Bright lights. Time clocks. Unfamiliar ingredients. Those are just a few of the pressures cooking-show contestants face. Now consider MasterChef's Amanda Saab. She handles those pressures with a smile -- all while representing her beliefs on national television.
Beneath that sunny exterior, however, you'll find a self-possessed young woman determined to use her cooking skills to help those less fortunate than herself. She recently spoke with me from her home in Seattle, Washington.
A Pioneer in an Apron and a Headscarf
If you're watching MasterChef season 6, you know it's hard to miss Amanda in her color-coordinated hijabs (headscarves). It's more than a first for MasterChef -- she's been dubbed "the first Muslim woman to cook in a hijab on American TV."
Amanda and I spoke about this and much more. With MasterChef filming over, she's ready to talk, but not revealing any spoilers about the recently completed season (other than recommending everyone watch the Las Vegas episode this week, but that's hardly a spoiler).
A social worker by trade, the self-taught cook and food blogger auditioned in Los Angeles, besting more than 1,000 other contestants. She said the crowds were overwhelming, but she demonstrated her confidence through her dish: baklava cheesecake. No surprise that her favorite MC judge is newcomer Christina Tosi.
"For so long, I thought to myself, 'they need a woman on there--a strong woman powerhouse,'" said Amanda, who didn't know pastry chef and restaurateur Tosi was joining the show when she auditioned. "Christina's so innovative and creative. And baking is my passion, so she's everything I had hoped for."
Let Them Eat (Crab) Cake!
Ironically, Amanda jumped into front-runner status during the Mystery Box Challenge
with a cake - just not the sugary kind. The ingredient? Live crabs.
"Wow, that crab box was tough," she said. "Live shellfish can be very scary. The claws are huge, they're moving around. Being from Seattle, I went straight for the Dungeness. There's lots of meat to work with, so I set all the others aside and made three huge crab cakes with one crab. I wanted to make a good impression on the judges, and I think I did."
Though she ended up being edged out in the challenge (I thought she was robbed), she enjoyed her moment in the top-three spotlight. "I'm a fierce competitor, even if I smile a lot."
A Chance to Share Her Beliefs
That combination of cheerfulness and steel has served her well. She takes her new role seriously, with a maturity far beyond her 25 years.
"I've been catapulted into this role of being a Muslim on a TV cooking show -- people are intrigued and want to know more," she said. "I'm an imperfect human, we all have our faults. But I have a sense of responsibility to give a good impression. I want to show we're just normal Americans who practice our faith in an outward way."
Amanda also made it clear she chooses how she dresses. "I decided to wear the hijab on my own. No man made me do it. This was my decision to protect myself from societal pressures and remain modest. That's why we [as Muslims] cover ourselves."
So far, she said, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. "For every 1,000 positive comments, I get maybe one negative one. I think it's great to have a platform to educate people about women and Islam and food.
"It's been very empowering. I've had many young women reach out to me and say I inspire them, which is wonderful."
A Dream to Bring Food to Others
Just as she has a favorite judge, Amanda has a favorite past winner as well -- season 4's Luca Manfe.
"Oh, definitely Luca," she said. "He emigrated to the U.S. and fulfilled his American dream, like my parents, who emigrated here when they were young. Luca really resonates with me."
Like Luca (and many contestants), if she wins MasterChef season 6, she plans to open a restaurant. But there's a big difference between her dream and so many others: she wants her restaurant to be a force for good in her community.
"For every meal sold, we will give a meal to a person in need," she said. "As a social worker, I have seen the real need out there, and I think it would be a great way to help people."
So will she achieve her dream with the help of a MasterChef victory? She already knows, but she's not telling. If she doesn't reach the top spot, however, it won't be for lack of trying, even when faced with a common but -- to her -- unfamiliar ingredient.
"As a Muslim, I don't cook or eat pork, but I knew I might have to," she said, "And I knew everyone would be curious how I would handle it. So I looked at videos and learned different techniques before coming on the show. You'll just have to tune in and see if I end up cooking with it!"
After all, fierce competitors don't let something as small as an unfamiliar ingredient derail their dreams.
MasterChef airs Wednesdays at 8pm on FOX.
(Image courtesy of FOX)