In case you haven’t heard, Wilmington’s Jennifer Behm is America’s MasterChef. Seven million viewers watched her take that title last summer on “MasterChef,” a wildly popular Fox reality TV series that pits amateur cooks against each other. Behm, a Realtor and former beauty pageant winner, beat out thousands who applied to the show. Her Delaware fans, at least the hundreds who packed five rooms at the Columbus Inn the night of the finale, were exhilarated but not surprised when she won the $250,000 cash prize.
“Jen isn’t exactly normal,” says Theresa Vallier-Thomas, a home stager in Wilmington who has known Behm for years. “Ask her to bring something to a tailgating party, and she’ll whip up truffle mac and cheese and homemade sangria—red and white.”
Behm is smart and spirited, and has the kind of presence that jumps off the screen and into your gut. The tall blonde with the booming laugh and wide smile is a tough cookie who’s soft on the inside. She’ll talk smack with anyone, but slam her food and she’ll well up like a kid who dropped her ice cream cone.
If contestants on “MasterChef” can’t take the heat, they’re blasted out of the kitchen. They leave the Hollywood studio dejected, hoping the doors don’t hit them on the way out. Behm’s tough skin and competitive streak proved invaluable.
“I was always an athlete,” she says. “Crazy hours and hard work were no big deal. The work ethic was ingrained.”
Be it stamina, talent or pot luck, Behm has become an international personality. With the quarter mil in hand and contacts most chefs would kill for, she’s positioned for a lucrative career. The question is not if Delaware will lose its newest star, but when.
Television is an image business, but cute won’t cut it on “MasterChef.” Talent counts for something on cooking shows, and, according to a recent Harris Poll, 50 percent of adults in the United States watch them. Discerning viewers, baby boomers mostly, are cooking at home more than ever. They rely on celebrity chefs to guide them in the kitchen and have the cash to spend on gadgets bearing chefs’ names. That’s how food stars build empires—not by cooking, but by selling stuff. Think Giada De Laurentiis’ brand at Target, Rachael Ray’s network TV gig, magazine and product line, and numerous contraptions from Bobby Flay and Paula Deen. Ray, the highest-paid food star in the country, has an estimated net worth of $60 million, according to Forbes.
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Behm has the talent, business savvy and connections to go as far as her energy will allow. If her friends are right, that’s pretty far. “She never stops,” says Vallier-Thomas. “She runs on adrenalin.”
Behm laughs, her sonorous voice bouncing off the walls at the Chelsea Tavern in downtown Wilmington. “My mom always says that if I’m just sitting around,” she says, “I’m either sick or there’s something seriously wrong.”
Behm is recognized everywhere—Delaware, New York, Los Angeles. She’s stopped counting how many autographs and headshots she’s signed. “MasterChef” is a global phenomenon, which makes Behm, 35, a global sensation. Versions of the show are produced in 10 countries, and each has its own winner, but the American winners get more worldwide attention. In addition to her thousands of fans in the United States, Behm has groupies in Singapore, Afghanistan, Iraq, Greenland, Japan and China. Her Facebook page is on overdrive—clogged with at least 100 friend requests a day, job offers and marriage proposals from strangers all over the world.
The American “MasterChef,” a consistent ratings winner with a finale that kept 7 million viewers riveted, casts a triumvirate of judges: Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay, restaurateur and winemaker Joe Bastianich, and Graham Elliot, the youngest four-star chef in the country. These are no-nonsense sovereigns. Slackers shouldn’t even think about working for them, let alone being judged by them.
Behm’s final challenge—a three- course spread with scallops, stuffed quail and poached pears—won her the title, but she was no slouch the rest of the season. Her nemesis, Christian Collins, called her names too nasty to print—and she countered with equally loaded expletives. Behm hung tough when Ramsay spit out her undercooked lamb, and then, in an act of managerial brio, Bastianich threw it in the garbage.
“Attitude is everything,” says Elliot, whom contestants considered the gentlest and most supportive of the judges. “You have to handle stress and adversity with poise and humility. Jennifer showed she could do both while cooking her butt off.”
When the three kings crowned her queen, Behm became more than a culinary goddess. She had star power, the “it factor” that could go a long way. That did not appear to be the case with last year’s “MasterChef” winner, Whitney Miller. The shy, soft-spoken Southerner published a cookbook that’s in its 4th edition, but her “MasterChef” light otherwise went dark.
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Miller is a talented cook. Behm, by comparison, is a marketable commodity. Her candor made for a nice side, but, says Elliot, “She was also willing to take chances.” Most “MasterChef” wannabes enter the arena with high hopes, but cooking in front of the judges is terrifying—especially Bastianich, whose frigid glare can melt the meek. Most contestants sautéed in horror as their dreams of culinary stardom spoiled like rotting tomatoes. The groups, numbered initially at 39,000, were whittled down to 100, then 38. Behm, wearing her bright green sleeveless blouse, was the first to make it to the series.
“Jen was born spunky,” says her mother, Nancy Behm. “She’s always been well-rounded, centered, passionate—and before you ask, yes, she’s always had the snort.”
