Ashley Mincey ’11 walked out of the classroom and into a pressure cooker. The teacher turned self-taught chef pursued her passion for cooking all the way to the season 9 finale of the show “MasterChef.” With Chef Gordon Ramsay as her mentor, Mincey barreled through elimination round after elimination round, whipping together creative culinary creations under strict time constraints—a French Moroccan duck and cranberry, chicken liver stuffed agnolotti and guinea hen, to name a few. With a Top 3 “MasterChef” finish under her belt, Mincey offers a taste of what’s next.
How did you decide to pursue a career in culinary arts? What did that path look like?
Pursuing a path that was aligned with my passion meant freedom, so ultimately I had to ask myself a very important question: “Are you worth it?”
I was a full-time teacher, but dedicated all of my free time to improving my cooking craft. My life in culinary arts is much more than a new career path; it is part of my calling. I definitely took the atypical route into culinary arts as both my degrees led me down the path of education and teaching—plus, I did not go to culinary school. However, what led to my degree in French, I would soon find helpful in my culinary pursuits. After sharpening my skills for three years in national and international cooking competitions on the weekends as a hobby, there was a euphoria I felt while developing recipes, studying late at night, training and competing that I was not feeling with my work duties outside of the classroom. As Gary Vaynerchuk suggests, I began to use my career to pay for my passion, and eventually I became inclined to create a life where I invested wholly in my dreams. I made the leap, and it was the best decision I ever made.
The path was neither easy nor stress-free—I would come home and stay up until one or two in the morning doing what I needed to do to get better and still had to be up in the morning to teach. Additionally, realizing that my effort and gross pay stayed on an annual incline while my net pay decreased was difficult for me to accept. Ultimately, I didn’t accept it. I decided that I had to provide myself the opportunity to channel all of my work ethic and determination towards the area in my life that was most fulfilling, rewarding and emotionally profitable. I was in pursuit of ultimate professional happiness, and the only way I could accomplish that was embarking on my entrepreneurial journey. A month later, I was auditioning for the competition and it just so happens everything aligned.
“…I feel like our goals are always setting us up for the next phase, so don’t work hard for a goal and then not be ready when it arrives. Appreciate the process, and enjoy the rewards!”Ashley Mincey ’11
Did your time at Davidson in any way prepare you for this career path, or your appearance on “MasterChef”?
I’m a 2011 grad, so I actually dedicated being in the Top 8 of “MasterChef” to Davidson. I spoke about my time at Davidson [on the show], so I’m glad I get to go a bit more in depth about that here.
Attending Davidson instilled several positive life skills in general—being able to handle pressure and tight deadlines, communicate effectively, handle criticism—all of that helped, of course. I also feel as though being a Division I scholar-athlete played an immense role in handling the day-to-day discipline needed to make it through the competition. However, studying abroad is the one Davidson experience that outweighs all the others. In retrospect I will share that I did not know how much of an impact traveling abroad would have on my life, but it has given me advantages that I never expected.
From 2009-2010, I traveled abroad with my undergrad mentor, Dr. Caroline Fache, to Tours, France. Without her really making me believe this was a trip I should and could take, I wouldn’t have thought it possible. It’s one of the most poignant experiences I can call on, and it has left the largest imprint on my life from my undergraduate years. It is what altered my original course to eventually getting my master’s degree in world language education, and during the competition, I drew inspiration from that year when I faced a difficult cooking challenge or unknown ingredient. I was able to hone in on my storytelling abilities through what I created because of my vivid memories of all the countries and cities I visited.
I also enjoyed cooking from all my time spent in the kitchen with my grandparents growing up, but my love for cooking for others accelerated when I was a freshman. I would use my Black Student Coalition membership to cook meals and desserts in the house. I would leave the leftovers or create events around my love of cooking for others, and soon students gravitated to it because I mean, who’s turning down free food in college? I started being asked to cater certain dishes or sweets for events, and it was certainly a stepping-stone in my culinary enjoyment.
