Beware of the pastry princess.
Miller was 22 years old when she earned a chef’s coat in 2010 to compete on the show, and she quickly became known for desserts that impressed judges and intimidated fellow competitors.
When she was selected at auditions, Miller’s catfish taco wowed judges Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich, but Ramsay was a hard sell. After she was given the chef’s coat, Ramsay warned her parents that she may not make it far because she was so young.
“When it was my age that hindered me ... I couldn’t do anything about that, but I could prove myself beyond my years,” Miller said Monday in an interview with the Sun Herald. “No matter my age, I thought myself as being — experience-wise — on the same level.”
From cupcakes to venison to her first time ever cooking a pork chop, Miller quietly excelled and kept winning challenges. In the end, she proved to Ramsay that she was the real deal. Miller would win it all, becoming the first “MasterChef” in the United States.
It’s been nearly a decade since Miller won her title and the $250,000 cash prize. She’s traveled the world, has published a cook book, and is about launch a new business.
But her love for food — and for South Mississippi — hasn’t wavered.
Sticking to her South Mississippi roots
Miller’s time in the kitchen began when she was a child. The most important women in her life taught her how to cook.
“One thing I’ve always loved to do since I was really little was to bake,” Miller said. “My mom would make homemade brownies. My great-grandmother taught me how to make homemade biscuits.”
By the time she was 12, Miller was making French-style pastries, including eclairs and profiteroles.
To prepare for “MasterChef,” Miller said she memorized baking recipes that she could potentially use in dessert challenges should they arise on the show.
Her strategy for savory food, though, was different.
“For me, everything besides baking I could do by feel or taste on a whim, because that’s how I learned to cook ... with no recipes.”
Miller’s dishes on “MasterChef” showcased her South Mississippi roots. The winning finale dish she prepared was simple but delicious: a corn cake with shrimp and collard green pesto, buttermilk fried chicken with creamed collard greens and white chocolate bread pudding souffle. Earlier in the competition, she impressed the judges with her grilled venison topped with Southern gravy.
“From the very beginning, it was about showcasing who I was through my food,” Miller said. “It was also bringing a taste of home in being out (in Los Angeles) when I couldn’t get in touch with my family ... it was very comforting to me. Food has a way of doing that.”
Throughout the competition, Miller said some of her competitors underestimated the young Mississippi girl who cooked a pork chop for the first time on the show.
“I kind of a flew under the radar,” she said. “I don’t think people anticipated what I was going to do in the kitchen.”
And that was a strategy. Miller said she worked hard to not show much emotion in challenges. Even on the chopping block at times, Miller often wore a poker face.
“It’s a mind game ... that’s how I played the game of ‘MasterChef.’ You didn’t really see this aggressive personality come out. I creeped up on people.
“And all of a sudden, they were like, ‘She’s bringing a lot to the table.’”
Miller attended Pearl River Community College on a tennis scholarship before earning a degree in nutrition from the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
Camille Soulier was Miller’s tennis coach in Poplarville. She said she enjoyed watching Miller on the show because others didn’t realize she was a stealth competitor.
“She .... knew when to turn it on and when to turn it off,” Soulier said. “She really did surprise them. She was a wild animal underneath.”
Soulier, who now teaches on PRCC’s Hattiesburg campus, said Miller’s parents instilled hard work in her at an early age, and she wasn’t shocked that her tennis player went all the way in “MasterChef.”
“She never showed her hand ... she just showed what she needed to show and no more, which is a smart competitor,” Soulier said. “I hated to tell those people they were going down. Several of them had stardom in their eyes and she didn’t. She had resolve, calm resolve.”
Life after ‘MasterChef’
On the show, Miller said her dream was to open a catering business.
“Crave” was born in Poplarville shortly after the show, but Miller closed it to pursue her dream of traveling abroad and learning more about food that wasn’t familiar.
She went to China twice in 2011 and did Southern food promotions for Regis hotels and cooked for their guests. She also visited cities in North and South China to learn more about their local cuisine.
“I love everything about the Asian culture and trying to learn how to use their ingredients with a Southern twist.”
One of the recipes featured in her cookbook, “New Southern Table,” is a Hot Pot recipe that includes Asian mushrooms mixed with sweet potatoes, Brussles sprouts, venison and Southern greens. Miller also adds vermicelli rice noodles at the end.
Miller and her husband have two sons and now life just outside of Nashville. She works as a recipe developer and private chef and is getting ready to launch a Whitney’s Cookies, a cookie shop that ships nationwide. She’s looking to also open a retail shop in the Nashville area.
Miller says she enjoys being close to home and is often in the Poplarville and Hattiesburg area. The one thing she misses most about South Mississippi is — shocker — the food.
“There’s nothing quite like South Mississippi seafood,” she said. “Even when I was in Florida and Tennessee, you just cannot get good seafood.”
“If I’m not making dessert, then I want some of Shaun’s cheesecake,” Miller said. “If you’ve never had a Cotton Blues cheesecake, then you have to try it.”