This is the unabridged version of a story that ran today in our print edition.
Darryl Pierce doesn't want to be famous for his hands. He wants to be famous for what his hands can do, and that is make delicious food.
But the North Carolina native knew when he applied to be a contestant on the new Fox reality competition series "MasterChef," airing Tuesday nights at 9pm, that his hands would be the center of attention.
At least in the beginning.
Pierce was born with a rare genetic birth defect called ectrodactyly, which means he only has three fingers on each hand. "I was hoping that the producers wouldn't make a big deal about my fingers," Pierce said in an interview last week. "Not because I'm uncomfortable or shy about it at all, but because I felt like it would take away from what I felt my biggest asset to the show was: my amazing food."
Still, he knows what makes for good TV so he says he wasn't surprised to see himself prominently previewed at the end of last week's premiere episode with the show's host, chef Gordon Ramsay, asking him about his hands.
"It's difficult because you have three fingers," Ramsay says. "How do you manage?"
"For me, I have cooking," Pierce answers.
The truth is, at 28 years old, Pierce has already accomplished enough to make most people pretty jealous. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2003 with a journalism degree, Pierce worked as a publicist for A-list stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Sarah Jessica Parker and Justin Timberlake.
But the most whiplash-inducing segment of his resume involves his stint at O Magazine in 2005. Pierce was part of Oprah Winfrey's personal staff, was a contributing editorial assistant at the magazine, and personal assistant to Oprah's BFF and O's editorial director Gayle King.
Pierce's exuberant talkativeness comes to an abrupt halt when asked for details about Oprah or Gayle. No loose lips here, which is probably one of the reasons he still maintains a friendship with King.
Pierce says cooking has always been his dream, but like a lot of people these days, the chance to follow that dream was dropped in his lap courtesy of a layoff. He had been doing freelance public relations work since 2006 and then last November, his primary client slashed its budget and Pierce's job went away.
"For two minutes I went through this 'Oh my God, I just lost my job' panic, and then minute three rolled around and I see this is my chance to pursue my dream. I said I'm done with PR and can finally pursue my passion."
Three weeks later he learned about the auditions for "MasterChef."
"I actually said out loud, 'I'm gonna be on that show.' I just had a gut feeling. I felt like it was some kind of cosmic culinary force at work."
Pierce was one of the 50 contestants picked from a group of about 12,000 applicants to audition before cameras in Los Angeles. His audition appears on this week's (tomorrow night's?) episode. For his on-camera audition before the intimidating likes of judges Ramsay, Graham Elliot Bowles, and Joe Bastianich, Pierce cooked Asian inspired Southern Smoked Baby Back Ribs, BBQ Baked Beans, and Cole Slaw.
His strong Carolina pedigree is prominent when he cooks (he has lived in Greensboro, Wilmington, Charlotte, Chapel Hill, and Durham) but he can't deny his love of Asian food.
"I cook a lot of good, traditional Southern food, but the strongest areas of my cooking are Asian influenced. For Eastern style North Carolina barbecue sauce, which uses white vinegar or cider vinegar, I'll substitute a Japanese umeboshi plum vinegar and it gives it a really nice flavor. And instead of cayenne in the rub, I'll use a Korean red pepper powder called gochugaru powder. Those subtle Asian notes turn some already delicious Southern food into global cuisine. And when people eat my brand of southern food, it tastes like good southern food, but it's also a little different."
Pierce says his inspiration for cooking is his mother, who passed away in 2006 from leukemia and lymphoma. "She was my best friend and toughest food critic. She never cooked fancy gourmet food or anything like that, but everything she made was full of love and flavor. She always put her heart in it, and that's how I cook."
In addition to his time on "MasterChef," Pierce has also been busy helping out down to the Gulf. In May he worked at the oil spill site putting in 18-hour days cooking for clean-up crews. "That was one of the best experiences of my life, and fully cemented my newfound culinary confidence. I was essentially running my own small restaurant."
Pierce can't give away any hints about how far he goes on the show, which awards $250,000 and the promise of a published cookbook as the top prize, but he does admit to being very busy now working as a personal chef for clients all over North Carolina. Fox made him take down his personal chef website till the show is over, so the only way to reach him -- and his umeboshi ribs -- is via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Check out our short Q&A with Pierce for some scoop on the the judges on "MasterChef" and to find out who he got stuck with for his roommate during filming.