Risk Pessoa’s Resilience in the Kitchen and in Life

Jamika Pessoa has a knack for turning setback into opportunity. Laid off from her marketing job after the global economic pinch spurred by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she switched vocations, embarking on a successful cooking career. Rather than sulking after failing to win the fifth season of The Next Food Network Star reality cooking competition, Pessoa is happy. Losing has been liberating because now she can craft her image.

“Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to win because I’m competitive,” said Pessoa, who finished in the top four of the 10-person competition. “Career-wise, getting put off was great because I’m free to pursue other opportunities. I don’t have to be tied to one network, so I get to have more creative control.”

A southern girl who learned the intricacies of Caribbean cooking from her grandmother, Pessoa was perhaps predestined for a career in the kitchen. The terrorist attacks fast-tracked the Xavier University graduate’s career path; she was let go from her marketing job at Images USA, an Atlanta-based multicultural ad agency. Unsure of her next move, Pessoa enrolled in the Art Institute of Atlanta.

“Cooking, it was my gift,” Pessoa said. “The week I got laid off, I decided to go to culinary school. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it. But I wanted a job where I would always be in demand.”

Pessoa was a quick study, mastering the art of cold food preparation, then burnishing her resume with a stint at the five-star Ritz-Carlton-Buckhead, studying under top chefs in Austria and Italy and joining groups like the American Culinary Federation and the United States Personal Chef Association.

It all came together—culinary expertise, personal flair, hosting skills— and soon Life of the Party, her event and menu planning company in Atlanta. Her first client was a former player for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Celebrity clientele came calling: Mo’Nique, Omarion, NFL athletes, the BET Hip-Hop Awards.

Entering The Next Food Network Star competition seemed a logical next step, a way to build her culinary bonafides. She’d pitched herself to networks, but figured that, win or lose, the exposure could only help. And she seemed well on her way before being derailed by a challenge in South Beach, Miami. Call them the four words that spelled her doom.

“The circumstances were frustrating. It was extremely hot and the clock was ticking. I said, ‘I know I’m looking like I’m pissed right now, but I’m keeping it together.’ But all you saw, ‘I’m pissed right now.’ It was an editing trick,” she said. “Taking away nothing from anyone, I had the most diverse background—personal chef, catering, restaurant and the television experience, and I showed the most culinary range preparing dishes from several cultures and cuisines. This may not have been my time, but I am certain that I will come out on top in the long run.”

For the immediate future, Pessoa is focused on crafting her—“a restaurant can wait till I retire”—and showing people that you can not only meld culinary styles (giving Asian recipes, say, a Jamaican twist), but also turn simple ingredients to make sublime meals. As for what she likes to eat, well, you might be surprised.

“My trainer has me on a diet, but I love comfort food, especially barbecue. When I smell it in the air, I want to drive to the smell,” she said. “I love anything covered in cheese; macaroni and cheese is a favorite. I love Italian food. When I’ve had an awful day, the greatest meal for me is Buffalo wings and Caesar salad.”

To learn more about Pessoa and her company Life of the Party, visit www.chefjamika.com

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A native of Las Vegas and graduate of Southern University, Damon journalistic experience includes weekly and daily newspapers and magazines.