Sarah Wilson Penrod looks like she was made for a Malibu kind of life: blue eyes, blond hair and big dreams.
But the 30-year-old chef who is holding her ground in the sound-stage kitchen of Food Network Star was born and bred in Denton. The season’s other Texan, San Antonio’s Luca Della Casa, was eliminated by celebrity chef judges Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay.
Penrod is just one of a big and well-known Denton clan. The Wilson family has been in the city for generations. Penrod’s father, Steve Wilson, made a name for himself as a founding member of 1980s rock band the Molly Maguires. Her grandparents are rooted in Denton’s community and kept their doors and kitchen open to anyone in need, Penrod recalled.
Penrod now lives in the Houston suburb of League City, but she was brought into the world at Denton’s Flow Memorial Hospital, which no longer stands. She went to Ryan and Grand Prairie high schools. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she split her time between Grand Prairie and Denton.
She attended the University of North Texas before deciding culinary training was her path.
“When I was a little kid, I’d watch Sesame Street. Then I’d watch Great Chefs of the West. It came on between episodes of Sesame Street, so I’d sit there and watch this show about great chefs. I was fascinated,” said Penrod, who was on a break from a conference in Corinth. (“I’m in Denton all the time, still,” she said.)
Then there was her grandparents’ kitchen. Penrod said Wilsons still run in and out of the big family home in Denton.
“My grandparents were always making these huge meals,” Penrod said. “I didn’t grow up with a whisk in my hand. I grew up with a stick of butter in my hand. I don’t know that my grandmother had a passion for cooking, but she sure did a lot of it. I think it was just something you did, you know? The kitchen was always open for people in need. If someone was in need, you helped them and you fed them.”
As a teen, Penrod noticed her friends joshing her about her habit of reading cookbooks and seeking out exotic ingredients. She came of age before food bloggers were as plentiful as smartphones, but she gives AOL some serious credit.
“There weren’t food blogs, but there were all these sites with thousands of recipes,” she said. “You could ask questions and people would answer you, give you advice. When I was growing up, editors and food stylists would publish cookbooks. There weren’t these celebrity chefs selling out cookbooks and writing about food and the way they make it.”
Penrod eventually applied to Alton Brown’s alma mater, the New England Culinary Institute. She got an acceptance letter with a happy surprise: a $10,000 scholarship that Penrod said rewarded the enthusiasm she expressed in an essay.
And then? Penrod didn’t go.
In a reality television show, this would be the part where you’d hear a needle scratching across a record.
“A boy came along,” Penrod said.
The boy: now-husband, Dereck Penrod.
“We’d been dating, and he came along and proposed,” she said. “I was so in love with him. We moved out to Phoenix, and when people found out I’d decided not to go to the culinary school — you lost like $1,000 a year for every year you waited — they were shocked. But not for the reasons I thought they’d be shocked.
“People started saying, ‘Haven’t you heard that Scottsdale has this awesome culinary school? Didn’t you know our school [Scottsdale Culinary Institute] is No. 2 in the country? I don’t know how I didn’t know it, but I didn’t.
“It turned out to be in this really awesome place. Scottsdale is kind of like Aspen. It’s a small town, but you can walk down the street and bump into five-star chefs. And a lot of them teach at the culinary school. It was a great place to be. You could go to school, study and then go to your restaurant gig at night.”
Penrod did well. She shot a Web series about food and cooking in the Houston area. She took her credentials and parlayed them into serious steam in well-appointed kitchens. She was a personal chef to San Antonio Spurs player Tony Parker and his then-wife Eva Longoria. She was also tapped by the White House to join the Chefs Move to Schools Initiative.
“It’s all about re-educating the public to take back the school lunchroom,” Penrod said. “I have two sons. I am madly in love with them. We have our own garden. Parents have a huge stake in this. It’s a way to teach people how to have a whole-food diet, working with teaching children and mothers. I don’t know what happened to school food. It’s trash food. It’s worse than carnival food now.”
She auditioned for the eighth season of Food Network Star but didn’t make the cut. The network had invited her to do the previous season, but Penrod had just had a baby and didn’t want to take time away from her family. About 12,000 hopefuls auditioned for this season of the series.
Penrod said reality television is pretty much what critics suspect it is — one part game show and one part contrived drama, with a little authentic angst thrown in by the contestants. Rivalries that seem intense to viewers? Sometimes it’s a flash fire in the kitchen.
The contestants are ultimately hoping to win the chance to shoot a pilot of their own cooking show for the Food Network. But the success hasn’t belonged to the winners alone. Penrod said the top six chefs from the previous season have all shot their pilot episodes, and plenty are working on cookbooks.
“I think the secret is, and ... the thing you’re slowly learning is that you’re battling your nerves and anxiety,” she said. “As for the idea of a chef’s point of view? I think that people who watch the show hate that part of the show. They gripe about it on the blogs. But it comes down to this: your idea, who you are, your background, your history, what you have done to bring you to this point — that’s your message. That’s your [Food Network] show.”
Of all of the surprises that have come with being on a reality television series, Penrod said the biggest was discovering just how influential Texas is on a chef.
“I think that it’s a thing where when you leave Texas, if you haven’t left before, you will go through culture shock,” she said. “I thought I was the most ordinary person. I never thought I was different. But we Texans are weirdos! And you can’t undo what Texas puts into you. No matter what I do, when I cook, I cook like a Texan.
“We use bright, bold flavors. Our flavor profiles aren’t subtle here. We have cultures mingling. We have flavors that people would taste and go, ‘There is a Texas flavor here.’ I’m still working out what Texas means to me. Big gigantic flavors, cultures intermingling. We do crazy things.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.
SARAH WILSON PENROD
Born in: Denton
Lives in: League City
Education: Ryan High School; Grand Prairie High School class of 2001; Scottsdale Culinary Institute, class of 2009; Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Program, pastry training
Family: Dereck Penrod, husband; and two sons, Gabe and Micah
FOOD NETWORK STAR
8 p.m. Sundays
The reality television show — now in its 10th season on the Food Network — began with 12 contestants. Some Season 10 contestants are self-taught: Aryen Moore-Alston and Emma Frisch. Other contestants have formal culinary training: Denton native Sarah Penrod, Chris Kyler, Christopher Lynch, Lenny McNab and Loreal Gavin. The rest of the contestants learned cooking in family kitchens and restaurants: Reuben Ruiz, Luca Della Casa and Nicole Gaffney. Della Casa, of San Antonio, was eliminated from the show but has a shot at returning through Star Salvation, a Web series. Eliminated contestants Donna Sonkin Shaw and Kenny Lao were trained in a culinary institute and in the family kitchen, respectively.