PEORIA — A son of restaurateurs, Mark Ingraham grew up around the atmosphere of the kitchen and found himself working just about every job a restaurant offered.
"I've been raised around fine dining atmospheres and eclectic flavors," Ingraham said. "And I've always been cooking on my own."
But Ingraham experienced a wholly different side of the food business when he competed on "MasterChef," a reality television-style culinary competition that is being telecast every Wednesday this summer on Fox.
As of this week, Ingraham has not been eliminated from the show and is among the final 15 contestants.
The 19-year-old Ingraham worked at his mother's restaurant, McMahon's Pints and Plates in Washington. He started as a dishwasher and then moved up as a line cook and several other positions in the kitchen.
Ingraham then had a brief stint working in New York City, where he heard about the casting call for "MasterChef" from his bank teller.
In between the audition and hearing about the callback, he moved back to East Peoria, where he had lived since he was 10. If Ingraham didn't make the cut for the television show, his plan was to open a pizza place in Peoria.
That all changed when he got the call back from the television producers and flew out to California for filming.
"MasterChef" pits a few dozen home or amateur cooks against each other in high-pressure situations, with their final products judged by celebrated chefs such as Joe Bastianich, Aaron Sanchez and the fiery kitchen personality Gordon Ramsay.
The foremost among the cooking challenges is the mystery box event, in which all of the cooks are given a box with the same ingredients and must use only those ingredients to create a dish within a set amount of time. The final products are then appraised — sometimes harshly — by the three judges.
"It's pretty intimidating," Ingraham said. "At the end of the day, you really have to know your worth. To win a show like that, you have to give in to the judgment. Being a little too overconfident might hurt you in the long run."
No matter the outcome for Ingraham on the show, he's landed in a good place in Peoria as the pastry sous chef of the recently opened Harvest Supper Club and Vintage Lounge in the Junction City shopping center.
Peoria-area diners will find Ingraham's work in all of the bread and desserts at the new restaurant, along with his occasional input on the main courses when he works as a line cook.
And while he said his participation on the show probably played a role in his hiring at Harvest, Ingraham wouldn't list it at the top of his resume. He learned a great deal during his time on "MasterChef," but in his mind, the competition format of the show wasn't a substitute for the old-fashioned education a cook gets on the line in a restaurant kitchen.
"I can tell you that I learned a whole lot more working on the line (at restaurants) than I did on 'MasterChef,'" Ingraham said.
Thomas Bruch can be reached at 686-3262 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.