One-on-One with the Winner of Worst Cooks in America

mentors with recruits

Chef Bobby Flay stands with Amber Brauner as Chef Anne Burrell stands with Jamie Thomas on set for the final episode as seen on Food Network's Worst Cooks in America, Season 5.

Photo by: Rich Freeda

Rich Freeda

Seven weeks ago, 14 recruits entered Boot Camp calling themselves the worst cooks in America. Having been nominated by family and friends, they entered the competition to learn skills and techniques in hopes of winning the competition and $25,000 to make their dreams come true. In the end the one recruit who lasted the longest, showed the most improvement and cooked a final meal that greatly impressed a panel of culinary experts would win. The winner of Worst Cooks in America leaves with more than just prize money: He or she leaves with a set of skills that will last a lifetime. No longer a worst cook, this individual can now be referred to as the best of the worst.

FN Dish has the exclusive interview with the winner.

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With just two recruits remaining, Boot camp looked quite empty on the final day. But before Amber and Jamie could begin their last challenge, they had one more Skill Drill to get through, a mise-en-place race. Using skills they had learned during the competition, the two had to race to complete a set of cooking tasks. Unfortunately for Amber, she was just slightly behind Jamie, but as she said, this was just a battle and not the war. On the next day the two would have their practice run with their mentors, cooking their three-course menu to work out any kinks. Amber had a number of issues to work through, first dealing with an octopus, which cooked up a bit chewy, then making a coconut custard that wouldn't set. Luckily when it came to the actual final challenge, she sailed through more focused than she had ever been before. Her dishes were nearly flawless and truly impressed the panel of culinary experts, showing that she was willing to take risks for a higher payoff. In the end Amber was announced the winner of Worst Cooks in America and $25,000.

You have some history with an octopus. What was it like cooking it for your final challenge?

When they gave me the octopus to cook I definitely got grossed out when I saw it. But the fact of how far in the completion I was, I didn't even care. I thought, "Let's just cook this octopus." At that point I was ready for the octopus.

You told Bobby you would get rid of your nails and you almost would have until Jamie helped talk you out of it. Why did you change your mind?

Through the whole process I've been going back and forth about my nails. Nobody needs nails in their food. So I definitely didn't want any kind of slip-ups because I saw a lot of the recruits getting injured. I literally have the longest nails ever. I mean, people look at my nails and they ask, "How in the heck do you function?" I am kind of grateful that I lost one during last week's challenge because that's what helped me to do my pie dough. After talking with Jamie and going back and forth about it, he helped me decide. He told me that I actually do work well with them, and since the only thing I was worried about is the pie crust, and I have that one finger, I should use it to my advantage. So I thought: "You know what? I'm keeping my darn nails."

It seemed like during the competition you underestimated yourself a lot of times. Sometimes you thought you wouldn't finish in time and yet you did. Did you ever surprise yourself, and can you talk about how you've grown from day one?

When I first got here, I told my kids: "Mom will be coming home after the first challenge because there's no way I'm going to be able to get through this. Chefs like Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell are incredible. I can't even cook anything." So through the whole process I was surprising myself with what I could accomplish. When it comes to my home life, I strive for everything, any aspect, whether it's kids, life or work, I'm always a fighter. I definitely showed that through this process too. I think I didn't know what I was actually capable of doing and this experience has made me realize what I can do. I think I need to give myself more credit than I have given myself before because I've had accomplishments with raising my kids. I didn't even realize that was an accomplishment in itself. I just thought it was something I had to do. It's really been a privilege, just like this experience has been. So now, you know what? I think I'm pretty well rounded with the cooking and that was the only thing I was lacking in before. I didn't even know that cooking was an issue until my daughter nominated me for the show. I was here to do it for my kids, but I think the real reason was I did this for myself. I actually conquered it. I defeated it. So I am so excited and I'm proud of myself, and I've never been able to say that. This experience has made me feel that way for the first time in my entire life.


Chef Bobby Flay watches as finalist Amber Brauner cooks for the final episode as seen on Food Network's Worst Cooks in America, Season 5.

Photo by: Rich Freeda ©2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Rich Freeda, 2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Was there anything in particular you were most scared or nervous about in cooking for the culinary experts?

All of it, of course. But actually that is the first time I was calm. I think it's because I didn't have to be out in front of them. Through this whole competition I've been shaky and my adrenaline has been pumping, but for some reason on competition day it was just smooth sailing, a feeling I've never had since I've been here. It was like I was on autopilot. Everything made sense. The hard work all fell into place. Being right next to Bobby in the kitchen (although he wasn't able to help, just look) and having him watch what he's taught me, what I've computed into my head and brought out in my hands, worked out perfectly.

Looking back on the competition, what was the most-difficult challenge for you?

