By Denise Matthews
CARNESVILLE – Chandler Blake Jackson Pugh is a walking cookbook and he doesn’t have to have a kitchen to whip up a gourmet dinner.
Folks can check out Chandler’s kitchen skills right now on the Food Network show Rachael Ray’s Kid’s Cook Off as the 12-year-old just made it through the second competition of a six-week challenge.
Down to six from the original eight contestants vying for a $20,000 culinary scholarship and a web series of their own on FoodNetwork.com, Chandler continues to wow the judges with his cooking expertise.
Of course, it is no wonder that the Carnesville native is making tasteful decisions as a kidtestant on the Kid’s Cook Off, he comes from a cooking legacy and probably has a little french fry oil running through this veins.
“His grandmother, my mom, Jenny Bryson, was the owner of the Wagon Wheel restaurant in Carnesville several years ago,” Autumn Pugh, Chandler’s mother explained. “She was a wonderful cook and I am a pretty good cook as well.”
Taking a few minutes before cross country practice at Franklin County Middle School where he is in seventh grade, Chandler and his mom talked about his love of all things to do with food and how he became a kidtestant on Rachael Ray’s New York-based show.
“I have always loved to cook,” Chandler, a slim, blonde young man with a very adult manner and a straight-forward gaze, said.
Autumn echoed his words, adding, “Since he was old enough to walk, he was in the kitchen.”
While his mother is more of a southern cook, Chandler said he tends to lean more toward Nordic cuisine, as he likes the culture and has a special fondness for Vikings.
Chandler evidenced his skill for Nordic recipes in the first episode of the Cook Off when he made gravlax – a salt cured salmon – and beet root with cream sauce for his first dish.
“I didn’t even know what it was,” Autumn chuckled.
She knew that her son was a master in the kitchen, however, which is why when she saw the application for contestants for the Rachael Ray Kid’s Cook Off, she knew Chandler had to enter.
“I thought of Chandler immediately,” Autumn said of seeing the ad for the show. “He is amazing. He cooks two or three times a day.”
Even though she knew it was a long shot, Autumn said she sent in the application and was blown away when she got a reply that same night.
“I was crying and yelling and I woke Chandler up to tell him that he was going to be on the show,” Autumn said.
Asleep, Chandler just told his screaming mother to “go away.” When her words finally sank in, however, Chandler said he was “freaked out.”
“I couldn’t believe they chose me from a little town like Carnesville,” Chandler, a longtime fan of the Food Network, said.
That was in March. For the next several months there were mountains of paperwork, Skype cooking demonstrations with Rachael, more interviews and more paperwork to go through before his place on the show was set.
“It was definitely no walk in the park getting on the show,” Autumn said. “He also had to get a work permit.”
Whittled down first by producers from hundreds of applicants, and then by Ray from 12 to the final eight in which Chandler made the cut, he and Autumn set down in New York, N.Y., at last on July 5.
Not only was it Chandler’s first trip to the Big Apple, it was his first plane ride as well.
“I really liked being on the plane,” the too-old-for-his-years youngster said, eyes still gleaming at the memory. “I liked taking off and the turbulence.”
For the next 14 days, Chandler had to think fast on his feet, coming up with recipes, cooking great food, making it look good in 20 minutes and not being intimidated by the enormous cameras that surrounded him daily.
It was the little camera, he said, that actually got to him.
“I was just overwhelmed,” Chandler said of the emotion that took over when he had to do his first video on the first show. “And when Robert [Irvine] told me to jump and yell at the end of that first show I was stunned.”
The stress of the show, was tough on both Chandler and Autumn.
“The kids cooking with me are all great chefs and the competition was very stiff,” Chandler said.
And watching Chandler on a camera and not being able to get to him was hard on Autumn.
She did, though, feel that Chandler had a bit of an edge on his competitors in that he is a survivalist.
“Chandler could be outside in the woods for two days and not need anything,” Autumn said. “He and his dad, B.J., go on survivalist trips out in the woods all of the time.”
Autumn said she is still stunned at the time she looked out of the window and saw her son roasting a squirrel over a spit.
“He killed it, cleaned it and cooked it,” Autumn said. “He does the same thing with deer and rabbits. And he makes a great rabbit stew.”
That outdoor knowledge and innate knowledge of recipes are a big help to Chandler in the competition.
Chandler’s passion for cooking is also a boost – most of the time.
“He is such a perfectionist he can’t stand it if he doesn’t feel he has done the best job on a dish possible,” Autumn said.
As one of his competitors, Chris, noted in the second show, Chandler likes to get it right every time.
One thing is for certain, Chandler liked being on the show and loved New York, N.Y.
“I loved being on the show,” Chandler said. “I made a lot of good friends – Nick, Zack and Chris especially – and we still e-mail each other all of the time. I also really enjoyed meeting Rachael – she was really nice – and all of the judges were great, too, especially Marcus Samuelsson.”
New York was amazing as well, Chandler said, when he and his mom could get time to go sight seeing.
Back at home, with the shows airing every Monday on the Food Network at 8 p.m., Chandler’s family, church family at Liberty Baptist, friends and the staff at FCMS are all about #ChefChandler.
“We are selling t-shirts to support Chandler and everyone is on board,” Autumn laughed, showing the #ChefChandler shirt she was wearing.
His dad, mom, sister Alyssa and cousin Madlyn are glued to the television to watch, even though both Chandler and his mom already know the outcome.
“I did the show to cook,” Chandler, who wants to go to culinary school in Sweden and be a chef at night and a basketball player for the NBA during the day when he grows up, said simply. “That is what I like to do.”
He also enjoys cross country, basketball, reading and going on survivalist weekends.
Mostly though, Chandler cooks, and is in high demand for dinners from family and friends.
“Chandler is very popular with friends and family at game time,” Autumn laughed. “They love his game day food, especially his wings.”
Since he has been on the show, Chandler is also getting popular with other programming people.
“I am getting lots of e-mails,” Autumn said.
Suffice to say, according to Autumn, this won’t be the last time that folks will be seeing Chandler on television.
“This has been such a boost for Chandler,” Autumn said. “He takes cooking to a whole other level. He has great lifeskills and I trust him in the kitchen more than most adults. He is an amazing kid.”
See Chandler and his five competitors on the next Rachael Ray’s Kid’s Cook Off which will air Sept. 7 at 8 p.m. on the Food Network Channel.