Fairbanks chef competes before millions

By Kristin Summerlin

UAF photo by Leif Van Cise.
Lizzie Hartman and Sean Walklin plate their final meal of the day in the UAF Community and Technical College culinary arts kitchen at the Hutchison Center on Aug. 24, 2023.

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Photo by Greg Gayne/FOX.
Lizzie Hartman competes in the “MasterChef: United Tastes of America.”

Wearing her signature headband and brilliant smile, Lizzie Hartman waited nervously to learn her fate on “MasterChef Season 13: United Tastes of America.”

She had just spent “the best 45 minutes” of her life cooking in a competitive on-camera audition. Would her dish — roasted Alaskan halibut with cauliflower puree, pan-seared mushrooms and fresh herb oil — pass muster to earn her an apron and a spot on the show?

“I’m a little bit dumbfounded,” celebrity chef and judge Joe Bastianich said.

“I’ve never tasted halibut that tasted quite like that dish makes it taste…. This dish is meritorious of being copied. It’s a compliment I don’t give, usually.”

How did a preschool teacher’s aide from Fairbanks find herself on national television, competing as “Alaska Lizzie” against 19 other talented home chefs from all over the country?

Hartman credits the culinary arts and hospitality program at the UAF Community and Technical College and its director, Sean Walklin. She learned to prepare the halibut recipe in his gourmet cooking class.

Walklin also taught her a life lesson that helped her get through that audition and many other tense moments on the weekly show, which premiered on Fox on May 24.

“I remember one night in class,” Hartman said, “I was really struggling with something, and Chef Sean said, ‘Lizzie, just cook with your heart. Stop worrying so much about the recipe and just cook.’”

She got the call to audition for MasterChef the following week.

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Image courtesy of Fox Media LLC.
Lizzie Hartman competes in “Mystery Box” episode of “MasterChef: United Tastes of America” that aired Wednesday, July 12, 2023.

Contestants on the weekly show face a series of cooking trials, including mystery boxes of unfamiliar ingredients, tag team events and special themed challenges, such as cooking for 101 firefighters and emergency personnel. Only one winner takes home the cash prize of $250,000 and the title of America’s MasterChef.

“It’s intense. We didn’t have recipes, and I would get so hung up,” Hartman said. “And then I’d remember Chef Sean. What is the right feeling? How does my heart feel about this food? How can I put love into my food?’”

Hartman got the call to audition at the end of October 2022. Auditions continued through December, and the show was filmed in Los Angeles in January and February 2023. The show drew an average audience of just over 2 million from May through the final episode on Sept. 20.

Before becoming a household name, Hartman spent years on social media showcasing the Fairbanks community’s small businesses, artists and local cuisine. She made friends with shop owners, led Small Business Saturday tours and wore clothing made by local artisans, including those distinctive headbands that made her stand out on the show.

Her social media savvy paid off: MasterChef invited her to audition after seeing photos from the gourmet cooking class on her Instagram account, hashtagged #alaskachef.

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Photo courtesy of Lizzie Hartman.
Lizzie Hartman displays a cake she made while a student in the pastry and baking arts class at UAF’s culinary arts program.

“I am where I am today because of the culinary program,” she said. “The whole reason MasterChef found me was because of Chef Sean and the gourmet cooking class.”

Hartman’s uplifting vibe and joyful smile make it hard to imagine now, but her cooking journey started in a dark, cold place. Her family moved to Fairbanks from Pennsylvania when she was 15 years old, and the teenager found herself lonely and depressed without her friends. Her parents’ new work schedules meant she also gained a new responsibility: putting supper on the table.

“I had never cooked a day in my life,” Hartman  said. “I got on YouTube and typed in, ‘How to cook.’ All these Gordon Ramsay videos popped up. I watched him and tried to duplicate what he did.”

Ramsay, creator of MasterChef and other televised cooking competitions, is a charismatic celebrity chef known for his fiery temper and blunt, sometimes sarcastic, critiques of contestants.

As a MasterChef contestant more than a decade later, Hartman expected Ramsay to be difficult but was surprised to find that he was actually “very fatherly.”

“He reminded me a lot of my dad, and my dad is one of my best friends,” she said “We had a good banter. He enjoyed talking about Alaska.”

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Photo courtesy of Lizzie Hartman.
Lizzie Hartman prepares lunch for Fairbanks Memorial Hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation team in July.

Asked to compare cooking for Ramsay to cooking for Walklin, who received his own culinary training in Italy, Hartman was emphatic: Walklin is a tougher judge, but not because of a prickly personality. 