That turbot fish was probably the craziest thing I've ever seen. I thought: "Are you kidding me? Do we need a crane for this thing? Do I need to coddle it like a baby? What is this thing?" We've done a ton of dishes while I've been here, but being able to fillet a turbot fish? Even if I told somebody what a turbot fish was, they'd be like: "What the heck is that? Is that some kind of crazy serpent that came out of the water? Can I actually do that?" It reminded me of something you'd see on the Discovery channel. Is this like some freak of nature fish that was prehistoric? Since when are we cooking dinosaur?

How was your experience working on a team? Did it teach you anything about yourself?

It kind of actually made me feel better — that I wasn't the only person going through this — because, man, this is like a roller coaster. I mean, there were times I would want to escape out the window and just be like, "Amber's out." I thought, "Cooking maybe isn't for me." The recruits and my roommates are now my friends. All of us recruits came here for different reasons, and we have different backgrounds. Here I am this tattoo artist who is covered in tattoos. Then there's the huge real estate lady, the doctor, the rapper, the comedian and the Barbie girl. There were so many different dynamics to where it, literally, it made sense and it was the best experience ever. I'm not saying that it was perfect in the beginning. Bunk beds? Come on now. I think my back is still killing me. But I think overall the experience of getting along with others and seeing progression every day and seeing that I could still hold on, just inspired me, actually. Let me tell you, it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks. I'm 36 years old and I'm learning how to cook, and I'm thinking I have plenty of more years ahead of me, so I cannot wait to actually do this for the rest of my life.

Do you have any parting words for your coach, Bobby?

What I told Bobby was I can't explain this experience because I knew that even if I didn't win, this was going to change my whole family. I know it's just a day's work for him — he's been a chef for 30 some years, and it's second nature to him, like tattooing is for me. This is going to affect my family for generations to come. I'm passing this onto my kids. Bobby Flay will be in our lives forever. I don't even know if he realizes the impact that he's had on my family alone. I wanted to tell him this, but I couldn’t because nobody wants to get cheesy. I haven't had my parents in my life since my early twenties — they both passed away when they were 46. And so I haven't had a mentor or family in my life at all, and that's why I literally built my own family. I'm thankful. I'm not here to be the mom. I've been a mom since I was really young. I wouldn’t advise that. It's a struggle for sure, but I would never take that back. But I looked up to him. I wanted to impress him. He made me feel like his teaching was for a reason, it wasn't just let me get you in here and teach you a few things. Bobby being in my life for these few weeks has been the most-gratifying feeling I've ever felt in my entire life. He is a great man. I'm thankful so much for what he's done for me and my family.

What's next for you once you get back at home? Will you be cooking more?

I am definitely going to take a week off. Actually, I can't say I would take a week off because I'm always hungry now. I think about how crazy it is, how now I even try food differently. Before, food was just to make sure we're alive and now food is, like, beautiful and it has taste. I'm now friends with my palate. I'm looking forward to getting home and going to the grocery store and showing my kids what I've actually learned. It's on like Donkey Kong when it comes to eating now. No more going out. Those days are over. I can't wait to try new things. I catch myself even now, when I'm at the store, looking at stuff I would never have looked at before. Before it was like: "Let's go right to the frozen section. We'll throw a few vegetables and fruits in there so it looks good, and make sure you don't miss the candy aisle and the ice cream aisle." And now I think: "You know what? I'm skipping all that, and I'm bringing home some good dishes for my family and for myself." Even health wise it's going to change my life and my kids' lives.

What's the first thing you're going to do with your prize money?

I heard the recruits talk about a lot of different things that they were going to do. I don't know, crazy stuff, but winning this is going to do something completely different for my family. For a few months I haven't had a vehicle. Unfortunately somebody did a hit and run on our family vehicle a few months back with a semi truck while I was at work, and I don't think they realized they took out a whole family. Literally we'd have to walk for miles to the closest grocery store, and having a large family, it's a huge struggle when you can't bring that many groceries back. Winning this is going to change a family's life. I'm getting a family car. And for the first time, since my oldest is 22 years old, we've never gone on a family vacation. And I think I'll have enough to be able to get a car and then take my kids on a family vacation for the first time in their lives — and my life.

Will you commemorate your win with a tattoo?

You know I will. I told Bobby earlier in the challenge that if I were to win, I would get a portrait of him on my leg and I am going to do it. I'm going to get a portrait of Bobby Flay. Everything that's on my body tattoo wise has been taken from stories about my life. This is a huge one that's impacted me. He's in the cooking world, so he's probably like: "Really? A picture of me on you forever?" But you know what? Every time I look at it, I will be reminded of this experience. The way the tattoo art is these days, it's going to look just like Bobby. So I'm very excited.

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