It's been several months since Bravo's Around the World in 80 Plates was filmed in cities spanning the globe, but the memories for hometown chef and contestant Jenna Johansen, who made it through seven countries -- and countless challenges -- before she was given the boot in last night's Thailand episode (despite the fact that her dish, papaya salad, enthralled McDang, Thailand's most lauded chef), are still crystal clear.
Johansen, whom the other chefs annoyingly called "annoying," insists that she didn't deserve the ax: "I don't feel like I should be the one going home tonight, and I'm disappointed about that," she reflected after fellow contestant John Vermiglio cast the deciding vote to send her packing from Chiang Mai. "I don't know how I ended up here, but when I came on to this competition, I thought this would be an adventure, and I thought that there would be a lot more cooking, and now I realize it's a definitely a game more than a culinary competition, and that's a little disappointing to me, because now I see that there's a chance that the person who wins this may not be the best chef. I'm taking this personally, for sure," she added.
Johansen can't reveal who wins the $150,000 prize, but now that's she's home -- and busy with a full plate of local culinary adventures, including a Heart of Italy feast this Sunday night at Pizza Republica alongside owner-chef George Eder (seats are $99 each, and reservations are still available by calling 720-489-2030) -- she can talk openly about her experiences on the show. And in the following exit interview, she weighs in on why she deserved to win, who should be the next chef to go, and who she thinks will be the last one standing.
"Annoying" is the last word I'd use to describe you, but your fellow contestants repeated that trait over and over again to characterize your personality. So, come clean: Are you annoying? No, I don't think so. I'm passionate and definitely have a strong personality -- that's not up for debate -- and when you're in a competition and there's adrenaline pumping 24 hours a day, I'm sure there are going to be some annoying moments, but I'm fun, and I don't think "annoying" describes my personality. Had it been a different setting -- had we been a bunch of chefs just running around, or just a group of friends -- I think I would have been perceived differently. I can safely say, however, that my friends don't think I'm annoying.
How do you feel about how you were portrayed on the show? There were certainly characteristics of mine that were portrayed in a negative light, and I'll admit that I talk a lot and have a lot of opinions, but I talk to people face-to-face, not behind their backs. I prefer to be upfront and honest, and while that can appear as though I'm pushy and bossy, I'd much rather be that person than someone who's catty. It's a positive to me that I can speak my mind, so I was surprised at a lot of the things that people said behind my back. In some ways, it became like Desperate Housewives drama, and that's not what I was interested in.
What's the feedback been like from people here in Denver? Really supportive, lovely and phenomenal. I'm so grateful for the this community -- they know that how I was portrayed on TV isn't the real me.
There are always haters -- the people who are glad to see you gone. What would you say to them? It's really easy to sit in an armchair and judge someone based on 42 minutes of a TV show, and while I appreciate their opinions, I respectfully disagree. I know I'm definitely not the fan favorite, and that's okay with me. The people who matter support me.
Where did you enjoy traveling the most, and where do you want to go next? I loved going to Barcelona, which had been on my bucket list for a long time, and while I really loved the food in Morocco, the people weren't very nice to us at all -- they tried to grab and trip us, and there were a lot of racist comments; it just wasn't a very friendly culture, and I wouldn't go back there again. Thailand was really lovely -- but hot! My fiance, Mark DeNittis, and I are planning a vacation to Italy. He has a lot of family in Mattinata on the Gargano Coast, and the kids really want to go there.
You've been all over the world, and obviously love to travel, but you've made Denver your home. From a culinary point of view, what do you love most about it? I love the food scene here, and I'm so thankful that I've made this my home. I love that so many chefs have their own farms and that it's the culture here, rather than a buzzword. We have phenomenal chefs and restaurants, cheesemakers, farmers, gardeners, beekeepers and people who are so very passionate about the food scene. We're not up and coming -- we're already here -- and just continuing to grow.
You're a chef, and you've cooked in tons of restaurants, but this show doesn't focus on cooking as much as it does on physical, taxing challenges. Was that disappointing to you -- that you weren't able to cook more? We did do a lot of cooking -- we cooked some spectacular food -- probably as much as they do on Top Chef, but I'm disappointed that there wasn't more focus on cooking in terms of what you saw on TV. There was too much of a focus on the drama and on running around, and that's a shame, because everyone on the show was an accomplished chef who could cook. I went on the show to cook and to travel, and we all cooked our hearts out; you just didn't get to see it.
