Megan Day left the corporate world for sweeter pastures. Now the BBQ Addicts co-owner is glazing her own trail as a premier pitmaster.
And for at least one big victory, it’s all caught on camera.
The Kansas City-based entrepreneur advanced earlier this month in a special grill master tournament on Food Network’s “Chopped.” Day bested three competitors, sending her to the finals, which is set to air 9 p.m. Aug. 29.
Reality TV and the saucy life of a pitmaster are a definite departure from her previous career in corporate public relations, which she left about 18 months ago, but Day said she continues to use the skills from her background.
“Something in my gut told me it was time to turn my whole attention to my beautiful young family and grow our BBQ business,” Day said. “With help from the (Enterprise Center of Johnson County) Growth Mentoring Services program, I was able to take that leap and know I have mentors ready to help.
“I now manage my energy, not just my time on the corporate clock. I’m building partnerships, engagement, fans, and clients; all hours of the day and night,” she added. “I still work hard, tell stories, and build relationships; I just might smell like sweet BBQ smoke while I do it.”
Dishing up innovation
Sixteen grill masters are featured in the “Chopped” tournament, with four contestants per episode fighting for an opportunity to compete in the finale. (The grand prize is $50,000 and a “Napa Valley dream vacation”). To win her semi-final bracket without getting chopped, Day out-grilled her opponents in appetizer, entrée and dessert rounds.
For those unfamiliar with the show, contestants begin each round with a limited pantry and cooking resources — along with surprise ingredients that must be used in the completed dish.
“Everything was hot and ready to go,” Day said of the setup of grilling heat sources at the competition, “So that when you open up that basket to see those random ingredients, you can get started and make those ingredients shine.”
And shine they did.
For her appetizer in the already-aired episode, Day presented pork medallions “that the judges couldn’t get enough of,” she said, followed by candied ribs that celebrity chef and judge Alex Guarnaschelli called “something you want to eat until you die.”
“That’s pretty strong praise from a fine dining judge,” Day said.
Still, the Kansas City griller was really salivating at the opportunity to compete in the dessert round. While it might not seem like a natural fit for a pitmaster, Day explained that her experiences on the competition barbecue circuit prepared her for the TV show’s sweetest round.
Such competitive events often include auxiliary contests that serve as quickfire competitions during the lengthy barbecue smoking portions of the day. Participants battle in categories like vegetables, side dishes, specialty drinks and, of course, desserts — one of the areas where Day said she has found success.
“I knew that if I could get to that dessert round, I could knock it out of the park,” she said. “I was lucky and had the right skillset to put the right stuff on the plate during those first two rounds to advance.”
Her dessert — brownies — could’ve been simple enough. But when she looked around and realized she only had 30 minutes and cast iron with which to work, it was time to improvise, Day said.
“I was so afraid that it was going to take too long for the cast iron to heat up to cook the brownies — and if it gets too hot, it can just immediately scorch everything — that I went to the pantry and grabbed cans of beans,” she said. “And I dumped out the beans, and I used the cans as my cooking vessels. I put those right on the charcoal grill.”
Day specifically used cans filled with chickpeas because she knew the beans would dump quickly without leaving behind much residue, she said.
The result? A crusty outside with gooey brownies inside.
Competing on her own
When Day stepped onto the outdoor “Chopped” set for the first day of filming back in April (her participation was top secret until June and details of the Aug. 29 finale remain tightly under wraps, she said), she didn’t know if she was prepared for the experience.
A massive crew, cameras, lighting and the cooking setup greeted her in a petting zoo-type, rustic setting, surrounded by busy highways and high rise buildings in the distance.
“It was just this dance that was happening,” she said. “It was a little overwhelming, but comforting because clearly they knew what they were doing and they were ready to get busy.”
“Chopped” also marked Day’s breakout as a solo competitor, having previously only participated with her husband, Jason Day, and their industry-renowned, championship team, Burnt Finger BBQ.
“This was the first time I had really stepped out away from ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ It was just me. Making snap decisions,” she said. “So I took away that I can be successful on my own. You know, ‘I got this.’”