By Amy Wenk
amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

Sandy Springs resident Jamika Pessoa was a bit anxious at a June 5 television premiere.

One hand at her lips, the other grasping her front-row seat, Pessoa gazed behind her at Mom, Dad and boyfriend Darcell Smith for support in the small classroom at the Art Institute of Atlanta in Sandy Springs near Perimeter Mall.

“I’m going to have an ulcer before this over,” the 30-year-old personal chef joked as she and about 20 others watched a sneak peek of her first appearance on “The Next Food Network Star.”

It was the first time Pessoa saw the reality show, on which she is one of 10 culinary contenders. The season began June 7 and continues each Sunday at 9 p.m.

In its fifth year, the Food Network program presents chefs with weekly challenges and eliminates the worst meal and its creator at each episode’s finale. The chef who remains at the end of nine weeks is awarded a show on the network.

“Watching myself on TV, my heart was beating 1,000 beats a second,” Pessoa said in an interview after the preview. “It was like I am reliving every single challenge. I’m reliving my dish and the team and speaking to the Food Network executives and everybody in that room. You wish you could do things over. You’re glad some things went well.”

The first episode

During the first episode, the 10 chefs were split into two teams and challenged to cater Food Network’s 16th-anniversary party. Top TV chefs Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis were among the judges at the Sweet 16 shindig.

Pessoa served a curried shrimp, mango and jicama slaw, which received mild criticism from the panel. But her sweet demeanor and energetic confidence were highly praised, and she remained on the show.

“She has something I think a lot of Food Network viewers would connect with,” De Laurentiis said.

Bob Tuschman, the network’s senior vice president of programming and production, told Pessoa, “You just have such a lovely way about you.”

Pessoa’s mother said that personality has led her to stardom.

“She is my go-getter child, and that’s what I admire about her,” said Vilma Pessoa, who traveled from Montgomery, Ala., with her husband, Winston, for the June 5 premiere. “The sky isn’t even the limit for her.”

Lighting her fire

The youngest of three girls, Pessoa craved attention as a little girl, especially while her grandmother was preparing food in the kitchen.

“She would pick me up, and I would refuse to go down,” said Pessoa, who was raised in Montgomery. “She had to cook with me on her hip.”

In that prime spot, she watched her grandmother chop, mix and make. Pessoa soon adored her spontaneous but successful technique. “She never measured anything. She never had a recipe, and everything always came out right.”

Pessoa wanted to awe dinner guests as her grandmother did and began learning at her side. The budding chef at a young age could create a dish without a recipe, Vilma said.

Cooking remained Pessoa’s hobby while she obtained a marketing degree from Xavier University in New Orleans. She landed a position as a marketing executive after school.

But when she was laid off, Pessoa decided to pursue her passion. She enrolled in the Art Institute of Atlanta’s International Culinary School in Sandy Springs.

“You have to leave your comfort zone and take two steps back in order to get five steps ahead sometimes,” said Pessoa, who interned at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead while a culinary student.

She soon began Life of the Party (chefjamika.com), an event- and menu-planning business. The company offers chef services personalized to the client, both in terms of food choice and overall ambience.

“I always cook with style,” said Pessoa, whose Caribbean roots influence her cuisine.

“Food is my creative outlet. I can create anything I want. That white plate is my canvas, and that’s how … I show who I am. I play with colors, textures and flavors.”

The next dish

Pessoa is sworn to secrecy about the outcome of “The Next Food Network Star,” which was filmed January and February. She won’t even tell her mother.

“Mom is really upset that I have not told her,” Pessoa said.

“If I give it away, you’re not going to tune in. I want everybody on the edge of their seats.”

She said the competitive aspect of the show was the most challenging.

“Your confidence does get shaken, but you can’t let them see you sweat,” she said. “I held a lot in, and I’m glad now it’s over so I can exhale.”

Regardless of the outcome, Pessoa hopes to stay in the public eye.

“This is definitely not the last time you will see Jamika Pessoa’s face,” she said.