Alice D’Antoni Phillips cooks her way to culinary competition fame
Grilled Mango & Raspberry Mint Crostini; Cumin & Ancho Chili; Oven Roasted Corn on the Cob; Harissa Veal Meatball Fruit Kabobs with Greek Yogurt Mint Sauce
These are the things Alice D’Antoni Phillips dreams about each night.
“I dream food all the time,” she says excitedly. “Sometimes it’s even hard to sleep because my brain is on fire thinking of food.”
To look at Ally, you wouldn’t think that food was a subject that ever even crosses her mind. But the petite brunette’s eyes simply dance when she talks about it. Her popular food blog, AllysKitchen.com, earned the Murrells Inlet resident an invitation to Taste of Israel this fall, and her kitchen skills have garnered her a place in the World Food Championships in Las Vegas in November. Grand prize? A cool $300,000.
The spot in the Vegas competition was claimed in July after she took home the national title in the in the Dole California Cook-Off. For all those watching, there was no question as to who the favorite was from the get-go. Ally showed up in Santa Monica exuding humility and being just darned happy to be there. The audience and the judges fell in love with her enthusiasm toward food and all its possibilities. She spoke with anyone and everyone who came by her cooking station, quickly gathering a crowd.
The road to the cook-off began with a simple blind entry to a contest that was open to anyone. Cooks in the Dole Kitchens read through the countless entries before narrowing it down to those deemed “taste worthy.” Ultimately, a few dozen recipes were actually created and tasted. Ally’s veal kabobs mentioned earlier won her a spot as one of the three national finalists.
She maneuvered her way through the cooking phase like a pro, even though she was thrown a few curveballs. While mixing, she got Harissa (a North African spice) in her eye. Then she discovered most of her veal had not been ground. Finally, she found herself dealing with the kabobs sticking to the grill. She continued to wing it with dogged determination.
When the judges took the finalists’ dishes for tasting, it was pretty clear to everyone present that there was a runaway winner. The only one who seemed surprised when they called her name was Ally herself.
This is a woman who is still pinching herself at a life reinvented.
She didn’t start out as a chef. Far from it. Ally is actually Dr. Alice D’Antoni Phillips, PhD. Displaying more energy than people half her age, this 62-year-old grandmother has her bachelor’s degree, master’s and a doctorate. She wears the fact that she is “not a spring chicken” as a badge of honor and counts her blessings that she is living a life she had never even considered possible. Ally contends she is proof that age is not an issue and that people can continue to “do anything you want to do,” no matter how old they may be.
Cooking has been a part of Ally’s life since she grew up in “the hollers of West Virginia.” The maternal side of her family was from Croatia. Special occasions meant meals with dishes considered exotic for Appalachia.
“I was in the kitchen with my mom all the time and with my grandmamma,” she says. “It was a passion even then.”
In the 1960s, food was a necessity, not a career option. Culinary school was something she’d never even heard of.
“Literally there were three things a girl could do as a career—be a secretary, a nurse or a teacher. You didn’t have the opportunities you have today,” she says, shaking her head.
Ally’s father died when she was just ten and her mother pushed her four children to concentrate on their education. Ally got her undergraduate and master’s degree in Special Education and Orthopedic Conditions from Marshall University, marrying fellow student Dan D’Antoni, who was majoring in Physical Education.
The two moved to Myrtle Beach, where Dan became the basketball coach at Socastee and Ally became the guidance counselor at Myrtle Beach Junior High. While raising three young boys, she obtained her doctorate in psychology from the University of South Carolina and went into private practice as a school psychologist and educational therapist.
“When I got married to Danny and we started having a family, ours was the house where everyone gathered for meals,” she says. “My boys loved, loved anything pasta and that’s when I started my bolognaise sauce. It’s now award-winning.”
“Dr. Alice,” as she was known, ran a successful private counseling practice for 30 years before her life did a complete 180. The boys were grown, she had remarried, and her husband Ben had an opportunity to move to Boston for training with his company. The girl from West Virginia jumped full-on into city living.
“A lot of people would have said, ‘Honey, you go and I’ll come visit,’” she says, admitting that leaving a successful practice behind was a tough decision. “But I always wanted to live in a big city and have the adventure. Rather than take a licensing exam, I decided to become an actress.”
The plan wasn’t entirely farfetched. Ally had done some community theater while in Myrtle Beach. This time, in typical Ally fashion, she went all out, getting an acting coach and ultimately winning Best Actress for Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. The auditions she went to were all over town, exposing her to multicultural neighborhoods and diverse food cultures.
“I started cooking more. I was introduced to so many more ethnic foods. Boston is just a great place for every kind of food you could imagine and all kinds of different stores.”
Ally’s casting agent knew of her interest in food and gave her a call when the television show Master Chef was looking for second season contestants. Out of hundreds of wannabes, she made it to the semi-finals, where show star Gordon Ramsay was more interested in her age than her abilities. He told her, “I just don’t think you’re right for the show. Yer’re old enuf to be me Mum!”
In retrospect, she realizes he was looking for a reaction for the show. Being the polite Southern Lady she is, Ally instead just packed up and left. If Ramsay could only know what his insult did to motivate Ally!
“That was just enough kindling to fire my passion even more and show him that you’re never too old!” she says, eyes flashing. “Look at Grandma Moses and others who’ve re-invented themselves in their 60s, 70s and 80s! I’m a normal person who’s worked her “arse” off in life and who still believes dreams do come true. Sixties are the new 40s!”
A longtime contest junky, Ally began entering cooking contests. The very first was co-sponsored by Lennox China and James Beard Award-winning chef Rozann Gold. Rules limited the recipe to three ingredients. Ally concocted a dessert of eggs, raspberries and confectionery sugars. She won.
“The thing about contests is you first of all have to be really creative and experimental, a scientist,” she explains. “You have to keep working to get it to work.”
From then on she was bitten, entering more contests, writing about food, and even creating a website where she could post recipes, blogs and videos. With a nod to her Croatian heritage, she labeled her style “Bohemian Bold.” The Ally’s Kitchen website gets thousands of hits each day and more than a million page views each month.
Her food focus is always changing. “I go on culinary tangents,” she says. “I like to do a lot of things in a certain global area ... Italian, Croatian. Now I am on my Moroccan-North African kick. My favorite thing is whatever my mind is focused on. I immerse myself in the ingredients and how they are cooked.”
Ally cooks daily, proclaiming her food bill is “ginormous.” Ben is the one who generally ends up benefiting from the final product.
“One thing you have to do while cooking is taste, taste, taste,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes by the time I am done I don’t want it. I am sick of it. Sometimes I just give it away. It’s about the experience.”
These days, she proclaims her brain is truly on fire as she tries to create a winning recipe for the World Food Championship. As Ally puts it, “Someone’s gotta win these contests. It may as well be me!”
For Ally’s award-winning recipes, go to www.grandstrandmag.com.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DANNY MOLOSHOK AND TERRY KUZNIAR