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By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Cool things just seem to keep happening out of the blue for Cheyenne, Wyoming, celebrity chef Petrina Peart.
Last year, an unexpected Instagram message led her to an October appearance on the hit Food Network cooking competition show “Beat Bobby Flay,” where she represented Wyoming well with her impromptu coconut shrimp with mushrooms and bucatini in a coconut cream sauce.
That shut out her competitor for the singular chance to go mano a mano with Flay.
While she didn’t beat the superstar chef that time — very few manage that — she did come close enough to worry Flay a bit. Judges told Flay his goat curry was too sweet and that the mango chutney on top had made matters worse.
Peart lost primarily because she went too light with her own sauce. She thought it a bit too hot after some peppers unexpectedly burst during the cooking process.
Peart’s star has continued to rise over the Cheyenne culinary scene since her Food Network appearance. This includes a recent guest appearance, to rave Facebook reviews, at the newly opened Rail Yard Coffee Haus & Eatery in Cheyenne.
Peart was tapped to create an amuse-bouche, French for, literally, “mouth amuser,” to start off an intimate, five-course Valentine’s Day dinner.
In the midst of the mad rush developing that, though, she got yet another out-of-the-blue Instagram message, asking if she’d like to become a member of the American Diplomatic Culinary Corps. Its mission is to use food, hospitality and the dining experience as diplomatic tools to engage foreign dignitaries, bridge cultures and strengthen relationships with civil society.
“I mean it sounds crazy,” Peart told Cowboy State Daily. “Like, who, does that happen to? But really, that’s how it all started. There was a message from Instagram with, his name was Tyler, and he said he was assistant to the Protocol Office, and he asked if I’d be interested in becoming part of a diplomatic initiative.”
Sure You Do
Peart was skeptical at first. Social media platforms are rife with all types of scams and con artists willing to tell people they won something or have been chosen for something special.
But Peart remembered her trip to “Beat Bobby Flay” started much the same way. She decided to play along, and it soon became clear that this was legit. Peart was headed for a one-day whirlwind trip to Washington D.C. to pick up her official blue chef’s jacket and meet other newly selected chefs in the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership.
While there, she hobnobbed with dozens of other famous chefs, including Chef Mariya Russell, who is the first and only black woman to hold a Michelin star, as well as a three-star Michelin chef from New York and many other celebrity chefs too numerous to name.
“We all just introduced ourselves to each other and started following each other on social media and things like that,” Peart said. “The networking was great. I actually thought I was the person to come the farthest, having gone from Wyoming to DC, but there was someone there from Hawaii!”
Every State, Every Cuisine
The long list of diverse chefs started with Chef Jose Andres, whose specialty is Spanish tapas.
“I believe he’s in Turkey now,” Peart said. “He sent us a special video message welcoming us to the Corps and saying how happy he is to also be a part of it.”
Each chef chosen for the culinary corps — there are 80 in all — represents a different slice of American cuisine.
“There were chefs who specialized in Korean barbecue, and then cooking seafood,” Peart said. “It was various different cuisines like that from all around the country. I don’t think they missed any style of cooking.”
Peart has been listed as fine vegan/vegetarian dining, and is also the only chef from Wyoming in the program.
The State Department operates the program in conjunction with the James Beard Foundation, Peart said, and, as far as she could tell, they didn’t appear to miss any state in their selections.
“There were other chefs from you know D.C., Mississippi, Texas, California, all over Colorado, each having their own specialty,” Peart said. “It looked like almost every state, because I saw Utah, Missouri, Virginia, Arizona, Louisiana. There was even someone there from Hawaii.”
Personal Milestone In A Long Journey
Perhaps Peart was not the chef who flew the furthest, but she might still have made the longest journey.
Growing up, the Jamaican native didn’t even like to be in the kitchen, much less imagine herself becoming a chef, never mind a chef who would compete against a food star like Bobby Flay or stand at the nation’s capital, rubbing elbows with famous Michelin-star chefs.
Peart’s culinary “adventures” started out as pure necessity. She was a young Airman recently stationed in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She needed to get dinner on the table — an affordable dinner.
Nothing fancy, mind you, but if it could be tasty, that didn’t hurt.
As she traveled around with the military, though, she began to realize a strange and wonderful thing. Food and other cultures are actually interesting. And she was actually interested in it — all of it.
That propelled her out of the military and into Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Las Vegas, where she worked a few years in the restaurant industry.
It was there she learned to cook vegan dishes for a fellow chef, whose preference for that type of food was often forgotten during work gatherings.
Peart loved the challenge of going vegan. It was such an interesting niche. But she quickly learned those who choose that route often find themselves relegated to sad salads and overcooked broccoli.
She decided to be a chef who could change that. That decision set her feet firmly on a brand, new path, one that eventually led her back to Wyoming, where her cooking adventures, such as they were, all began in the first place.
“Standing in that room with a lot of accomplished chefs — some of them own five, six restaurants and cafes or franchises,” she said. “And I’m a private chef. I think I have a great career, but I’m not the traditional route that chefs take, and I don’t have any brick and mortars attached to my name.
“So, I thought it was sort of validating to stand in the room with some of these more accomplished chefs. It was cool to be recognized for something that I’ve been sort of doing on my own, solo, and to still be seen.”
What’s Still To Come
Peart is not sure yet exactly what she’ll be doing in her new role as an American culinary. Foods have always had a way of bridging social divides and connecting people from other cultures, so her impression is she’ll be asked to cook for other cultures, either to share American foods or to help strengthen existing relationships by preparing foods familiar to another culture.
At this point in the process, she’s been invited, as have the other new chefs, to highlight areas where she’d like to have a social or diplomatic impact.
“A lot of this is still kind of just vague to me,” she said. “They didn’t go into any specific details yet. They kind of just let us know that, you know, in the future, and whenever they have any events or something like that, they would call upon us, depending on what the event would entail, you know, and choose us to highlight American cuisine, whether here, in the country, or abroad.”
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