Orchid Paulmeier tapped her foot up and down on the floor.
She stood near the end of the bar on Friday, her pink “Hot Mama” shirt clashing with One Hot Mama’s – her restaurant’s – black ceiling and low light. A man walked up to her, handed her a cookie sheet.
“I’d say ‘Good luck out there,’ but I know you’re gonna wipe up,” he said.
“Oh, I hope so,” Paulmeier said. “That’s the pressure of it, you know? Like Wingfest wasn’t so bad because I didn’t win anything last year – I didn’t even place. So I was back (this year) with a vengeance. For four years straight I won. So this year was just, like, ‘I gotta win it.’”
“Well,” the man said, “the rib thing – you’re like the Rocky Balboa of ribs.”
Paulmeier is prepping for an upcoming rib competition. She’d smoked a rack for the man with the cookie sheet – a photographer, tasked with making her food look even better. A challenge, perhaps, considering Paulmeier’s chops: successful restauranteur who might sell 500 pounds of meat and 2,000 chicken wings in a single day; Food Network star; and, soon, guest chef at the James Beard House in New York City.
Paulmeier is one of four South Carolina chefs named to the South Carolina Chef Ambassador program, an initiative developed by Gov. Nikki Haley and Chef Brandon Velie, according to a news release from the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. The program is designed to showcase the Palmetto State’s food culture and travel appeal in other parts of the country, in hopes of driving more tourists to the state. In August, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism will host an event featuring Paulmeier and her fellow ambassadors at the James Beard House.
“It’s like the Oscars of food,” Paulmeier said, referring to the James Beard Foundation, which gives out the country’s top culinary awards.
The foundation operates the James Beard House, which carefully selects who can cook there. According to foundation’s website, guest chefs are invited to the house because they have, among other things, a “national or regional reputation, as evidenced by press and resume/biography.”
Paulmeier’s story began in Chicago, where she lived for over 20 years. Her parents – a nurse and an engineer – left the Philippines and raised her in the Windy City. She’s a Chicago Cubs fan, and a fan Uno’s pizza. She likes Italian beef and hot dogs, both from Widen’s.
“We’ll literally drive there straight from the airport,” she said.
She married her high school sweetheart, and the couple has three teenagers. She opened the first One Hot Mama’s in Bluffton in 2003, but sold it after she opened her current location on Greenwood Drive in Hilton Head in 2007. She was a finalist on Season 7 of Food Network Star in 2011.
“I’d like to get on another TV show, but I gotta find one that fits,” she said. “Who wouldn’t wanna go back on Food Network and compete for something?”
She’s also hoping to open a One Hot Mama’s in Bluffton, and to franchise the restaurant – that’s always been the goal, she said.
As for the meal she’ll soon cook at the James Beard House, she can’t say much. The menu’s been finished for over a month, she said. It’ll feature some local grains trying to make a comeback. Jimmy Red Corn Grits out of Edisto, she said. African Runner Peanuts that’ll be used in a sauce.
That’s all she could say – and August is a long time away.
On Friday, she was busy filling catering and other food orders. A clipboard crammed with about 20 pieces of paper dictated her day. Not much time to sit down and talk at the bar.
At the end of the bar at One Hot Mama’s, Paulmeier laughed at the “Rocky Balboa of ribs” remark.
“Hey, he finally won an Oscar, right?” she said. “So we’re good.”
The man laughed, then left.
A customer who overheard the exchange asked her a question.
“I won four straight (Wingfests), then last year nothing, not even a second place,” she said, answering him. “And then this year we won first judge’s choice.”
“So you’re back?” the customer said.
“Always,” she said as she laughed. “Even when I’m not, I think I am.”