By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Growing up, Cheyenne Chef Petrina Peart hated the kitchen. She never thought she’d become a chef at all, much less get a shot at beating Food Network celebrity chef Bobby Flay on national television.
Peart’s first duty station with the Air Force was Wyoming, far from family and home. The distance forced her to finally take those first baby steps into the kitchen.
Next, she graduated to bringing a dish to a potluck or something a little fancier for a Friendsgiving.
“We would try to group together and kind of have our own family Thanksgiving for those of us who weren’t able to go home,” she said. “So that’s kind of how my cooking journey started. It was just cooking for my friends or for myself for survival as a young airman.”
Now She’s Cooking
As her skills grew, however, Peart’s cooking journey started to evolve.
“There was a moment when I realized that I liked the way I felt when I made something really good and people liked it,” she said. “It was that feeling of like creating something for someone, and they love it.”
The Air Force veteran emigrated to the United States, but says she’s an East Coast “native.” By the time of her last duty station in Italy, Peart realized she had become really interested in all things food. And not just food from her Jamaican heritage, but from cultures all around the world.
“(Italy) is really where it started,” she said. “It was then that I decided I would leave the Air Force to go to culinary school. So it started out as a necessity in Wyoming, but really just blossomed when I was at Aviano.”
Italy Was Just A Dream
Peart had initially thought she’d stay in Italy for cooking classes, but that turned out to be much more complicated to arrange than she realized.
Instead, she returned to the United States and enrolled in culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas.
“I was just looking for a good place to start,” she said. “I chose Vegas because it’s Las Vegas, and I think that’s a great place to start a culinary career, especially with the resorts and the tourists and the influx of people.”
A friend at one of the restaurants where she worked followed a vegan diet, but colleagues often forgot about that when preparing the daily family meal that preceded opening the restaurant each night.
“Once I started noticing this, it just made me feel bad so, being one of the line cooks, anytime that happened, I made sure that I would always go prepare something she could eat,” Peart recalled. “It just started as like a small thing, but over time, as I got to know more about that diet and lifestyle, I wanted to not make people feel excluded.”
She also found the diet felt healthier and that she enjoyed the challenge of re-learning to cook without things like bacon fat, dairy, cream and other animal-based products.
As she leaned more toward plant-based meals, Peart also noticed how unaccommodating some restaurants could be to that type of diet.
She decided to be a chef who brings a high-quality foodie experience to everyone, even those with specialized diets.
“I want to be someone who gives people that experience that they used to have, without feeling like they have to just have salad and water and then that’s all they can eat,” she said. “It became a sort of personal mission for me.”
In The Eye Of The Beholder
Images of her plant-based foods look like works of art, almost too beautiful to eat. Almost.
One day the photos, which she’d been sharing on Instagram, caught the attention of “Beat Bobby Flay,” the cooking competition that first pits two talented chefs against each other. The winner then gets the chance to try and beat Bobby Flay with a signature dish for major bragging rights in the chef world.
At first, Peart didn’t know if the query was real.
“It was so random, really,” she said. “And it’s Instagram, so you don’t really think everything that comes into your inbox there is legit. Some of it is just ads or whatever.”
But she did a Zoom call with officials for the show, and then there were a few more phone calls, and the next thing she knew the “Beat Bobby Flay” show had bought her plane tickets to New York – without asking her for any money in return.
“I was like OK, well, this is legit,” she said. “Like, OK, this is happening, and they didn’t scam me out of anything yet.”
On The Show
Peart flew out to New York to compete against Bobby Flay show in October, right after Restaurant Week in Cheyenne for three full days full of shooting and cooking, and one of the most interesting cooking experiences she’s had yet.
“(Bobby) is really sweet,” she said. “He was very nice to me. It was actually funny because, you know, they encourage you, they have these little bites, you know, that you can say, where it’s almost like, you know, talking smack to either your opponent or to Bobby or whatever.”
Petrina’s sound bite was to say, “I want your job, Bobby” after the celebrity chef asked Petrine what she wanted to do.
“That part was pretty fun, and just getting to banter with him and go back and forth,” she said. “The judges are also really sweet, and they’re funny.”
After the opening banter, two contestants were presented with a special ingredient Flay had chosen for that episode — coconut. Petrina is clearly pleased with the choice given her Jamaican roots.
Her competition may not have been as familiar as Peart with coconut, but was nonetheless stiff. His dish was creative and beautiful as well. But he made a simple mistake: not cooking his browned-butter coconut pieces long enough. They were tough and chewy.
Petrina won with her smart, coconut-fried shrimp served with a bucatini pasta that had mushrooms and a coconut cream sauce.
Goat Curry in 30?
Petrina’s choice for her signature dish is one she grew up eating as a child – goat curry.
It was selected during the interview process with the Bobby Flay show, which wanted to know what dishes she had grown up with and which of those she knew best.
“(Goat curry) normally takes two hours to make,” Petrina recalls telling them.
“Well can you do it in 30?” they asked.
“Well, if I have a pressure cooker, sure,” she said. “That should be a fun show.”
In fact, she practiced the dish at home, making sure she could actually do the dish she had in mind within 30 minutes.
On the set, however, things were a bit different than she expected. The goat was a huge slab of meat, unlike what one would normally be able to buy.
“I thought it was going to be a butchered piece of meat, with like pieces ready to chop,” she said. “I didn’t realize I’d have to sort of do a hack job first. And you’re racing against the time, which the clock does not stop once it starts. What you’re seeing is real-time action.”
Normally, Peart would be careful about cutting very uniform pieces of meat for the pressure cooker so everything would cook evenly. But in this case, she was just going for getting the meat in the pot as quickly as she could so she wouldn’t run out of time.
More Sauce, Please
Peart waited until the last possible moment to crack open the pressure cooker and plate the goat curry. Unfortunately, the scotch bonnet pepper she had in the pot burst, making the sauce hotter than expected.
In the heat of the moment, she decided not to use as much sauce as she normally would in case it was too hot for the judges.
That ultimately was her downfall.
The judges dissed Bobby’s too-sweet curry topped with an also sweet mango chutney, but ultimately decided that not enough sauce on Peart’s dish was a deal-breaker.
Future Culinary Dream
The experience has not dissuaded chef Peart at all. Indeed, it has fueled her fire. She is dreaming of a culinary kitchen in Cheyenne to shake up the Cowboy State foodie scene.
“I’m passionate about the fine dining experience, and that’s just the more refined presentation, the more refined experience,” she said. “I like the three-course meals, I like the seven-course tasting menus, and a lot of times I combine that together when I do events for Gaiya’s Harvest specifically.”
One of the nice things in Wyoming that Peart enjoys as a chef are all the farmers markets that bring fresh, local foods into her kitchen. Corn shoots, edible flowers, Wyoming-milled flour — the options are extensive and exciting.
“I love leaving my guests with an experience they’ve never had before or trying something they’ve never had before,” she said. “Especially if it’s an ingredient they never thought they would like.”
Did You Miss It?
Peart is a private chef, but has a website, Gaiya’s Harvest, where her services can be booked. She also helps out at the Elks Lodge from time to time.
If you missed the premiere of Peart’s episode of “Beat Bobby Flay” – Episode 8 of Season 31 titled “You’re So Buteau-ful” – there’s still an opportunity to see the Wyoming chef on the hit Food Network show. It’s scheduled to air again at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 16.