The show’s editors ran with Behm’s now-famous snort. For the pork challenge episode, they spliced together footage of her snort and that of a live pig. “It was hilarious,” Behm says. “I snort like that all the time, when I’m laughing, having a good time. There was no making that up.”
Behm, a Reading, Pa., native, has had a relatively happy life. The oldest of three children, she’s close to her family, though she never met her late biological father. Her grandfather, Pete Snyder, was her “heart and soul.” She was adopted at 6 by Clark Behm, Nancy’s second husband. Known to the family as Griz, after the Clark Grizwald character played by Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s “Vacation” films, Clark fathered Behm’s brothers, Joshua and Jason.
“Griz has been my dad forever; he raised me,” she says. “Family is what you make family.” As for her biological father, a race car driver, Behm says, simply, “His loss.”
She’s not the only famous family member. In 2010, when her brother Tech. Sgt. Joshua C. Behm was deployed as a flight chief at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, enemy forces launched the biggest direct attack on an American air base since the Vietnam War, according to the Reading Eagle. Joshua defended his base by killing two enemy personnel and was awarded the Col. Billy Jack Carter Award.
Joshua’s wife, Liliana, passed away in 2007 at age 27, and left behind the couple’s son, Christopher, who’s now 6. Liliana’s birthday was Feb. 7, the same date Behm was selected for the show and handed the “MasterChef” apron.
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When Joshua is deployed, Behm takes care of her nephew, who made an appearance with his family on the season finale. Young Christopher managed to keep his aunt’s win a secret for two months—the time lapse between the taping and the televised finale. The whole family kept mum, in fact. Had anyone spilled, Behm would have lost the title and the cash.
A champion gymnast at 12, Behm is no stranger to competition. She’s always been a tomboy and claims to be one still. Her grandmother tried to dress her like a girl every Sunday, but Behm’s skinned knees didn’t complement her white Mary Janes. Griz, Behm says, “Thought it would be a good idea to make me a little more feminine.”
He entered her in the Miss Junior Teen All American pageant in Pennsylvania, which she lost. “I didn’t look up, I didn’t make eye contact. I was terrified,” she says. A year later, she won a small category and $25. She entered several other pageants, usually making it to runner-up. She moved to Delaware in 1999, and a year later, was crowned Miss Delaware USA.
She played soccer at La Salle University in Philadelphia, where she majored in chemistry and Japanese, then dropped out to pursue a modeling career. She did stints for Carol Wior shapewear on QVC, and is still a part-time on-air product specialist there. After a brief move to Los Angeles, she came home and earned her degree in exercise science at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa.
After enduring a desk job at a chiropractor’s office, which Behm says she “hated,” she started flipping houses with her boyfriend. “I laid tile and hardwood floors with my own hands,” she says. She got her Realtors license in 2002 and—big surprise—was named Realtor of the Year shortly thereafter. She speaks well of colleagues at Patterson Schwartz and RE/MAX, but let’s face it: The reality TV star is on to other things.
Behm used part of her winnings to open Pink Martini Catering in Wilmington. Within five days after the finale aired—and before she got her Web site up—Behm had booked 10 parties. She’d like to partner with the zany yet lovable “MasterChef” contestant Christine Corley, a single mom from Florida. They both love catering and Corley says she’d pack up her son and move to Delaware.
“We’ll see what happens,” says Behm.
We’ll see what happens.
In September Behm met with agents at Chef Ramsay’s production companies, most notably One Potato Two Potato. Veteran chefs can’t even get a meeting with Ramsay’s people, but the doors are wide open to Behm. Ramsay is a transcontinental star with numerous TV shows. His empire is worth an estimated $118 million.
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Behm had to sign a contract that allows One Potato to take on “MasterChef” contestants as talent for six months, with an option to renew for two years. Her six-month clause was invoked. The rest is pending.
“They own me right now,” Behm says. “The way I look at it, I would never have had this opportunity without that. This is paying my dues. I get that.”
If Behm lands a TV show or cookbook deal, her agents get a piece of the pie, naturally. But there’s an upside. If she becomes famous, she’ll be represented by the most illustrious agents in the world. If she chooses to move on to another network, like Food Network, One Potato will broker the deal.
The biggest culinary shows are taped typically in New York and California. Given the land of opportunity that Behm now rules, it’s hard to imagine her staying in Delaware. She sees herself settling at the beach, but rather than Rehoboth, it’ll probably be Laguna. Her plan is to have a TV show, cookbook and product line in five years—and children within 10.
Ultimately, she wants to touch folks through television. “People write and tell me I’ve inspired them to pursue their dreams,” she says. “I want to get them excited about food.”
There is only one time during a two-hour conversation when her smile isn’t wide, her laugh isn’t loud, and her voice doesn’t boom. It’s when she thinks about leaving her family. Her mom won’t leave Reading. She’ll miss her dad, her nephew, her brothers, her friends. She’ll miss Delaware.
But she has as good a chance as anyone to hit the big time.
“Jennifer will excel at whatever endeavor she chooses,” says Elliot, “be it working in a kitchen, starting her own catering company, or having her own cooking show.”
If the offer presents itself in New York, Chicago or L.A., leaving will be bittersweet. But, Behm says, “I’ll take it.”