There’s little mystery in how two Waconia residents made their way onto national television to compete in their respective wheelhouses. Chris Johnson competed in the qualifying round of NBC’s American Ninja Warrior this summer, and Marc Huebner earned praise from Chef Michael Symon on Food Network’s America’s Best Cook last spring. After watching them jump, dice, lift and puree, it’s clear that meticulous passion propels them to explore new ways to play the TV competition game.
Marc Huebner, home chef
I arrived at dinner with nothing more than a curious appetite and a dash of culinary intimidation. Oh, I’ve watched cooking shows and competitions. Many a magazine has borne the brunt of my well-intentioned recipe tear outs, but my kitchen skills aren’t quite where I’d like them to be. Maybe I just need a little first-hand inspiration.
When the chance to dine at Marc Huebner’s table was offered, I knew this was an invitation I couldn’t resist. The 46-year-old home technology consultant knows his way around the kitchen and then some. This spring, he came in fourth out of 16 contestants in the Food Network’s America’s Best Cook.
The experience left him hungry for more culinary completion as evident by his 32-inch by 66-inch kitchen chalkboard. While most kitchen boards play host to shopping lists, calendar reminders or weekly menus, Huebner’s board keeps a lengthy list of food competitions and their respective submission dates.
Huebner’s mentor on America’s Best Cook, Chef Michael Symon, also of ABC’s The Chew, expresses confidence in his abilities:“He had a very good grasp on technique and was very calm, which are two things every great cook needs,” Symon writes in an email, adding, “I think due to his technique, he was able to stretch his creativity further than the rest of the cooks in the competition. A great cook cannot be creative until they have a firm grasp on the basics.”
Growing up in Hastings, Minnesota, Huebner’s dining experiences weren’t much different than any other Midwesterner’s, but a 1981 move with his family to Brussels as an eighth grader expanded his palate. “That’s where I learned what food could be,” he recalls.
Primarily self-taught, Huebner cooks for his kids and his partner, Michelle Hartmann, who he emphatically credits with providing an important ingredient to his success: support, and their blended family, which benefits from more than the taste and variety of offered foods. “I like to make things look pretty. Even if it’s hotdogs and tater tots for the kids,” he says.
Photo courtesy of Television Food Network
This night’s menu featured grilled pork tenderloin with a homemade spiced chili rub; pureed sweet potatoes seasoned with cayenne, cumin and honey; grilled corn salsa, including grilled poblano and red peppers, peaches, lime juice and cilantro; and an avocado crema.
While Huebner pulled the meal together (with nary a measuring spoon or cup in sight—“I rarely measure anything. I taste it,” he says), we talked about basic kitchen missteps: overcrowded pans, under seasoned food and impatient cooks.
Don’t get him started on kitchen gadgets (save for a mandolin slicer). “There’s 40 different gadgets to chop garlic, and none of them work!” Or iodized salt: “It’s only good for getting wine stains out of carpet. Use kosher salt.”
As preparations continued, I stole a few looks around the kitchen, searching for tools or tips of his trade that might be absent from my kitchen. It wasn’t until he popped open the spice cabinets (yes, plural) that the real differences between our kitchens became gleamingly apparent. My spice shelf (yes, singular) is so messy that the “toss the jar back in and slam the door shut” method is in use. Huebner, on the other hand, has more than 50 spices, herbs and seeds neatly standing at attention on organized shelves. Well-honed knives (some at $200 a pop) stand at the ready. Huebner noted that pans make all the difference, and he presented two gorgeous, sprain-your-wrist heavy pans he purchased in France.
Meal preparation perked along with aromas teasing my appetite. In the meantime, I sampled amazing rubs, smelled earthy morels, and sniffed freshly-made compound butter, but what elicited an audible gasp from me was his pantry. I love serving dishes—white ones of all shapes, sizes and purposes. It’s a minor obsession. I store (cram) them into every spare inch in my cupboards and in a cleared-out mitten and hat bin (Minnesota winters be darned—I have priorities). I felt a little lightheaded when I walked into his pantry and found 20 bliss-filled shelves of serving dishes. White ones of all shapes, sizes, and purposes.
