Tara O’Donnell is a Frisco area eighth grade student. She was born in Stanford, Conn., to an Irish father and English mother. While she had a fairly common upbringing, Tara recently won her competition on the popular show “Chopped Junior” that was aired on the Food Network®.
Her father and mother met in London and moved to Conn. in 1998. The family moved to Frisco in 2014 to follow Mr. O’Donnell’s work. Even though they have been here for only a couple of years, the whole family loves Texas, and Frisco. “It was tough to leave my friends, but everyone here was so nice and inviting, and we have lovely neighbors. We love it here,” Tara says. Mr. O’Donnell adds, “It is clean, it is new and it is bright. There was so much already happening and so much more coming. It already had so much to offer, and already in the last two years, I have seen such changes.”
Tara says her love of food and cooking started at an early age. “I have been cooking for as long as I can remember. It started out helping my parents in the kitchen. I would cook alongside my dad and mix spices for my mom,” she states. “Later, I would wake up earlier than my parents so I could go downstairs and turn on the Food Network to start writing down recipes. I have just always loved it.”
Now, you can catch her making anything from Asian food and pasta dishes to American classics. She says, most recently, she has been trying out lemon meringue pie. “I made it for my mom for her birthday on July 3, and I have been making it for other people since.”
So, how did she wind up winning a popular cooking television show? Tara says her family has been watching the original version of “Chopped” for a while — 10 years, to be exact, and she knew the show is also the Food Network’s longest-running show. There is no question … she is a fan. Once the junior version of the program started, Tara dreamed of competing, so, one day, her father sent in an application for her as a surprise. About a month later, they let him know the show wanted to conduct a Skype interview with Tara. She says the process was in-depth. “We did two Skype interviews, answered loads of questions and sent in a seven-minute video of me cooking. We passed that first stage, and they called us back to go on the show,” she shares. “It was amazing. It was about two days of shooting. There was somebody for everything. It was amazing how organized the show was,” Tara gushes about actually being on the set. “I was a little nervous, just because I have never been in front of a big camera, but I was mostly excited. It was really cool to see the show from the other side.”
The competition is broken down into three phases — an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. One person gets eliminated after the appetizer and then another after the main course. The final two competitors make dessert, and then the judging is based on the entire meal for the winner. It is all about who made the best food with the mystery ingredients they were given.
In Tara’s competition, she got to work with strip steaks, arepas, “pig lollipops” and limburger cheese for her appetizer. She added, while giggling, that “the cheese stunk up the place and it smelled the rest of the day.” With those things, she made an arepas taco by putting a spicy rub on the steak before putting it in the taco with onions and peppers. Then, she added a Mexican sour cream to go on top. On the side, she made cheesy black beans with bacon to bring out the flavor of the lollipop. For the main course, she had branzino (a type of fish), escarole (similar to kale), purple sweet potatoes and liverwurst. She created a seared branzino with a purple sweet potato mash, with the liverwurst diced and caramelized to mix in with the potatoes. She had an escarole pesto on the side. For the dessert and final showdown, Tara had avocados, sour cream, taco “cookies” and chicha morada (a Peruvian sweet corn drink), and she said it tasted similar to a fruit punch. With those ingredients, she created avocado ice cream and included sour cream (and honey, to balance it out). She made a taco cookie shortbread, where she crumbled up the original cookie to put in her shortbread batter and then, finally, a berry compote with the chicha morada. The judges decided her entire meal was the best and declared her the winner!
After winning one of her favorite cooking shows, Tara has been interviewed by the local news and has even been able to shadow some of the chefs she admires. But, she is still a typical eighth-grader. She is excited to be cheerleading this year with three of her best friends. She is her home economics teacher’s assistant, helping out with the seventh grade classes. Of course, she enjoys shopping. Over the summer, she spent a lot of time outdoors and with her friends and swimming. She even enjoys drawing and painting, when time allows.
As a family, the O’Donnells spend time at Frisco Square to check out the food, as well as the library. When asked if she could name a favorite local restaurant, Tara paused and said, “There are so many. I like Mexican Sugar. It is so good! I also like Bonnie Ruth’s.” Some other notable places were Eight11 on Main Street, and for barbecue, the family enjoys 3 Stacks Smoke and Tap House.
The family also has two dogs, JT and Helga. Tara has not yet ventured into dog treats, but when she does, she says the ones she sees include peanut butter. JT is allergic to that, and much more, so she will have to be creative. She adds that Helga is very relaxed and likes to cuddle, while JT has lots of toys and likes to play every chance he gets.
So, what does she see in her future? Tara says, “I really want to be an executive chef. I want to open my own restaurant someday, maybe co-own it. We did a project when I was in sixth grade on where we want to go to college. I have my heart set on Escoffier School of Culinary Education. We went on a trip to Denver, Colo., and I really like it there. The weather and the town is great.” She would also be happy going to the Culinary Institute of America in New York City. She adds, “There are so many opportunities in the food world — writing, food science, plating, all different things, so it is so much fun.”
Tara is also available for catering, should you have the need. You can find her offerings and more information at tarastastytable.com or facebook.com/tarastastytable. She is also a wonderful example of how you can follow a passion wherever it takes you, even if it is discovered at an early age. Her love of great food shows when you meet her, and her parents have helped her on her journey to follow her dreams. Make no mistake, there are multiple Michelin Stars and James Beard Awards in this Frisco teen’s future!