"Calling all chefs," the Craigslist ad clamored, and Chef Susanne Dillingham promptly complied. "My mom actually found it; she sends me stuff all the time," said Dillingham. "Normally those things are spam but I thought, what the heck, I'll respond."
The ad, which turned out to be legitimate, was seeking participants for the second season of the Food Network's Extreme Chef series, a competition which sets chefs up to embark on a whirlwind culinary adventure. A fan of the first season, Dillingham didn't hesitate to sign up. "I do a lot of farm dinners, so I sent a great picture of me with a cowboy hat out on the farm, and the next day I got a phone call."
Dillingham had about three weeks to pack and prepare for the filming, a span of time she admits she wishes were a little longer. "It wasn't a very long time to prepare. I wanted to get in shape and that type of thing, so I was going to Jazzercise every day at 5 o'clock to get ready for it. I wanted to make sure I was in top form." Why the focus on fitness? Eschewing hyperbole, Extreme Chef is named so for a reason: it's intense. The show is set over the course of five episodes, during which the chefs are pushed to their physical, mental and culinary limits as they compete in grueling and seemingly impossible culinary challenges. "This season is very different than last season," said Dillingham. "There are seven chefs instead of three and it's a true series this time."
Each episode takes place in a different location, with the season opener plopping contestants down in the semi-post-apocalyptic wasteland that is Salton City, Calif., where they're left to scavenge for ingredients and tools. Modeling itself after all addictive cooking shows, the show's premise is built around a race against time, as the chefs have only 60 minutes to raid a deserted tent village for non-perishable ingredients, build their own cooking stations, and use items like steel wool, batteries and tumbleweeds to start a fire. That's not a misprint, by the way. Dillingham will attest to the fact that tumbleweeds were literally rolling by. "It was a very bare land, not any people there. It was the first time I had to build my own cooking station, so that was interesting."
It was also her first time competing as a chef — not that she's unfamiliar with the art and demands of putting on a performance. Although she attended culinary school and has been working in kitchens and as a cooking instructor (at her company, The Tiny Chef,) she's been a tap dancer since age two and grew up doing musical theater. "I like to be on TV, I grew up in the performing arts so it's something that I like to do, I like to teach, and I like to cook." As with most novel experiences, however, there was some readjusting to be done. "There's always a lot of stress involved in preparing food as a chef; timing is everything, we were all kind of used to that, but the element where they add in building your own cooking station and starting your own fire and cooking with things that you may not be familiar with, it's very stressful. I'm a personal chef now and when I got back to cooking in people's kitchens, I was just thankful for basic ingredients like salt."
As the competition's sole Dixie representative, Dillingham knew the heat was on. "I can be competitive if I need to be, in that Southern, bless-your-heart kind of way. I don't just go out there and try to start competitions, but if I need to be I can be."
Extreme Chef offers its victor a grand prize of $50,000. What would Dillingham do if she turned out to be the winner? The tap-dancing, reality show-competing, personal chef can now also add "fiancée" to her catalog; engaged to a longtime boyfriend in Italy, she plans on making the move across the pond and opening her own business, possibly a cooking school for tourists. "The money would definitely come in handy for that. It's been really hard for [my friends and family] to wait. I know everything and they can know nothing. I don't have many secrets, but this is a pretty big one. "
Second season of Extreme Chef premieres Thursday, Aug. 16 at 10 p.m..