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Viewers across the country watched as Lipscomb alumnus Gerron Hurt won the Season 9 MasterChef competition with new takes on Southern favorites.
The journey that led Hurt to the $250,000 prize for his culinary talent included a stop at Lipscomb for him to earn his master's as part of the Nashville Teacher Residency program.
Hurt ('18), a 25-year-old English teacher at Nashville’s LEAD Academy High School, earned not just one, but two master designations within just five months in 2018. First he earned his Lipscomb University Master of Education and then he became the latest MasterChef, winner of the Fox reality show cooking competition.
Filming the Season 9 episodes of MasterChef took him away from campus for several weeks during the school year to film in Los Angeles, but Lipscomb professors worked with him to continue his studies while on set.
“I gave him the syllabus and all the assignments ahead of time, and he had the textbook,” said Jeanne Fain, a professor of education at Lipscomb who came to know Hurt well as he studied for an additional ESL certification from Lipscomb. “He wrote of all his reflections out by hand because he wasn’t allowed to use a computer (during filming), and when he came back I met with him to finish up.
“You have to be extremely organized to earn a master’s and be on a reality show and go right back to teaching at LEAD, so his organizational skills are really good,” Fain said.
No doubt. On the final episodes leading up to the finals, Hurt was required to make three chocolate desserts at one time as well as prepare a three-course meal of risotto, salmon and sticky toffee pudding, all in one time period.
Throughout the show, Hurt, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, drew on his roots to create innovative versions of Southern staples. But he said he also tried to represent Nashville, as he made Nashville’s signature dish hot chicken for his first on-screen appearance to earn one of 24 “white aprons” that the final contestants wear, Hurt pointed out.
“I’ve had a good opportunity to represent both Louisville and Nashville on the show,” Hurt said.
For the finale menu, Hurt did a spin on Nashville hot chicken to create a "Nashville hot quail" appetizer, a version of shrimp and grits with prawns for the entree and an amaretto chess pie for dessert.
Hurt began cooking around the age of 5, he said. “I have a large family of seven brothers and sisters. We hardly ever ate out. So growing up, I was always interested in what my Mom was cooking because I loved to eat,” said Hurt. “My mom would say, ‘Come into this kitchen because I don’t want you to be waiting on a woman to cook your meal!’”
As he grew older, Hurt loved to watch cooking shows on the Food Network and shows featuring the MasterChef host Gordon Ramsay, international chef and restaurateur.
“I really tried to take some of the things they taught you on the show, and things I saw Gordon Ramsay cook, and I would try to find a way to replicate those flavors,” Hurt said.
In 2013, Hurt’s mother passed away, an event that impacted him greatly both spiritually and in his culinary journey.
“I have always been a religious person, but it wasn't until my mother’s death in 2013 that I truly established a one-on-one relationship with God,” Hurt said. “Losing my mom made me challenge what God had in store for my life, but going to church and constantly talking to God allowed me to rekindle my faith and to put all of my trust in Him. Without the Lord, none of my accomplishments would be possible! I owe it all to Him!”
His mother’s death also meant he took the lead on cooking for family get-togethers.
“I just kept learning new things, studying cooking shows and really practicing. There is no right or wrong answers in cooking. You just try it out and it works or it doesn’t work, and sometimes it turns out great. That’s what I love about cooking!”
"I am about food that speaks to the soul and food that is influenced by family." — Gerron Hurt, MasterChef 2018
He attended Western Kentucky University for his undergraduate degree and then came to Nashville as part of the Nashville Teacher Residency program, which recruits and trains recent college graduates to become math and English teachers to serve in low-income middle and high schools in Nashville’s public school district.
Check out the Nashville Teacher Residency website to see a photo of Hurt in his classroom.
The residency program has a partnership with Lipscomb for master’s level course work, so Hurt came to Lipscomb for his advanced degree.
“My grandma was the only person in my family who graduated college,” Hurt said. “I grew up in a rough neighborhood, and the only positive things I knew were from her. She was a teacher and was very well known in the community. In high school, I had a great teacher who got me into English. He was a great role model, and I always told myself, I would love to do what he does.”
Hurt is quite popular at LEAD Academy High School, he says, because in addition to filling his students’ heads with a good grasp of language and writing, he also fills their tummies with good food on a regular basis.
“I cook all the time for my students, and they are so grateful for every meal I cook for them. I make a buffalo chicken dish that they beg for every week. Once you start cooking for them, you have to keep on doing it,” he laughed.
In late 2017, Hurt and his fiancé Brandi Beckham saw an advertisement on TV for auditions for MasterChef in Nashville. She pushed him to audition.
At the initial audition, he brought a dish he cooked at home, a stuffed salmon with crab meat and slaw, to wait in a room with hundreds of other people, he said. At his turn, he had two minutes to plate his dish for the casting crew and then went through a short interview about his dish and how he works in the kitchen. He later went to a second audition to be interviewed by the producers of the show. After that, he got the call to come to LA to be part of the 43 contestants who cook dishes on screen to be selected for the weekly episodes.
Hurt said he feels he has been fairly represented as who he really is on MasterChef, and Fain agrees.”
“He is so amazing! Before he went (to filming), I had a chance to pray with him, because he was really nervous. He gave me this big bear hug,” said Fain. “He is so genuine. That is really who he is (on the show). They haven’t edited him or framed him in a different way.”
"Throughout the season, Gerron displayed the drive and characteristics we so often ask of one another and, especially, our students," said LEAD Academy's CEO Dwayne Tucker. "He was courageous in trying out for the show in the first place. He was committed, disciplined and self-reliant in his approach to the competition, and the way in which he talked about his students and his passion for them was the very definition of serving others."
"He is so genuine. That is really who he is (on the show). They haven’t edited him or framed him in a different way.” — Jeanne Fain, Lipscomb education professor
As an educator, Fain is excited that Hurt has had the opportunity to represent a positive attitude toward learning, she said. “He has demonstrated really well what it is like to take constructive feedback positively and learn from it,” she said. “He is a great example of what a lifelong learner looks like. He has learned from everything and doesn’t let criticism beat him up, but instead really tries hard not to make the same mistake. He’s a really great example for our students.”
Whether he wins or not, Hurt’s life has already been changed by the MasterChef experience. He has learned how to compartmentalize his teaching career with his cooking career, which now requires him to do cooking demos and appearances on weekends as well as lots of interviews, he said.
Upon winning, Hurt said he would like to travel to learn more about cuisine and possibly open a pop-up restaurant.
He also said he would like to find sponsors to fund a culinary program at LEAD Academy High School. Such a program would provide another option for students “to be successful outside of going to college,” he said.
-Janel Shoun-Smith (with contributions from Lipscomb junior Sara Jones)
This article was updated and re-posted on May 8, 2019, as part of the LipscombNow summer 2019 online edition.