What is one important take-away from your time on “MasterChef”?
The most important take away is to not live by others’ limitations. There were several moments for me where I defied the odds—being underestimated and pulling off the first win of the season, pulling off unthinkable dishes in one hour, leading a team to victory in a two Michelin-starred restaurant, and competing in the finale are some of those moments. Just because others are fearful about what you plan to achieve doesn’t mean that it can’t be accomplished. My belief in myself, knowing what it took to keep persevering from challenge to challenge, became my anchor.
What are your creative influences?
I’m inspired by several key influences: chefs who have U.S. and international restaurants, what I feel like has not been done before, fresh produce in the grocery store or farmer’s market, interacting with people who are fully committed to their passion, and cross-cultural food connections.
What is your favorite recipe?
I actually just created three exclusive recipes that can be found at www.shipt.com/blog/fall-flavors-by-ashley-mincey/
My personal favorite of the three is the Roasted Delicata and Spicy Turkey and Bean Ragout. It evokes the season, and it is super easy to prepare. The link has all the exact measurements, but here’s the breakdown: Season and roast the delicata squash slices for about 10 minutes per side. Cook the ragout in a separate pan with onions, celery, turkey, spices and beans. Stir together the ingredients for the yogurt sauce to drizzle on top. Once the squash comes out, everything else is just about ready to assemble.
What’s your guilty food pleasure?
French fries are 100 percent my guilty pleasure, and dipping them in ice cream is the perfect salty and sweet combo. If you haven’t at least tried it once, you’re missing out! I also love fresh pasta dishes. I recently tried a wild boar pappardelle, and it was fantastic.
What’s the new food trend on the horizon?
It actually has less to do with food than it does with social media. The influencer space is thriving right now, which is why I’m taking advantage of that as well, but I can feel the imminent boom that is going to occur where food spaces, restaurants, etc., finally understand the power they have when it comes to advertising, releasing a new product, engaging directly with their target consumer, and truly being in control of the content created that represents their brand. Social media has created and will create an incredible influx of jobs for others to enter the food world from new, emerging angles than ever before.
What are your aspirations, now that you’ve had this exposure via the show?
Currently, I’m traveling around the country fulfilling obligations. Thus far I’ve been to Nashville, Jacksonville, Miami, San Francisco and Minneapolis. I hope to add NYC, DC, LA and Seattle to that list, too, with 2019 events quickly approaching. I have firmly stepped into my freelance culinary role judging competitions, being a guest speaker through my Education Envie program, catering, hosting pop-up dinners with a company called EatWith, being a social media correspondent for events, developing recipes for specific markets, and stepping into every lane possible that allows me to use my culinary voice. Summer 2019, I, along with the other Top 3 competitors, will be involved at Camp MasterChef, which is an exciting culinary camp for adolescents. I’ll also be working towards completing some back-of-house stagiaires, where I gain more experience working the line in restaurants, and I would love to shadow some restaurateurs in the process of opening a new restaurant. Personal aspirations are to make sure that traveling remains a top aspect of my professional career.
Long-term, I want an empire! One day, I’ll have a cookbook, be a highly requested recipe developer for brands, and be an international businesswoman/restaurateur that uses her platform to advocate for progressive globalization through food, business and philanthropy.
Is there anything else you would love everyone to know?
I want people to know that the moment I gave myself permission to live on my own terms, my life changed. If there is a calling on your heart and mind to pursue a specific career or life path, start by dedicating a few hours to it weekly, and see where that gets you. Steadily add additional hours until you feel so aligned with your destiny that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t follow the dreams that now you’ve worked hard to acquire. Lastly, I feel like our goals are always setting us up for the next phase, so don’t work hard for a goal and then not be ready when it arrives. Appreciate the process, and enjoy the rewards!
Keep up with Ashley’s journey at www.enviebymincey.com and @enviebymincey