From the kitchen range of their Roseville home to the national TV airwaves, this mother and daughter cooking team continues to savor a sweet victory.
Monica Mooney and her 11-year-old daughter, Jasmine Williford, were recently named grand prize winners in an amateur edition of "Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off."
The contest pitted family teams representing Rachael Ray ("Team Rachael") or Guy Fieri ("Team Guy"), who were given a series of cooking challenges. Once the stoves had cooled down and the judges got their tastes, Mooney scored a kitchen makeover and Jasmine nabbed a $10,000 culinary school scholarship.
"It was pretty amazing," said Mooney. "The final cook-off was between us and a father-son team, and the dad was in culinary school. I knew from the beginning they were going to be our biggest competition. We were definitely nervous."
Mooney, a homemaker who's rearing five children, doesn't boast any background in restaurants or culinary school classrooms. She simply loves to cook and found a perfect assistant in her 11-year-old daughter. Jasmine, a sixth-grader, has been cooking with her mom since preschool.
Together, they make homemade pizzas, spaghetti, plenty of baked goods and more.
"She's like my sous chef," Mooney said. "My grandma and mom always had me in the kitchen, and once I had children of my own, it was something I wanted to do. I like that bonding time with my daughter. With five kids here, there's not much one-on-one time."
Their camaraderie and cooking experience together helped give them an edge once the TV cameras started rolling.
They'd first heard about the competition last summer on Twitter, and submitted a video of themselves making a cookielike dessert out of a pie crust. Hearing later that other contestants had sent videos of elaborate three-course meals, Mooney said she felt like a simpleton, but the Roseville duo still made the cut.
In January, they were off to New York City to tape three shows of this amateur edition of "Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off."
"At first I was really nervous, and then all the butterflies went away," Jasmine said. "I hung out with some of the other contestants. We went to Times Square. It was fun."
On the set, and with cameras capturing their moves, the competition felt like a pressure cooker. They cooked their way through three rounds of challenges in which they had to whip together a series of meals with a mystery ice chest or basket of ingredients. The opening round required them to craft a dish using chicken thighs, frozen peas, grape tomatoes and jalapeños as main ingredients. They also had access to more goods with a pantry and refrigerator on the set.
A round that featured an omelette challenge was nearly a dairy disaster.
"We were in this kitchen that I was totally unfamiliar with," said Mooney. "It was an electric (stove) and I use gas, and was in really unfamiliar territory. I said, 'OK, Jasmine, bring the eggs over here,' and I can't get the eggs to cook. I'm literally dying. I'm looking over at the other contestants and they're already done. I said, 'Congratulations, you did a really good job.' "
Mooney was able to make a quick save by cutting the slowly forming eggs into small circular portions, getting them to solidify and adding sausage, ham and herbs for garnish. It worked and the mother-daughter team made it to the finals.
The championship round pitted Mooney and Jasmine against the team with the culinary school-trained father. But it was a pretzel-breaded chicken cutlet improvised by Mooney that sealed this competition deal. Her daughter's suggestion to create two dipping sauces for the dish was also appreciated by the judging panel.
"That made her feel good," Mooney said. "Rachael (Ray) and her staff were so awesome and made us feel special. We didn't want for anything, and that made it a great experience."
Back home in Roseville, Mooney has a slew of new Maytag kitchen appliances ready to be installed. She looks forward to using them for many more cooking sessions with her daughter.
"It's so much better than running to McDonald's," said Mooney. "I want them to know there's a quicker and easier way than to just go through a drive-thru."
Meanwhile, with a $10,000 scholarship to cooking school in her name, Jasmine can already sense her future.
"I think I want to open a restaurant," she said.