“It’s been an honor to work with mentors like these that are huge in the food industry,” Marais said. “It’s been incredible to be able to learn from them and work alongside them.” Her first-ever competition was in 2009, where she was named grand champion in the eighth annual Top Chef Competition sponsored by Aramark. That competition was hosted by the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and fielded 10 chefs among culinary staff from colleges and universities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. She said that competition experience while working for Ole Miss prepared her for “Food Network Star” because she was able to work under pressure and work in the kitchen along with others. “I think it prepared me on the time frame because I was pushed to my limit to see what I could produce in a certain amount of time,” Marais said. There have been many tough challenges in the last few weeks of competition, but she said the first one may have been the most difficult because Alton Brown compared her Key lime pie to “cafeteria food.” View a profile of Linkie from 2009 when she won the Culinary Showcase Champion award in the 2009 Top Chef Competition. “I am very much a perfectionist, and for me to hear something like that when I take pride in my work was devastating,” she said. “But, the great thing about it is that you take criticism and you learn from it and you just get better. Things like that motivate me even more to perform and that’s why I did well with the following episodes.” Another challenge was the “Chopped”-style mystery basket, which contained the strange ingredients of popcorn, grape soda, Reese’s Pieces and coconut. Contestants were given a time limit and required to use all ingredients in an innovative way. “When I think of popcorn, I think of movies and butter,” Marais laughed. “I think the last time I had grape soda was in South Africa as a kid, so it was quite interesting. I always watch ‘Chopped’ and to be in the situation and get all these crazy ingredients was a huge challenge.” Using her creativity, she pulled off a brandy-kissed chocolate mousse with coconut crumble, to rave reviews. Other than the initial problem with her Key lime pie, Marais has done well. An audience vote will determine the winner, which will be announced on the July 22 finale. She is excited to represent so many different areas of her life: South Africa, Mississippi and Massachusetts. “I know a lot of people in Oxford who are following the show and supporting me with all of the Southern love that they can give me,” Marais said. One of those enthusiastic supporters is Lorinda Krhut, UM director of student housing and residence life, who watches Marais every Sunday and votes as often as she can. “I met Linkie four years ago, when she made my daughter’s wedding cake,” Krhut said. “She is so unbelievably talented, nice and humble. She is the same age as my daughter, so I think of her as part of the family. She has a great work ethic and I was sad when she left Ole Miss.” Despite moving away a couple of years ago, Marais still misses the South and feels that her roots will pull her back to this area, especially since her older sister lives in New Albany and her younger sister lives in Hattiesburg. “As much as I love the North, I miss the spirit of Oxford,” she said. “There is something about Oxford, some kind of charm, that a lot of places do not have. Oxford is like a family. We still have many friends there that we keep up with regularly. I miss the football games and all my friends that are there, and the Southern hospitality.” Vote for Linkie and see her recipe for the chocolate mousse.
More about Ole Miss and Food
Learn more about how the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi documents, studies and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. The National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI), part of the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Mississippi, is the only federally funded national center dedicated to applied research, education, training, and technical assistance for child nutrition programs.