I needed to clear my head. I was there for dinner, not to indulge in my predilection.
Huebner plated our dinner—a meal with vibrant colors and visual textures, creating a beautiful tableau, on a weeknight no less, when the rest of us might be tearing open frozen bags of goodness knows what to toss in the oven.
Huebner’s creation didn’t taste as good as it looked. It exceeded the presentation. Tender. Well seasoned. A hit of sweet played with the peppers’ heat. The smooth crema offered a silky balance to the strong flavors.
For me, pleasant conversation is an important ingredient to any meal. After a lovely chat with my dining companions, it was time to say goodnight. I left Huebner’s table feeling the way every dinner guest should feel—satisfied and inspired.
Chris Johnson, ninja-in-the-making
Watching Chris Johnson, 28, zip around a Chanhassen gym brought back elementary school memories. I could see my classmate Julie T. motoring up the pegboard wall in gym class while I watched in terror from below, knowing that I didn’t have the confidence or the upper body strength to mimic her skill.
There was Johnson box jumping, shimmying up double ceiling ropes and swinging though bar sets with nary a sweat bead in sight. (Hmm...not much has changed in my fitness prowess level since junior high.) But Johnson clearly loves his workout, creating scenarios to test and improve his strength, agility and endurance.
Working out most days for nearly two hours takes motivation. For Johnson, the incentive is another crack at NBC’s American Ninja Warrior, where he competed this year in Denver’s qualifying round. Unfortunately, he was disqualified after grabbing an illegal section on the first element. “Oh, my, gosh, at the time, it was devastating,” Johnson says. “Everything slowed down. I was bitter for a day, but I’ll be back! I’m already training for it.”
Johnson has an important audience watching his turns on the show. As a middle school math teacher at Cologne Academy, he shares his fitness goals with his students and speaks to them about fear and confidence.
“They’d ask questions (about training) all the time,” Johnson recalls, adding that he recruited Evan Dollard, American Ninja Warrior veteran and 2008 winner of NBC’S American Gladiators, to talk to his students about overcoming obstacles, living a positive life and reaching their full potential. The Ninja duo also spent time in the gym during Dollard’s December 2013 visit from Los Angeles. “He has all the faculties in his arsenal to compete,” Dollard says of Johnson, adding that Johnson “has a fire in him. That passion is equally as important as the training.”
American Ninja Warrior has a captive audience in my house. Obstacles, such as Devil’s Steps, Jumping Spider, Shin Cliffhanger, and the granddaddy—the Warped Wall—make for compelling viewing and clever color commentary coming off the couch. Many contestants try to replicate the courses by crafting smaller, practice versions. (My resident teenager thinks it’s time to transform the swing set into his personal Ninja training ground. Not happening.)
I expected to find Johnson working out on a Rube Goldberg-type set-up with horizontal ladders, wobbly pedestals, cargo nets—the whole business. It was surprising to find him training with fewer elements. Since the American Ninja courses are constantly changing, contestants must work on skill building, rather than mastering one element, Johnson explains, and says he uses his creativity (and some YouTube inspiration) to craft his workouts.
Johnson says one of his weaknesses is balance, calling himself “flatfooted and clumsy.” This said as he’s jumping onto 50-inch boxes stacked with 45-pound weight plates with sure-footed prowess. Balancing on obstacles isn’t Johnson’s only concern. “It’s really tough to balance [work, family, training],” he notes.
But, according to the pros, finding that balance is important to the competition. “At the end of the day, Ninja Warrior is a game show,” Dollard says. “You have to be invested in life and movement to unleash your full potential.”
Johnson and his wife, Brittany, don’t have children, freeing up training time—time that he readily admitted used to be spent eating junk food while happily planted on his couch. Two years later and 40 pounds lighter, much has changed. Johnson altered his lifestyle and conquered some fitness fears of his own.
“You got to get out of your comfort zone and see what you’re made of,” he says. “Anybody can do it. That’s what I learned from this.”