Which was the toughest challenge? Last night's Thailand episode. I had sprained both of my ankles early on, and by the time we got to Thailand, they'd gotten really bad. The challenges in this episode were really physical, and by the end of the first day, I was defeated mentally and physically. I was spending every single night on this trip with bags of ice on my ankles, just so I could run the next day. We ran miles and miles in every episode, but Thailand was the worst, and it was so incredibly hot there.
Of all the challenges you faced, which was your favorite? I loved the olive-picking challenge in Florence, and since I'd been there before, I knew my way around, I knew the streets and I knew the language. And it was the only challenge where we had the whole night to cook, rather than just a few hours.
What's your fondest memory of your experience? I loved the markets in Barcelona. There's a stand just for eggs -- everything from quail to ostrich, all in different sizes and colors -- and different stands for salumi, for olives, for olive oil, for everything. I could spend days there just shopping for food and talking to people.
Fellow chef and contestant John Vermiglio called you a "ball and chain" in the Bologna episode. It sounded personal. What did he mean by that? He was referring to the fact that I was having trouble running and was the weak link, because I couldn't run. It seemed hateful when he said it, but I don't think it was a malicious comment. It was portrayed as a personal insult, but he didn't mean it that way.
There was palpable animosity between you and Avery Pursell, but when you were eliminated, you hugged her -- and everyone else, including John, who was the deciding vote in casting you off. Any hard feelings for those who kept you from moving on to the next city? No hard feelings. This is a game. Someone has to get voted off in order for someone else to win. And at least they were honest about why I got voted off: I was a threat, and ultimately, they want to keep the people around who they can beat.
Did you feel like you were going to win it all? Absolutely. I really, really thought I was going to win, but at the same time, I didn't think that some of the challenges would be as difficult as they were. But I was definitely shocked that I was sent home, because we absolutely made the best dish in Thailand. I'm definitely just as good, if not better, as the chefs who are left. No doubt about it. I may not be the best strategist, but I can cook, and I cooked some amazing food, and I was voted off because of it. I had the skills and the technique to go all the way.
You chose to vote for Liz Garrett during last night's elimination process. Why did you think it was her time to go? I would hire Liz to work at my restaurant, but I wouldn't hire to run my restaurant. Her skill set and techniques aren't as strong as the rest of the chefs who are still there.
Based on your observations of the contestant's performances, who should be the next to go? If I had a choice, I'd send Liz home again.
What happened once you were voted off? I went to a hotel, sat up all night and thought about everything. I didn't talk to anyone.
Who's the best chef left? Avery. She's the strongest chef there. She has an excellent palate, great technique, she's very focused in the kitchen, and I respect her cooking a lot.
Are you going to continue to watch the remaining episodes, and if so, who are you rooting for? I'll continue to watch the show, because I want to see what everyone else has to go through, and I'm rooting for Nicole Lou, because she had my back during the elimination in Thailand. Voting for someone else was a vote to keep me around...and she never talked shit about me.
If you had to do it all over again, what, if anything, would you do differently? I would have brought sneakers instead of chef clogs. I thought I was just gonna be cooking, so I brought my cooking shoes. And I would have strategized a little better. I just wanted to move on to the next country and cook the best food. But there were alliances, and when I had the opportunity to vote people off in Tuscany, I voted for Gary Walker, who I love, only because he had mostly worked the front-of-the-house, but I should have voted for John, who had a lot of experience in the kitchen. I wasn't a good strategist.
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Who from Denver would you nominate to compete on a future season of Around the World in 80 Plates? Brendon Doyle from City O' City. He thinks outside the box, and he's really mastered the technique of deconstructing flavors. He's producing a lot of dishes that are traditionally meat-based, and he's great at turning those into amazing vegan and vegetarian dishes. That would come in handy. He also has a great palate, and I love his food.
Had you won the $150,000, what would you have done with it? I would have paid off our house and taken the whole family on vacation to wherever they want to go.
What's in the pipeline? Mark and I have a blog called The Last Thing We Ate that we're working on, I'm doing the whole festival circuit thing, plus Denver FIVE events and special dinners, and I have my sights set on getting back in the kitchen sooner rather than later. I don't now when that will be, but I'm looking forward to it. And Mark and I are getting married, sometime within the next year for sure.