NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Meet Sémone Hopkins, America’s Favorite Chef.
Hopkins is not a household name. She’s a Jersey-born Newport News chef who just graduated from culinary school for the second time, the first of which as a baker.
But what she does have is hustle. The 27-year-old works two or maybe four jobs. She’s a night baker at Panera and runs the grills at Yorktown Pub during the day. And she sells her own wares via Instagram. Her trademark four-cheese mac, along with rotating dishes such as Caribbean-curried oxtails, can be had via her business Mone’s Mesa; she announces her menu each week via the app. She also sells her Hennessy-infused cupcakes and alkaline vegan muffins under the name Semone’s Sweets.
Each business has a modest following on Instagram, about 200 apiece.
But in a result that surprised everyone — not least of which Hopkins herself — she won a national online contest in April to be named the favorite chef in America. The award came with a $50,000 prize, and she and her food will be featured in a two-page ad spread in the August issue of Bon Appétit magazine.
She got the call in an airport on the way to meet the contest’s other three finalists in Arizona. But she kept her composure.
“I was like, ‘I’m not going to scream and make everyone nervous,’” she said. “‘Who is this woman screaming in the airport? Like, what is wrong with this woman?’... I don’t want to be that guy. I was really excited, but I thought, ‘People are going to look at me.’”
She entered the Favorite Chef contest in February, without knowing much about it and without any particular expectations. She Googled the contest after seeing an ad on Instagram and found online posts wondering whether the contest was a scam. Its winner would be determined by online voting, through what eventually turned into round after round of campaigning over the course of two months. Chefs filled out a profile, uploading photos and detailing their history, goals and signature dishes.
While voting for a chef was free once each day, any extra votes cost as much as $1 apiece.
She hemmed and hawed. “Should I do it, should I not do it? And then I was like, ‘Who’s gonna stop me?’ And really, I just signed up.”
The Favorite Chef contest has had no small share of drama and controversy.
As voting began in February, celebrity chef Claudia Sandoval took to Facebook to accuse the contest of misleading the public. “They are not affiliated with Bon Appétit Magazine you can tell because they misspell it multiple times,” she wrote.
On Feb. 17, Bon Appétit tweeted that it was unaffiliated with the competition; the contest had merely paid them for an advertisement. Favorite Chef issued a (now-removed) clarification stating the same.
The Arizona Republic voiced its own doubts about the contest, tracing it to a company called Crow Vote LLC registered to Scottsdale businessman Darrin Austin, editor of luxury publication JetSet. Crow Vote’s other online contests include scantily clad tattoo models and photogenic pets.
“$50,000, a Bon Appétit ad and a ‘fishy’ contest,” read the newspaper’s headline on Feb. 24. “Is this Arizona-based competition a scam?”
Crow Vote did not respond to requests for comment. But what’s known is that real money is involved. Hopkins said she’s received her prize. And in May, Feeding America confirmed a donation of $1,152,688.81, signaling that contest revenues far exceeded this figure. The contest had pledged 25% of its proceeds to the nonprofit.
In February, chefs across the country derided Favorite Chef as an alleged data-mining operation or criticized it for preying on the desperation of chefs during the pandemic, as contestants’ families paid for votes to boost their candidates’ chances of winning. Many chefs publicly withdrew from the competition.
But Hopkins rode it out. Her sister, Secora, rallied family members and friends in New Jersey, she said. Hopkins also had nearly 5,000 Facebook friends.
“My family was really big on reposting every day, getting their free daily votes in and reminding other people, texting people with the link and all types of stuff. So mine was really just word of mouth. I don’t really have a big following.”
Many of the other chefs in the competition had more established careers. As she advanced through the competition, Hopkins received messages from other chefs wondering if she was a real person. Other competitors sent her some choice words.
“During the competition, some people were real shady boots,” she said, laughing.
But as she progressed through the ranks, an interesting dynamic took hold — an online snowball effect. Chefs who’d been eliminated reached out and said they were throwing their support her way. Some began posting daily supporting Hopkins. Other chefs told Hopkins they would vote for her to keep other competitors from winning.
“They’d say, ‘I’ve looked at your profile, I went on your Instagram and it was stuff I like,’” she said. “’I see what you do, and you’re really deserving of this. You’re a hard worker.’ ”
Arizona chef Eddie Matney, listed on the contest’s website as its host, made videos warning competitors against using bots, Hopkins said, saying the contest had software that would eliminate chefs who tried to hack the competition. Representatives from the company also reached out to Hopkins, she said, asking her about the identities of people who had paid for blocks of votes.
When she reached the final four, Hopkins said, the competition contacted her to put her on a plane to a resort in Arizona. She and other finalists would choose dishes to cook for the photo shoot that would appear in Bon Appétit. By the time Hopkins arrived, she already knew she had won.
At Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, celebrity chef Beau McMillan cooked a meal for the finalists. For the photo shoot, Hopkins cooked a chicken and shrimp pasta with a filet of jerk salmon on top, which McMillan sampled.
“Chef Beau just happened to walk in and I was like, ‘Chef, come here, take a plate.’”
In a sequence captured on video, McMillan praised the tenderness and spice of the salmon and Hopkins’ boldness in mixing the three meats in a single dish.
Then Hopkins was sent home with a giant fake check with her name on it, and an electronic transfer she said is already in her account.
She dragged that check around three different airports, gathering far too much attention everywhere she went. “I turned it so the words were facing me and everything,” she said. “I had to get on every plane with it… I asked, ‘Can I please just check this?’”
She went straight back to work like it was any other day — only to discover that her boss at a Williamsburg bakery had assumed she didn’t want her job anymore and let her go.
“I wasn’t going to quit. I wasn’t even going to tell anybody,” she said. “But they had known because the event manager for the competition called them.”
She marched out of the bakery, down to the Yorktown Pub and got another job. She hopes to use the contest money as seed funding to start her own business.
In the meantime, she’ll just keep working her four jobs.
“Long term, I want to own my own thing,” she said. “But I’m still in the learning phases of watching other people run businesses: the good things that they do, or bad things that they do … I’m 27. I’m not in a rush to own anything.”