Three 'MasterChef' contestants from the Tampa Bay area talk cooking inspiration and more

Published May 29 2017
Updated May 29 2017

When Gordon Ramsay's MasterChef begins its eighth season tonight, the Tampa Bay area will have three contestants to root for. A marketing director from Tampa, a dentist and Palm Harbor native, and an employee for a steel supply company are all trying to impress a trio of judges with their home-cooking skills.

Ramsay's show is all about the home cook. These people are not professional chefs; you'll find those over on Bravo's Top Chef. Instead, contestants often have other, unrelated jobs that they balance with their passion for kitchen creativity. It's often like that in our own lives, reality show or not.

And just like other home cooks, the three contestants featured on this season of MasterChef draw inspiration from the things they know best, their families and their home towns. We talked to them about how they got on the show, what inspires their cooking style and what Gordon Ramsay is like in person.

Danny Flores

33, Land O' Lakes, supply chain logistics for a steel supplier

Luis Santana, Times

Danny Flores, 33, of Land O'Lakes

Danny Flores keeps finding his way back to the kitchen somehow. Accepted to culinary school after graduating Springstead High in Spring Hill, he tabled his culinary dreams to help his parents after a bad car crash. He taught himself to cook by watching TV and, years later, earned a coveted spot on MasterChef Season 5 in 2014. He turned that down rather than leave his very pregnant wife home alone in Florida.

Flores later founded a popular food truck, Holy Crepe!, which earned praise in Food Network Magazine, then made the tough choice to give up that all-consuming business for the stability of a corporate job and time with his young family. Yet here he is again, back to cooking.

"So many signs in my life tell me food is the avenue," the Peruvian-born Flores said. "Even when I try to put the cooking thing down, it keeps coming back."

If he wins this season of MasterChef and the $250,000 prize, he said he'll open a collaborative kitchen, cooking school and event space in Tampa. His Instagram feed, @thekickchen, combines his love of sneakers with being in the kitchen. He's working on a blog of the same name at

"I want to be the sneakerhead chef."

What drives you to cook?

When I am in the kitchen, I am in my own world and nothing else really matters. Whether I have had a terrible day, or if everything is absolutely perfect, all that matters is what goes on the plate.

What's the most prized item in your kitchen arsenal?

The things I really enjoy most are tools that make cooking easy. This may seem silly, but I honestly love my gas stove. When my wife and I were house hunting, the main selling point of our home for me was that it had natural gas so I can cook with it. I love my Boos Block cutting board. It's huge and so heavy that it makes cutting, chopping, dicing a breeze. Lastly, my sous vide machine. Being able to control temperature is a major key.

What's the one ingredient you can't live without?

Peppers. Food tastes so much better with the depth of flavor you get from heat. Spice is a way of life.

What's your favorite dish to eat in Tampa Bay?

A favorite of mine is the grilled octopus from Edison Food + Drink Lab. Also, the asopao there is fantastic. I am also a huge fan of street food and that's probably the reason I was in the food truck scene for a while. My quick go-to meal for lunch is the grilled pork banh mi from Saigon Deli. ... There's magic in the sweet and crunchy barbecue pork, with fresh cucumber, carrots and cilantro, all inside of that light and crispy bun. I always add hot chili sauce to kick it up a notch.

Christopher Spata, Times staff writer


Danny's Cream Puffs


  • For the pate a choux dough:
  • 1 cup water
  • 4 ounces (1 stick) butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 5 eggs
  • For the pastry cream:
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 6 egg yolks
  • ⅔ cup sugar
  • ⅓ cup corn starch


  1. Make the dough: Heat oven to 375 degrees. In sauce pan bring water, butter, salt and sugar to a medium boil. Add flour gradually while stirring with a wooden spoon. Continue to mix for a few minutes until a light film appears on bottom of pan. Take off heat. Transfer dough to large mixing bowl. Let cool for 5 minutes.
  2. Incorporate 4 eggs, one at a time, with wooden spoon. Make sure each egg is fully incorporated before adding the next one. This step is critical to give your dough proper lift in the oven. Dough should be sticky and hold a stiff peak.
  3. Transfer dough to piping bag. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Pipe puffs into 1.5-inch rounds, 2 inches apart. Swoop tip away as you finish piping each puff. Once done piping, use a wet fingertip to tap down all peaks, to avoid burning. Combine remaining egg with 1 tablespoon water and brush each puff with egg wash. Bake for 25 minutes.
  4. Make the pastry cream: In a large mixing bowl, whisk together ½ cup milk, egg yolks, ⅓ cup sugar, and corn starch. Set aside.
  5. In a sauce pan over medium-low heat, add remaining milk, vanilla bean seeds with pod (or extract), and remaining sugar. Let mixture come to a simmer without mixing. Once simmering, begin to whisk together until smooth.
  6. Remove from heat. Gradually add hot milk mixture to cold milk/yolk mixture in bowl to temper. Once mixed, return mixture to saucepan and place over medium heat. Whisk constantly until cream thickens, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Pass mixture through a small sieve or strainer to remove clumps. Refrigerate fully before serving. Add to piping bag with small tip.
  7. Fill the puffs: Take a paring knife and make a small X on bottom of puffs. Pipe with pastry cream until full. Makes 2 dozen.
Source: Danny Flores

Paola Annoni Patel

28, Palm Harbor, dentist

Luis Santana, Times

Paola Annoni Patel, 28, of Palm Harbor

Paola Annoni Patel would like you to know that dentistry has much more in common with cooking than you may think.

