Deborah Pellegrino says she performs well under pressure.
Tonight, a national television audience gets to witness if this is true.
Pellegrino, executive pastry chef for Harrah's and Showboat Casino-Hotel, will be featured on the "Food Network Challenge." The 41-year-old Egg Harbor Township woman will compete against three other pastry chefs from around the country in a "Chocolate Myths" challenge, which requires them to fashion a mythical creature out of chocolate and bring it to life. The winner gets $10,000.
"They don't call it 'Challenge' for nothing," Pellegrino said. "It is hard, very hard. It's physically challenging, mentally challenging and there are time constraints. I'm a last-minute type of person, but they don't give you a lot of time."
If competing on television is tough, so is landing the gig in the first place, Pellegrino said.
A 1992 graduate of the Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing, Pellegrino always has loved working with pastry. Her first jobs out of school involved working as a private chef for a family and then on a yacht. But then she started working at Atlantic City casinos so she could get experience working with pastries. She's been at her current job for 11 years.
"I love pastry. I'm very artistic, so that's my outlet. It's a lot easier to sculpt a cake than a steak, and it looks much nicer," she said.
When Pellegrino first saw the "Food Network Challenge" on TV, she knew it was a competition for her.
"I've always done these kind of crazy cakes on my own. If I see something, I can usually replicate it. When I saw what they were doing on TV, I said, 'I can do that,'" Pellegrino said. "I thought if I could just focus for eight hours on just doing my cake, it would be awesome. At work, I have also have to deal with answering the phone, the e-mails and all the other stuff."
But try as she might, Pellegrino could find no way to submit an application for consideration as a contestant.
"You have to know someone who has been on 'Challenge' or affiliated with the Food Network just for them to reach out to you," she said.
Luckily, a friend from Las Vegas had competed on the show and agreed to suggest her as a contestant. The producers were interested enough to have Pellegrino start the long selection process. This involved first creating a YouTube video of herself and her work. Then she had to produce another video explaining her passion for pastry and why she wanted to compete on the challenge. This was followed by a phone interview and a review of photographs of her work.
"They are really trying to pit the most talented people against the most talented people," Pellegrino said.
Last October, she competed in her first challenge - it did not go well. The contest involved creating comedy cakes. Pellegrino produced a pig, but the cake's rear end crumbled at a critical moment and she finished fourth.
"I've never had a cake fall apart except on national TV," Pellegrino said.
Producers, however, were impressed enough with her work and outgoing personality to invite her back for a second go-round.
"I said I have to come back. I need to redeem myself," she said. She got the chance in March, when she headed out to the network's Colorado studios to compete in the mythical-beast challenge.
Chefs are told the challenge's subjects two weeks before taping. This gives them time to come up with a plan and gather the ingredients and materials needed to make it a reality. Chefs prepare their kitchens the night before the taping, then arrive at the studio at 5:30 a.m. to begin cooking.
"You only get eight hours, and once that clock starts it doesn't stop," Pellegrino said. "In this particular challenge, there were twists and turns that they threw at us. We had no idea what they were going to be, so we just had to be ready to deal with whatever they threw at us and complete our piece."
Pellegrino wouldn't say how she fared in the competition, but said this probably isn't her last time participating in the challenge. She's been asked to come back again.
As she waits for the call, she'll continue her work in the casinos - a setting she says helps her keep the edge necessary to do well on the televised competitions.
"My job is extreme multitasking - trying to do the best you can every day, I think that prepared me to go out and compete in the Challenge," she said. "That's what I love - I can handle anything you can throw at me, I work very well under pressure. It's a bonus to go on TV and compete against the top
pastry chefs in the country."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
'Food Network Challenge' airs
8 p.m. today on the Food Network