m only coming to the point where I really understand that sentiment.
And your grandmother was a big influence?
I had kind of a bizarre childhood. My mom and dad were definitely not ready to have a child, so my grandma stepped in, and she kind of showed me the ropes, you know? She’s originally from a family of 13 during the Depression, and so she instilled a lot of values into me that I think are hard to find in today’s world. Just how to be frugal. My grandma taught me how to sew, how to quilt, how to do my hair in pin curls, how to put on pantyhose, how to dress classy. She taught me how to think of other people. Like everything’s so viral on the internet, and people are so quick to open their mouths and say rude things. And my grandma always taught me to keep your mouth shut. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all. And it takes the bigger person to do that kind of stuff. I’m glad she instilled those qualities in me. Because it’s hard to keep your mouth shut sometimes, it really is.