Orchid – One Hot Mama

Orchid Paulmeier needed a winner, something that would stick out for the judges. Paulmeier, 39, of Bluffton, South Carolina, attended an open call audition last August for the seventh season of the popular cable reality series The Next Food Network Star—her third attempt in as many years.

“I just figured three times a charm, or three strikes, you’re out. It was going to be one or the other at this point,” recalls Paulmeier, a chef and partner at One Hot Mama’s, a popular eatery in Hilton Head Island. “This time I was really just like, ‘Let’s just go for it, and we’ll see what happens.’”

And go for it she did. On the second day of the Atlanta-based audition, she was asked to present judges with a dish that would be representative of her culinary approach. Staying at a nearby hotel, she ventured out to a local market and purchased her ingredients. She decided on a plate of poached salmon with a black bean couscous, a nice dish anytime of the year, to be sure, but what put it over the top was Paulmeier’s ingenuity. She ran tap water through the hotel room coffeepot four times, to get the water up to temperature, and then seasoned it to make a modified poaching liquid. She then poured the seasoned broth over the fish and couscous separately to cook the dish.

The judges were impressed with her crafty use of everyday objects. Heck, even MacGyver would’ve been impressed with the impromptu display. “The [judges] were like, ‘How’d you make this again?’ And I said, ‘In the hotel room.’ ‘With what?’ ‘The coffee maker.’” And just like that, as quick as you can say drip-drip-drip, she’d beaten out over 3,000 hopefuls for one of 15 spots for the upcoming season. For the uninitiated, the show pits 13 contestants against each other in a series of unique culinary challenges. At the end of each show, one candidate is usually eliminated based on a judge’s decision. At the end of the season, a winner is crowned and is given their own show on The Food Network.

Taping started in January and ended seven weeks later in March. But since the show wouldn’t air until June, the normally outgoing and animated Paulmeier had to keep things under wraps. “I had to have a cover story. That was the funny part,” says Paulmeier, a mother of three originally from Orland Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. “It was my own little secret. I had just had this wonderful experience and no one knew about it.” So she kept her candidacy hush-hush, only telling her husband, Michael, and her business partner, Chris. As far as friends, family and restaurant colleagues knew, she was out of town doing some restaurant consulting work.

“On sabbatical,” she recalls wryly. By the time the show aired the first Sunday in June, Paulmeier already began to feel the initial tinges of celebrity. She found herself spending most of her workday on the floor at One Hot Mama’s, signing autographs and telling stories to locals and vacationers. Business more than doubled, and she had to hire additional staff to handle the surge. Her warm smile, lively personality and apparent on-camera comfort quickly endeared Paulmeier to the online masses, as she won the preshow fan vote in a landslide with 54% of the tally. Several online message boards, including some on the Food Network website itself, tapped Paulmeier as an early favorite for the show’s top prize. Even the judges picked her as a frontrunner, going as far as telling her on one of the early shows not to change anything.

The competition itself started auspiciously enough for Paulmeier, who won the two challenges on the season’s first episode, which featured an appearance by Dinner: Impossible host Robert Irvine, a Hilton Head resident. On the season’s fourth episode, Orchid won another challenge, as the finalists traveled to the set of the hit ABC television show Cougar Town to feed the crew. In a bit of Southern karma, that episode’s special guest ended up being none other than Food Network luminary (and fellow Lowcountry native) Paula Deen. So, it was with shock that viewers saw Paulmeier eliminated in the season’s sixth episode, a substitution of canned oysters for abalone leading to her ultimate undoing. The show’s season finale tapped Jeff Mauro as its winner. Like many talent-based reality television programs, the end of the show is not necessarily the end of the line.

In fact, for many, it’s a new beginning. Orchid still thinks about a conversation the contestants had with celebrity chef Guy Fieri, a guest on the season’s fifth episode and winner of the show’s second season. “I remember he pulled us all aside and said, ‘You know, this is your year to make something happen. If you want to get ahead in the world, this is the year to do it,’” recalls Paulmeier. She’s taken the advice to heart. Paulmeier is eyeing additional television opportunities, has partnered in a second Hilton Head restaurant (The Lodge), and is marketing her signature line of One Hot Mama’s sauces. “Whatever doors open up, I’m just going to go for it,” she says. “There’s obviously a reason I did this and had this great opportunity.”