Richie Jones-Muhammad—long before he moved to Long Beach and long before became a Top 20 contestant on the newest season of Master Chef, which is dubbed “The United Tastes of America” as the show decides to pit home cooks against one another regionally—grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland with the smells of the South: Collard greens braising with hock ham. Mac’n’cheese bubbling in the oven. Shepherd’s pie being layered. Corn bread out of a cask skillet. Chicken fried in that same skillet.
And it was all because of his grandmother, Lillian.
“I learned everything I knew from her because she was the only person who actually knew how to cook,” Jones-Muhammad said. “And when she passed, it hit me hard—in both good and bad ways.”
The “bad ways” are the obvious—the pang of permanent loss, the constant need to control the emptiness of a space that was once occupied, waiting two years before even touching the food of the South again—but the “good ways” are what provided him not only strength to keep his head up but the pathway to Master Chef: After that two-year lull, the 28-year-old hunkered down and, honoring Lillian’s spirit at the stove, began recreating her dishes for his mother, Alicia, and his siblings, Amanda and Mars, were his test subjects—and their exuberance was infectious.
“When I was cooking for my mom and siblings—y’know, these dishes were from my grandmother, they have memories attached to them—it was clear it was bringing so much joy,” Jones-Muhammad said. “Like my sibling, Mars: Their face just lit up; they were so happy and they told me, ‘Richie, you have to keep doing this.’ How could I tell my sibling no? The whole experience was showing me directly the power of food and what it can do—and that kept my cooking spirit alive.”
While he may have ventured to the Golden State in search of producing music, the chance at scoring an audition on Master Chef—let alone a coveted white apron—was too much of an opportunity to pass.
For those that have or haven’t watched the show, it is no spoiler that Jones-Muhammad did indeed score a white apron during the season’s premiere episode, where they chose their contestants from the Northeast part of the country, with Jones-Muhammad obviously representing the Baltimore area of Maryland. (And as the contestants prepare for their upcoming challenges, his audition episode will re-air June 28—and hopefully we have some watching party details for you on that so we can cheer on our Long Beach rep.)
But specifically for those that haven’t seen the show, the basis is simple: Bring in some of the country’s most talented home cooks, see if they can make it in the top 20, and whittle those top 20 down through weekly challenges with none other than Chef Gordon Ramsey looking on. To add the trepidation and anxiety, Ramsey is not alone: This year, longtime co-hosts Chefs Aarón Sánchez and Joe Bastianich, along with a guest judge joining every week. Eventually, a top three are chose to compete in a finale and win the title along with a sizable chunk of change to kick off their culinary dreams.
So what nabbed Jones-Muhammad a white apron? A dish Maryland would be proud of because, of course, it was seafood: A pan-seared salmon with spinach and parmesan-crusted potatoes.
Were the judges unanimous in letting him go forward? No. While Sanchez and guest judge Chef Daphne Oz were enthusiastic yeses, the infamously curmudgeon-like Bastianich—often referred to as the Simon Cowell of Master Chef—gave Jones-Muhammad a firm but gentle no, handing off the decision to Ramsey himself: “I am going to tell you no as well,” he said, with a dramatic pause, “To the music studio because I want you in the kitchen.”
It is at this yes or no from a behind-the-door choice that contestants walk back out to their families dawning a white apron or, typically, come out head down with sorrow. For Jones-Muhammad, he not only got to dawn the white apron but proudly greet Alicia, Amanda, and Mars—a showcase of the power of women in his life.
“It was a bit surreal, that moment,” Jones-Muhammad said. “Because I hadn’t really jumped into food professionally until Master Chef. I’ve seen every season and it’s always been inspiring seeing what it can do for people. The season that sticks out particularly for me is Christine Hà [season 3 Master Chef winner], watching a blind woman rise through the ranks and kick ass.”
Hà is among many in Master Chef that have bucked the trend of what most of the culinary world in the U.S. reflects—largely white, straight men—and Master Chef honors that tradition in nearly every season: From young Black men and woman like Jones-Muhammad or Season 9 winner Chef Gerron Hurt, who see their own when lauded Black chefs like Chef Nyesha Arrington come on board, to Indian, Asian, Latino, queer home cooks having a chance at being seen…
One can say what they wish about Ramsey’s seemingly endless domination of the cooking show competition realm, but he approaches with the knowledge that his platform has the power to give people who likely never would have a chance that very chance.
“It’s a huge inspiration that always reminds me that anything is possible when a door is open for you,” Jones-Muhammad said. “It gives this smorgasbord of representation, especially this season… And after going through one of the most stressful things I’ve done, it’s pretty incredible to not just witness but be a part of it all.”
As to how far Chef Richie will make it, that will be left up to us watching the season. But if there is one thing that is certain, despite the outcome, it all comes down to the fact that Lillian’s spirit is perpetually with him, guiding him on new adventures in and out of the kitchen.
“Oh, I absolutely have her cast iron,” Jones-Muhammad said proudly and happily. “I have her cast iron, I have the white baking dishes with the flowers on the side—they’re never leaving me.”
Can we get an amen? And, of course, a bon appétit.
Master Chef airs on FOX on Wednesdays at 8PM and appears on Hulu the following day. Richie’s audition episode will re-air June 28.