Orchid in Bloom
Author: David Tobias | Photographer: Photography by Anne
We knew Orchid Paulmeier as just Orchid—like Sting, like Cher, like The Edge, yes, like Madonna—well before The Food Network discovered Orchid this year.
Even before The Food Network promoted their seventh season with the phrase, “Do you have what it takes to be a single-name celebrity?”, we all knew and loved the bubbly, zippy-talking, constantly smiling Orchid and knew that if it’s a single name celebrity they want, this is a match made in heaven.
Among those food celebrities we know just by their first names—Guy, Bobby, Giada, Paula, Rachel, Robert—Orchid is just perfect. Even she says she doesn’t know anybody who knows anybody who knows anybody who knows another Orchid.
So, Orchid could very well be the next Food Network star, and in the weird, somehow wonderful—no, just weird—world of reality TV, maybe she already is. Let’s see, it’s June as we write, July as you read, next week when you watch The Next Food Network Star episode, and it won’t be until August 14 when we find out if Orchid has made it to the end.
What’s even stranger is that by the time we find out, it will be just one week before she hosts her very own show—if she wins/has won. She could be in production right now and planning her book tour. The exclusive feature about her in Food Network Magazine may already be at press, and she may be on her way to what Bobby Flay calls “a once-in-a-lifetime chance to launch a culinary empire.”
Imagine what it must be like for Orchid. She talks in the past, present and future tense all in the same sentence, which gets her all delightfully giddy. She says that she knows who won. Well, she says she has an idea. “We all know—all the finalists—but we have to keep it a secret,” she said. Which is made easier because Orchid and the 14 other contestants on this year’s show signed a contract to keep things mum. Or else.
Speaking of mum, if you’re not familiar, we’re talking about the Orchid Paulmeier who owns and operates Red Hot Mama’s restaurant in what’s commonly known as the “Barmuda Triangle,” located at the entrance to Sea Pines Plantation. Orchid has been a fixture in the Hilton Head Island and Bluffton restaurant scene since she came here from Chicago as an intern and corporate trainer for Longhorn Steak House in 1994. She worked at Dosidos in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island and then opened One Hot Mama’s in 2003, accomplishing her personal goal of owning a restaurant before she turned 30 (she’s now 39).
She has tried out for The Next Food Network Star three times now. She says the third time is the charm, or it’s three strikes and you’re out, which, she says, is only fair to family—her three kids and her husband who actually filmed the casting video that helped land her on Season 7. Her first tryout was in Charleston two years ago, and she was called back, but then missed the cut. She tried again last year but didn’t hear back at all.
This year, she combined the trip to Atlanta for the audition with a family vacation, thinking positive and booking the hotel for two nights. It was a good thing. She was not only asked to come back the second day, but was required to bring a prepared dish. That meant a trip to World Market for a cutting board, serving dish and some basic ingredients. She chose poached salmon with a black bean couscous, all prepared with nothing more than a four-cup coffeemaker, running the water through the coffeemaker three times.
“Thank goodness there was a refrigerator in the room, but I think that was what did it,” Orchid said. “They loved it.”
Orchid was chosen from among more than 3,000 who tried out; the field was narrowed to 30 and then 15—seven guys and eight girls.
For those who’ve been under a rock for the last seven years, the show is kind of an Iron Chef meets Survivor concept and has a frenetically-paced, quick-cut-edited story line that pits chef against budding chef in competition to out-last, out-wit, out-connive and out-cook.
So far, after only week two, Orchid seems to be cruising along on a pleasant, comfortable-to-watch personality, surviving some sharp-barbed criticism of her preparation of abalone (Orchid substituted canned oysters) with caviar buerre blanc that judge “Ann” described as looking like something her cat cacked up. Orchid took the criticism with her signature sweet smile and a humble apology, which endeared her even more to the judges. Bob Tuschman, president of programming, general manager of the Food Network and a judge, has compared her favorably to Ina Garten, better known as the “Barefoot Contessa,” saying she has “the same calm and inviting effect as she has.” And the Barefoot Contessa has gone far.
Orchid has also endeared herself to her partners with the Serg Group of restaurants, of which One Hot Mama’s is one, including Tony Arcuri. “Orchid is doing what we all wish we were doing and we’re so very proud of her,” Arcuri said. “Number one, she’s building business, but she’s also building a following. In fact, I need to get her autograph … okay, Orchid… on a check?”
Her following includes more than 2,000-strong on her personal Facebook. Her official fan page hit 1,234 in mid-June (a number so surprising she paused at that moment and made a wish to win) and the One Hot Mama’s’ Facebook page has well in excess of 3,000 fans. She posted on Facebook and Twitter during the show and calls Facebook “just fantastic.”
Her sojourn through the Food Network Stars is being chronicled by local bloggers, including the Chamber of Commerce’s Betsy Hinderliter, and fans of the show continue to vote for Orchid. (You can vote a total of 18 times a day if you find the right websites – in fact, Orchid won the pre-fan vote and was in second place as of this writing.)
The judges’ vote will determine the winner overall, but the fan vote will earn the winner a web-based series; the last two winners of the web series went on to host their own television shows on the Food Network.
Is she ready for all this? Chef Robert Irvine, a Food Network celebrity already, a fellow Hilton Head Island resident, a lover of One Hot Mama’s’ succulent ribs, and owner of Robert Irvine’s eat! on the island, asked her that question during the series premiere.
“Are you sure about this?” Orchid said he asked. “Robert asked me ‘are you ready for all this? Because it’s big.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, of course; in fact, I want to be on your show, Dinner Impossible. I thought he was offering me a job or something.
“I’m excited and I’m definitely ready for it,” Orchid said. “But the one thing that’s most important is family. We decided early on if we’re in it we’re all in it, because it’s a group commitment. It’s not just me, because the entire family is backing me up on it.”
That includes her proud first-generation Filipino mom and dad back in Chicago, her husband, the personal trainer and very part-time videographer, her three kids and the rest of us here in the Lowcountry who know her best by that memorable and refreshingly simple single name: Orchid.