The Palm Harbor native, who now lives in Washington, D.C., but is repping her north Pinellas neighborhood on this season of MasterChef, went to dental school at Columbia in New York City before relocating with her husband to D.C.

But food was a formative part of her life early on. She grew up cooking with her mom and her grandparents, and a wine connoisseur dad.

"I was spoiled growing up," Patel said. "My mom would wake up at 5:30 in the morning and ask if we wanted pancakes or French toast, even through high school. I thought that was everyone's life was like that."

And though her career path has strayed away from food, being in the kitchen is still one of Patel's most treasured hobbies.

"I always wanted to be a dentist since I was a child, and as I grew up, I realized dentistry has a lot more in common than anyone would think with cooking, which I also love — hand skills, mixing motions," she said. "I really became passionate about food while I was in dental school."

For her, family and food are inextricably linked. Patel attributes her wide flavor palate and curiosity about other cuisines to the mix of ethnicities in her life: her dad is Puerto Rican, her mom is Dominican, and her husband of three years, Ryan, is half-Indian.

It's also what drove her to apply to be a contestant on MasterChef , then attend an open call in D.C. in April 2016. Producers were intrigued by her blog,, on which Patel conversationally relays her latest kitchen creation.

When we talked by phone earlier this month, the conversation always came back to her family. She was headed home to Palm Harbor to celebrate her brother's high school graduation, and cooking most of the weekend to prepare for his graduation party.

One of the things she was most excited to tell me is that her younger brother and sister have started cooking more recently, and turning to her for advice.

"The other day, my brother spent an hour and a half with me on the phone trying to make the perfect Scotch egg."

Describe Gordon Ramsay in a sentence.

I would say he is pretty awe-inspiring in the way that he carries himself, and the finesse with which he's able to do everything in the kitchen. It's amazing to watch close up. That's more than one sentence. So how about: His candid way of expressing himself is not only entertaining but also useful.

What's the most prized item in your kitchen arsenal?

As of late, it's my sous vide precision cooker. That is a straight-up game changer for any kind of meat. I just made a rib eye with it.

Your cooking style in three words?

I would say flavor — I pack a lot of flavor into every bite, and I take pride in worldly flavors. I try to incorporate a lot off different cultures in my cooking. Then probably passion, there is always love on the plate, and you can taste that it's homemade. And artistry.

What's the one ingredient you can't live without?

Garlic and soy sauce. My college roommate used to make fun of me because I would put so much garlic on everything.

Describe your worst cooking disaster.

One thing sticks out in my mind. The first time I tried to use a Crock Pot was horrendous. I'm not a huge recipe follower, so maybe I didn't use the right liquid ratio, I don't know. I made it for my then boyfriend, now husband, and I threw it away before we could eat it. It was awful. It was lemon chicken, but the lemon was too strong and bitter.

What's your favorite dish to eat in Tampa Bay?

Anytime I come home, I make my mom take me to Sakura Sushi in Palm Harbor. I get the Katana Roll. It's problematically good. I cannot speak highly enough of that place.

Michelle Stark, Times food editor


Paola's Churrasco with Pickled Onions, Crispy Yuca Chips and Creamy Chimichurri


  • For the churrasco:
  • 1 pound churrasco (skirt steak)
  • 1 teaspoon salt, plus a pinch
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
  • Pinch (to taste) of red pepper flakes
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ red onion
  • ¼ cup rice wine vinegar
  • Pinch of sugar
  • For the yuca chips:
  • 1 root of yuca
  • Vegetable oil (for frying)
  • For the chimichurri:
  • 1 bunch of cilantro (about a big handful)
  • ½ to 1 jalapeno, skin charred over an open flame
  • Juice of half a lime
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • ⅓ small yellow onion
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise


  1. Combine the garlic, smoked paprika, apple cider vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt and red pepper flakes with the olive oil. Pour marinade over the churrasco steak. As the steak marinades, slice the red onion and put it into a pan over medium heat with the rice wine vinegar, sugar and pinch of salt. Cover and let cook for about 5 minutes until onions become bright pink and slightly translucent. You will notice the vinegar almost completely evaporates. Once your onions are bright, set them aside.
  2. Heat enough vegetable oil to fill about ½ inch of a cast iron skillet, to fry yuca. Cut the tough brown outer skin off of the yuca. Slice yuca on a mandolin (I like a little body to my chips, so I slice on the second or third setting — not the thinnest). Fry the chips in the oil until golden, then take out of oil and set aside on a plate with a paper towel on it, to drain the excess oil. Salt chips immediately.
  3. Combine all of the chimichurri ingredients in a food processor and just let it ride.
  4. Carefully pour out the yuca oil from your cast iron skillet, and bring the skillet back to the heat. Cook churrasco once the pan is hot again. I cooked mine over medium-high for 2 minutes on one side, and 1 minute and 30 seconds on the other side. Serve with some chimichurri and yuca chips.
Source: Paola Annoni Patel

Jeff Philbin

30, Tampa, marketing director

Loren Elliott, Times

Jeff Philbin, 30, of Tampa

The first time he cooked for someone else, it was to impress a high school girlfriend.

