For years, Britt Shyrene thought of the culinary arts as nothing more than a hobby, something to have fun with.
“My grandmother kept telling me, ‘You need to go to culinary school,’ and I would say, ‘But it’s fun. I love doing this, and if I go to school and it has to be my job, then it’s not going to be fun anymore,’” Shyrene said in an interview with the Times-Mirror.
Shyrene’s love for making and sharing food emerged early on. Her grandfather was a grocery wholesaler in Richmond, and he and his wife opened a restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, at the turn of the century.
One day, a visiting chef took Shyrene — in high school at the time — under his wing when a dish he was preparing caught her eye: sesame-crusted tuna.
“I had never seen upscale food like that before,” she recalled. “I said, ‘This is really cool.’ He gave me an apron and said, ‘You’re going to be my sous-chef today.’ From then on I loved it.”
Still, the chef-in-the-making felt pressured to follow the expectations of her parents and peers by pursuing a more traditional career at a four-year college. She enrolled at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, with a major in journalism. It wasn’t long before she was asked to leave.
“I was miserable. I just didn’t give a crap, and I never went to class, and I got kicked out — like, ‘Please don’t come back.’ I learned that if somebody else is calling the shots and you’re living with their decisions, you’re setting yourself up for an awfully sad life,” she said.
It was not until she was 28 and a mother of two that Shyrene took a leap of faith to transform her talent in the kitchen into a career. She took on three jobs in the food industry — at a convention center, a cultural center and a destination restaurant — and began taking classes at Ivy Tech Community College in Muncie, double-majoring in culinary arts and pastry.
Though inevitably challenging, she credits the heavy workload with her quick success in the industry.
“I did those things so that I could absorb as much knowledge as possible in the shortest period of time possible, because I knew I wanted to hit the ground running," Shyrene said. "And it really changed my life: I didn’t live in the best environment for my children or myself, and I didn’t really know myself, but culinary school changed that for me.”
With only a semester left to earn her two degrees and an American Culinary Federation certification, Shyrene and her children left Indiana to pursue a better life in West Palm Beach, Florida. They later spent a brief time back in South Carolina before finally settling in Sterling, where Shyrene became executive chef at the popular O’Faolain’s Pub.
After two years at O'Faolain's, she left to start her own business, Britt Shyrene Culinary, through which she caters private events and hosts the occasional pop-up dinner. The Root to Table culinary series by Taste of Blue Ridge recently welcomed her as a guest chef.
Shyrene hopes to open her own restaurant someday and to share her gift with others through teaching.
“When you get to where you’re comfortable, you share your knowledge with others. You give back to the community before you expect the community to give back to you,” she said.
Shyrene misses no opportunity to share her life and work on social media. She posts to Instagram nearly every day: photos of visually stunning kitchen creations, videos of her frequent visits to Loudoun farmers markets and the occasional selfie. Each update drips with color and personality, which is what drew Food Network executives to ask her to compete on the channel’s new show, “Supermarket Stakeout,” which premieres at 10 p.m. Aug. 13.
It took Shyrene a surprising amount of effort to bridge the gap between her competitive professionalism and the optimistic energy that fuels her online presence.
“I’m in a business state of mind, where I want to go on this show and whup some people, and then I’m like, ‘Wait, you want my personality?’” she said.
As it turns out, competing on the new show requires hasty strategy, unshakable charisma and even a sense of cunning. Contestants attempt to buy food from grocery shoppers leaving the store with newly-purchased items, then are tasked with preparing and serving a certain kind of kitchen creation with the ingredients — all within a mere 45 minutes.
“Of course I was strategizing. I didn’t want to bolt at these shoppers and scare the hell out of them — then they’d think I’m weird and say, ‘Nope,’” she said.
Despite the competitive nature of the program, Shyrene enjoyed the camaraderie and loving support she shared with the three other contestants and host Alex Guarnaschelli, a frequent judge on another Food Network show, “Chopped.”
“We all were rooting for each other, and I think that was such a great show of community, considering none of us knew each other before that day and we were all from different parts of the U.S. All four of us still talk on a fairly regular basis,” she said.
In this way, Shyrene’s time on “Supermarket Stakeout” catered to what she loves most about food -- its ability to connect people, no matter how different, and give them something to share.
“The one place where people can come in and be together, share knowledge, share experiences, share stories and not have judgment is around a table with other people sharing a meal. Everybody has something to share," she said.