Hemelt: LaPlace cook was more than ready for $50,000 moment

Published 9:10 am Sunday, April 10, 2016

It started with nine talented cooks from across the country.

A few weeks of competition dropped the number from nine to two.

Hometown hero Natasha Clement was one of the final two remaining.

Their final challenge required the cooks to prepare a dish from the heart, demonstrating how much they progressed throughout the competition.

Natasha Clement

Natasha Clement

It all came down to the final meal, worth a cool $50,000.

Clement, who lives in LaPlace and works in Uptown New Orleans, was ready for the moment.

“It had all come full circle to why I was there, which was to win the money to better my son’s future because of everything we had been through,” Clement said. “It was also this defining moment of validation that if I don’t win, I’m in this damn finale.

“Here I am against this awesome single dad who has been through similar struggles I’ve been through. I have nothing but respect for him. If I would have lost to him, it would have been justified.”

Clement and fellow cook Lee Abbott were competing on Food Network’s All-Star Academy. Although filmed over three weeks last November in New York, it only came to conclusion Sunday when the show’s eight-episode schedule finished its season run.

Clement, with only her husband knowing, had kept the secret for four months that she was the champion — thanks in large part to her final dish, shrimp and grits.

When I had a chance to touch base with her this week, she remembered the details of her winning dish like she made it yesterday.

“The entire time I was making my final dish, I just kept thinking, ‘Do what you know. Cook what you love. Cook what your family likes you to eat with them,’” she told me. “That is where I used (celebrity chef mentor) Robert (Irvine). I told Robert I want to do shrimp and grits, maybe sort of a peasant dish to some people who aren’t from around here. I wanted to jazz it up a bit to make it restaurant-quality, something (judge and chef) Curtis Stone would have enjoyed eating.”

At that point, Irvine’s advice to Clement was minimal because he trusted her enough by watching her throughout the competition.

The only thing he really said, according to Clement, was, “this plate is worth $50,000. Take everything I taught you as far as technical skills and focus and don’t worry about what other people think. Worry about making it perfect.”

The advice, the mentorship and Clement’s carefully honed skills added up to deliver something perfect.

She won.

“I had no doubt that it was going to taste awesome,” she said. “The interpretation of shrimp and grits may have been a little elevated for some people, but I had faith Curtis Stone would see where I was coming from because he is such a distinguished chef. I admire him just as much as I admire Robert Irvine.”

Clement was only allowed to tell her husband, Chesson Clement, of the victory ahead of the final episode’s airing April 3.

She was in New York when she won. Chesson was home in LaPlace.

“I called and asked him what he was doing,” Clement recalls somewhat playfully now, considering the months and conversations that have taken place since.

“He was making frozen French fries and turkey burgers. He said, ‘what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I just cooked a $50,000 dish.’ He dropped the phone, teared up and walked away from the phone. For like two minutes I didn’t even hear him. After he composed himself, he was just so proud.”

Clement and Chesson kept the spectacular news from Clement’s 12-year-old son Ethan and Chesson’s twin children, Corrine and Brady, as the suspense of each episode built.

Finally, the rest of her family, her coworkers at La Petite Grocery and the greater LaPlace community got to share in the excitement Sunday.

Clement was back at work this week, but she hopes the All-Star win leads to bigger things, like a career with Food Network or her own show.

Clement’s ultimate goal is to own her own business.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.