"Fettucini alfredo, the traditional way," Jeff Philbin remembers with perfect clarity. "I made a great bechamel, I folded in the cheese, and I did a nice seared shrimp with garlic, a ton of garlic, and I did the pasta al dente."

By time he was a senior at Flagler College in St. Augustine — a time of life more often associated with leftover pizza and instant noodles — he was throwing carefully orchestrated dinner parties with top-notch cocktails, live music and a backyard movie screening (he'd make gourmet popcorn).

"They were invite-only, and people were definitely trying to get in," he said. "I've always loved centering food around fun and entertainment."

Now he lives in Carrollwood with his fiance and their 1-year-old son, Holden, who's already being turned on to good food, such as pho at the Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Temple, or chicken parm slices at Eddie & Sam's N.Y. Pizza, despite only having "about six teeth." (He's documenting his MasterChef journey and his adorable family at Fun fact: Philbin's fiance Beth Johnson went into labor with Holden while watching last season's MasterChef premiere.

Philbin has been featured in the Tampa Bay Business Journal's 30 Under 30 list of up-and-coming business people, and wants to be a food ambassador for Tampa Bay.

"I admire what Jeff Vinik is doing, being a spokesperson for the business side of Tampa," he said. "I want Jeff Philbin to be a spokesperson for the foodie community, our incredible restaurateurs and neighborhoods."

If he wins the $250,000 prize, he imagines opening Jeffrey's, a farm-to-table restaurant "accessible to the masses."

Why did you decide to try out for a reality cooking show?

It's crazy, because my brother-in-law surprised me. At a family dinner he said: "Jeff, you don't have to do anything. I believe in you and I did it all for you, so all you need to do is show up in Orlando with a cooked dish, because I signed you up for MasterChef." It was at that moment that this incredible journey started, and now I can say I am fighting for the coveted white apron in the MasterChef kitchen. I don't want to let down my baby boy and my incredible fiance or this wonderful city.

Describe Gordon Ramsay in a sentence.


What's the most prized item in your kitchen arsenal?

I have a lot of great toys but I love my Henckel knife set. You've got to have a great knife set. Lately, I have been playing around my Anova Sous Vide, which now I feel like a mad scientist in the kitchen trying out temperatures, times and flavors.

What's the one ingredient you can't live without?

In the words of my mother: "The secret ingredient is love." You have to love what you do, and when you do, it shows by the way you cook it, present it, taste it, feel it, and most importantly enjoy it.

Describe your worst cooking disaster.

The time my outdoor grill wouldn't start from the ignition, and I took a match to it while the propane was collecting and when the match hit the grill and created a giant fireball that burned my eyes lashes off and threw me to the ground. That wasn't fun.

Christopher Spata, Times staff writer


Jeff's Lamb Burgers


  • For quick pickled cucumbers:
  • 1 seedless cucumber, diced
  • ¼ cup seasoned rice wine vinegar
  • Red pepper flakes
  • ½ teaspoon coriander seeds
  • ½ teaspoon mustard seeds
  • ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 2 tablespoons chopped dill
  • For lamb patties:
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • ½ cup Panko bread crumbs
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • For the tzatziki:
  • 4 ounces cucumber
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
  • For assembling:
  • 4 butter lettuce leaves
  • 4 Brioche buns
  • 1 cup feta cheese


  1. Make the quick pickled cucumbers: Using a mandolin or sharp knife, finely slice the cucumbers. Put in a mixing bowl with the chopped dill and a pinch of salt while you prepare the pickling solution.
  2. In a small pot over medium heat, toast the mustard, coriander and fennel seeds and garlic cloves. Combine rice wine vinegar, sugar and salt. Stir well until the liquid is simmering and the sugar has completely dissolved. Pour pickling liquid over cucumbers and stir to ensure everything is evenly coated.
  3. Allow to cool to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
  4. Make the tzatziki: Dice cucumber, combine with salt and set aside for five minutes. Combine all other ingredients for tzatziki in a separate bowl. Squeeze water out from cucumber and add to the yogurt mixture. Mix well and keep in refrigerator.
  5. Make the lamb patties: Place all ingredients for lamb burger patties in a large bowl and mix well with your hand. Fold in ground lamb and mix well. Divide mixture into four ¾-inch patties. Place patties on the preheated grill and turn the heat down to medium. Flip after 3 minutes or when the patty is half-way done and add crumbled feta cheese to melt. Cook the patties through, or another 3 minutes
  6. Lightly grill the cut side of burger buns. Assemble burgers with tzatziki on the bottom bun, then butter lettuce, then lamb burger patty, top with quick pickled cucumbers, and finish with the top bun portion. Serve immediately.
Source: Jeff Philbin