“I would cook for Gordon any day,” she said, laughing. “I’ve known Sean and looked up to him since I was a teenager. He is one of the best chefs in the world, in my opinion. I just have a lot of respect for him. And sometimes that makes me a little nervous to cook in front of him. 

“Gordon, you know — he was just Gordon. But Chef Sean is next level!”

As a teenager, watching Ramsay’s videos gave her an idea: Why not have cooking competitions of her own?

“I went through an omelet phase. I learned how to make every single omelet I could find. And then I started having little cooking competitions in my home with girls from the neighborhood.” Each girl prepared her omelet, and then they’d post photos to Facebook, where Hartman’s dad’s friends would vote for who had the best one.

The following year, 16-year-old Hartman had her first experience with CTC’s culinary arts program: She got a scholarship to attend a cake decorating class. She believes baking and decorating cakes for class and then giving them away changed her life.

“I remember being 15 and being completely depressed, angry at my parents, struggling with seasonal depression. There was no way I was going to eat all those cakes, so I’d find someone to gift the cake to — friends, a small business, whoever. Through cooking and sharing with people, I found joy,” she said.

“And I have not felt that depression once since then. Not one time.”

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UAF photo by Leif Van Cise.
Lizzie Hartman speaks with former colleagues at the UAF Community and Technical College culinary program kitchen in the Hutchison Center on Aug. 24, 2023.

Hartman returned to CTC a couple of years later and earned a certification in pastry and baking arts and another in culinary arts. The experience was transformative.

“That changed my life. It opened new doors, new opportunities, new friendships. It fed my soul,” she said. 

Walklin said Hartman exemplifies the attitude of service necessary for success in the culinary and hospitality fields.

“You have to want to help people, to serve. You want to think about the person who’s eating your dish,” he said. “Otherwise, if you don’t have a reason beyond a paycheck, making the same food all day every day leads to burnout.”

Hartman’s biggest triumph at CTC was learning to make French macarons, the diminutive and notoriously difficult meringue-based sandwich cookies. 

“Chef Luis [Martinez] handed me a recipe 10 years ago for the CTC culinary arts scholarship dinner and said, ‘I need 200 of these. Make it happen,’” Hartman said. “It took me and our team all week to get him the right little cookies. But because of him, I learned to bake them, and I became obsessed.”

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Photo courtesy of Lizzie Hartman.
Lizzie Hartman, right, cooks with fellow MasterChef contestants Madame Donut, center, and James during an August fundraiser at Venue in Fairbanks to benefit Hawai’i wildfire victims.

One of her first ventures after culinary school was starting her own small business making macarons. Now she teaches the macaron class at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival.

The most challenging part of MasterChef wasn’t Gordon Ramsay.

“The hardest thing was cooking and having two or three cameras on you, having a producer standing there asking you to talk, having the judges ask questions while you cook,” she said. “The show is filmed in real time. It’s 45 minutes. There’s no wiggle room at all. You have to answer questions, look at the cameras, look at the judges, acknowledge what they’re saying. Think and cook and focus.”

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UAF photo by Leif Van Cise.
Lizzie Hartman wore this apron as she competed in the western U.S. region during filming of the hit TV series "MasterChef: United Tastes of America."

Hartman won her spot on the show on the strength of her halibut, a quintessentially Alaskan food. Ironically, she was knocked out in 10th place when she attempted to improvise with another iconic Alaskan seafood. In the challenge to create an elevated version of stadium food, her king crab hushpuppies failed to impress the judges.

Just as she had as a teenager, Hartman gathered her community around her to share in the ups and downs of her MasterChef journey. Throughout the season, she’d invited her social media followers to join her for watch parties in front of a big screen at Venue in downtown Fairbanks. For her final episode’s event, she also invited fellow MasterChef contestants Madame Donut and James to Fairbanks. They joined her at Venue to prepare a gourmet meal as a benefit for victims of the Maui fire disaster.

Although she has hung up her MasterChef apron, Hartman spends more time cooking than ever. She’s a full-time personal chef. She still collaborates with other small business owners, artists and community groups and works hard to share Fairbanks and Alaska with her social media followers.

And while she’s no longer a preschool teacher’s aide, Hartman is pursuing another dream: to create a kids’ cooking camp. She is completing an unfinished lodge and cabins outside Fairbanks. This summer was a blur of activity with volunteers, family and contractors moving the project forward.

“We are paying for the progress as we go and leaning on donations and volunteer help,” Hartman said. “It has been amazing to experience the generosity of my supporters!”  

“I specifically want to work with kids who are struggling, who don’t have access to resources to pay for cooking camp,”she said. “I needed a place to land with all my ideas, and this seems to be the spot. We’ll see where it goes.”