MasterChef Finalist Explains the Crossover Between Cooking and Advertising

Elizabeth Cauvel is also a creative director at MRY

Headshot of T.L. Stanley

When she was auditioning for Season 5 of Fox’s hit cooking show MasterChef, Elizabeth Cauvel told producers she was an associate creative director at New York-based ad agency MRY, working on Johnson & Johnson brands like Listerine and Band-Aid. Their response: blank stares all around.

“No one knows what that means,” they told her.

That’s why she is referred to as simply “advertising executive” on the show, something that gives her agency colleagues a good laugh.

It likely wasn’t her day job but rather her sophisticated spin on Southern comfort food that won over judges Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot, who advanced Cauvel to the finals.

A self-taught cook who hails from Georgia and who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., Cauvel is the odds-on favorite to win the contest Monday night, along with a $250,000 cash prize and a cookbook deal. Speaking to Adweek before the show’s airing, she couldn’t spill the proverbial beans. Instead, she talked about cooking as great storytelling, advertising as assembling ingredients and eating as the ultimate high.

How did you become a proficient home cook?

No one cooked in my family, so I don’t have those stories about watching my grandmother simmer gravy all day. I grew up eating Kraft Mac & Cheese. But about 10 years ago, I got addicted to the Food Network and then magazines and cookbooks. I started trying things that came out pretty good. I realized I had a knack for it and that I was never happier than when I was experimenting in the kitchen.

Why did you decide to audition for MasterChef and what did you cook?

My husband and I had obsessively watched Season 4, and I thought it would be really cool to try to get on the show. I’ve been on plenty of commercial shoots, behind the camera, and found it stimulating and exciting. I Googled and happened to find an open casting call, and then I knew I had to perfect a dish. I made lasagna Bolognese because it’s one of my favorite foods to eat. Even though I’m not ethnically Italian, the way I love Italian food cannot be overstated. I put myself through fresh-pasta boot camp for that because [there’s] no way I would have walked in there with pre-made pasta. 

Photo: Kayone73

Do your two talents—cooking and advertising—inform one another?

I see so much crossover. I think working in advertising was truly an advantage on MasterChef. When you come up with ideas for an ad campaign, you pull from pop culture, media, all your knowledge—those are your ingredients. You put those together like a recipe. That’s just like conceptualizing and creating great food. In both those areas, you’re trying to create something that people will like and respond to and understand.

You already cater in people’s homes, teach cooking classes and run a food blog in addition to your job at MRY. What’s next for you?

I don’t have a crystal clear plan, but I want to communicate my passion for food and cooking through words and pictures. I won’t be opening a restaurant or a food truck—I don’t even have a driver’s license. And I still love advertising because of the creativity.

Talk about that post-MasterChef knife tattoo with “Excelsior” above it on your forearm.

It was such a transformative, positive experience to be on the show, I felt like I’d earned it. It was the first time I could look at myself in the mirror and say, “I’m a chef,” and not cringe at my own hubris. My brother works in the restaurant industry, and he got the mirror image of it on his arm. And excelsior is like a personal motto. It means ever upward, never settle.

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.