Cherry Hill resident cooks up a storm on MasterChef


Karissa Murray, Eastside Features Editor

If you ever happened to be watching TV on a Wednesday evening, then you have probably stumbled across an episode of the popular cooking competition show MasterChef. The show narrows down thousands of home cooks from across America until they reach the top 24 competitors, who are personally chosen by three judges: Aarón Sánchez, Joe Bastianich, and Gordon Ramsay.

MasterChef is currently in its ninth season, and this year one of the top 24 competitors selected by Ramsay was a Cherry Hill resident named Stephanie Willis.

Qualifying to be a contestant on MasterChef is no easy feat; every year thousands of people audition in every major city in the country, so to get on the show, you must be the best of the best.

“The audition process is exactly what you see on the show. Tens of thousands of MasterChef hopefuls audition in their perspective cities in front of a panel of judges and chefs. If they love you and your dish, you move to the next round which is a bunch of behind the scenes stuff. If they really love you, you go to the MasterChef kitchen and do it for Chef Gordon, Chef Aaron and Joe Bastianich.” Willis said.

On MasterChef, contestants must cook without recipes under a time constraint. This is especially stressful for cooks who have never worked in a professional restaurant environment, so after qualifying for the show, Willis prepared.

“MasterChef is the Olympics for home cooks! I cooked, cooked and cooked some more. I spent a fortune on both cook books and food, but it was all worth it!” Willis said.

Despite currently residing in Cherry Hill, Willis’s road to becoming a master of the kitchen did not begin in here. She was born in the Philippines, but grew up in both Phoenix, Arizona and Mount Laurel. She is an alumni of Lenape High School.

“I’ve been in Cherry Hill almost a year now. I moved here during the week of MasterChef auditions last year. So far I love it!” Willis said.

For many, good food is associated with good memories, and Willis is no exception. Willis’s first memories of cooking originated from her childhood, inspired by watching her grandmother cook during the holiday season.

“[My grandmother] is one of sixteen children so every holiday at her house was filled with love and great food. I would watch her prepare food for an army. We would go to our local farm to hand pick all of our produce and then to the Italian Market in South Philly to get all of our meats. Watching her make magic in the kitchen both amazed me and inspired me to do the same,” Willis said.

Her grandmother isn’t her only inspiration, though. She’s influenced by celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart, and, of course, Ramsay.

“[Ramsay] is amazing! His work ethic is unmatched, I’m pretty sure he has 12 shows airing right now. Watching him in the MasterChef kitchen is an experience I will never forget. He executes everything with precision, panache and finesse…He’s scary though! It’s that tough love kind of scary. His accomplishments make him pretty incredible and intimidating. But at the end of the day, he expects the best of the best.” Willis said.

Unfortunately, Willis was eliminated from the top 24 early on, but that hasn’t deterred her at all—In fact, it has only made her passion for cooking grow.

“MasterChef was such an incredible experience. It’s taught me to believe in myself and encourage others to do the same. Don’t let your circumstances define you and if you want something bad enough, get out of your own way and go get it. I’m coming for that title. MasterChef lit a fire in me that I didn’t know I had. I’m going to keep learning, keep growing and keep going. This is just the beginning” Willis said.

You can check out Willis’s food on her instagram @chefanienicole.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Willis