Atascadero resident Audrey Johns is starting the new year in the spotlight.
“It’s really exciting,” she said.
A blend of Bravo’s “Top Chef” and NBC’s “The Voice,” “The Taste” has 36 professional chefs and home cooks competing for one of 16 spots in a celebrity chef’s kitchen.
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In a series of blind taste tests, they must win over celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre and Marcus Samuelsson with a single spoonful. The show, which premiered Jan. 22, 2013, returns Thursday for its second season.
Johns’ transformation from self-described “military brat” to TV chef was a gradual one, she said.
She left San Diego State University, where she was studying gerontology, to care for her cancer-stricken mother.
After her mother’s death, “I had missed so much (and) bills had piled up so much that I was not able to go back to school,” she explained.
Instead, Johns went to work as a property manager in Orange County. She and her husband, Chris Johns, both lost their jobs when the housing bubble burst.
Rather than stay in Southern California, they moved to the Central Coast three years ago.
“The second we set foot in Atascadero, we fell in love,” Audrey Johns said.
Johns found her new niche as a freelance writer for the Paso Robles Press, Indulge and Vino magazines and other publications, while her husband became director of marketing and sales at San Luis Obispo charter bus company Silverado Stages.
She also reinvented herself as a home cook and stay-at-home mom, using her mother’s final gift — a copy of Nigella Lawson’s “How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking” — as an initial guide.
Up until that point, Johns said she had struggled with her weight and eating well.
“I was a shake-and-bake girl. I was a straight-out-of-the-box girl,” she recalled.
After purchasing a clean eating cookbook online, “I found a way to cook anything I want and eat anything I want but just make it healthier,” she said, cutting calories and eliminating processed foods while boosting flavor. She lost 150 pounds in a single year, dropping from a size 20 to a size four.
On New Year’s Day, 2012, Johns launched her blog in hopes of helping other people slim down. “Lose Weight by Eating” has attracted more than 6 million readers, she said, and nearly 99,000 likes on Facebook.
In addition, Johns shares cooking tips via her eHow.com video series, “Lose Weight by Eating Right.” She self-published her first cookbook, “Fruit Infusion: A Collection of Day Spa Inspired, Fruit Infused Waters,” last summer.
Johns said one of “The Taste” producers spotted her eHow.com videos and invited her to a Los Angeles casting call last June. A few months later, she was approached to appear on “The Taste.”
To prepare for the show, Johns asked a chef friend, Shaun Behrens, to work in the kitchen of his San Luis Obispo restaurant, Luna Red, for a day.
She also spent two weeks refining her signature dish, going through 10 pounds apiece of lamb and turkey in the process.
“There’s quite a bit left in the freezer,” she said, although she can’t reveal the exact details.
Filming at a Universal Studios soundstage in Los Angeles — the same one used by “The Voice,” Johns said — wrapped last October. Later that month, an ABC film crew shot footage at her house and the Templeton farmers market.
Although Johns plans to watch Thursday’s season premiere of “The Taste” with her husband and 4-year-old daughter Sophia, she may not actually see much of it. She dislikes watching herself on video.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to have my hand over my eyes trying to look away,” Johns said with a laugh.
Season two of “The Taste” premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday on ABC.