Ernest Hooper: Amateur chef pitches Tampa like a pro on Gordon Ramsay show

Tampa's Jeff Philbin was eliminated from the MasterChef competition during the Sept. 13 broadcast of the Fox reality series, but not before leaving  an impression as a contestant. [Courtesy of Jeff Philbin]
Tampa's Jeff Philbin was eliminated from the MasterChef competition during the Sept. 13 broadcast of the Fox reality series, but not before leaving an impression as a contestant. [Courtesy of Jeff Philbin]
Published September 15 2017
Updated September 15 2017

Even in the final seconds of his 18-episode run on MasterChef, Jeff Philbin represented Tampa — albeit with the help of one of his fiercest competitors.

"It looks like he's finally headed back to Tampa, where he belongs," Cate Meade boasted about Philbin.

Meade, from Chicago was right. Philbin struggled to turn his salmon into a delectable dish for celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, in part because Meade placed him in the difficult position of having only 20 minutes to prepare his entree (other contestants had incrementally more time).

In fact, Ramsay used his trademark, "it's raw," to all but torpedo Philbin's chances of staying on the show.

Yet our city can take pride in Philbin because no other contestant in the reality show for amateur cooks became more intertwined with his hometown. Time and again, Philbin touted his love for Tampa.

Philbin comes across as a genuinely nice guy, but on the show, he definitely played the role of villain.

"It's kind of funny because editing will do that," Philbin said Thursday after he could finally talk about the results of the show, taped months ago.

"The great thing is the whole season, whether you loved me or hated me, I was always part of an episode. Editing really turned me into a heel for quite some time, but I was determined. "

Since the shows are airing after the final taping, Philbin impressively turned the opportunity into watch party fundraisers at Fodder & Shine in Seminole Heights. Each week, money was raised for a select nonprofit through raffles, drawings and other efforts. Feeding Tampa Bay, Metropolitan Ministries, Vincent Jackson's Jackson in Action 83 and Eckerd Kids were among the recipients.

"I said to myself when the filming was over, I wanted to do something special."

Philbin said part of his motivation for the show came from being a new dad. He began taping the episodes just after the birth of his son Holden, and that devotion to Holden and to his fiance Beth proved to be a common theme during the season.

In fact, in one particular episode, Philbin's run appeared to be all but over as he grew frustrated trying to whip up nine chocolate truffles. But Eboni Henry, another contestant from Chicago, reminded Philbin he was striving to win it for his newborn son. Philbin grew emotional, rallied and avoided elimination.

Now he looks forward to one day watching the episodes with Holden. And Philbin has more plans.

Philbin, marketing director for Helicon, is part of the Leadership Tampa Bay Class of 2018 and hopes to get into motivational speaking — sharing lessons about perseverance he learned from the show. He also wants to continue making a mark in the culinary world, and in Tampa.

"I really want to become more ingrained in the direction of city professionally and, long term, politically," said Philbin, who moved here six years ago. "I love this city so much."

From raw emotion to raw salmon, Philbin gave us a good show. And it appears he's just getting started.

That's all I'm saying.

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