Now that Jenn Thomas is the winner of Rachael Ray’s first on-air cooking contest, she’s ready to celebrate. “I’m going to drink something besides Mylanta,” laughs Thomas, 25, a bartender and floral designer from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, who despite a huge case of nerves, beat four other finalists (and thousands of video applicants) to take top honors in the talk show’s “So You Think You Can Cook?!” competition.
By all accounts, Thomas started out as the underdog. “Everyone considered Jenn the long shot because she didn’t seem very sure of herself,” says Ray. What ultimately helped convince the judges? Ray (who chose not to vote because she couldn’t stand the pressure) credits Thomas’s tenacity. “It was a huge surprise that she kept knocking it out of the ballpark but once Jenn’s love of cooking took over,” explains Ray, “she forgot to be nervous. That’s why she was ultimately successful.”
Thomas has shown such heart before, when she battled an eating disorder a few years ago. Now she hopes to help others in similar situations. “It’s my ultimate goal to educate young girls about food and body related issues.”
For now, she can enjoy her prizes, which include a week-long stint at culinary school, the publication of her recipes in Ray’s magazine and a hosting spot on the “What’s for Dinner?” segment on Ray’s show December 5th. She even gets the TV kitchen superstar as her sous chef. Not that Ray has to worry.
During PEOPLE’s magazine photo shoot, Thomas reassured Ray that she has no plans to be a slave driver. The talk show host’s main duty, according to Thomas, will be pouring some wine. A relieved Ray says “My kind of girl! ‘But make sure the wine gets into the recipe, kid. Otherwise don’t like to see us drinking in the morning.’”
For more on Jennifer Thomas and Rachael Ray, go to Rachelray.com and check out this week’s issue of PEOPLE. –Liza Hamm
Jenn’s Goat Cheese Lasagna with Kalamata Olives and Basil Pesto4 whole tomatoes One jar kalamata olives 2 cloves of sliced garlic 3 cups basil pesto 2-3 cans fire roasted tomatoes One box whole wheat lasagna leaves cooked 1 lb. fresh goat cheese 2 tbsp chopped parsley
Slice tomatoes and kalamata olives and place on large jelly roll sheet. Toss with EVOO, salt and pepper. Slice whole heads of garlic in half, pour EVOO, salt and pepper over exposed cloves. Wrap in foil and place both the garlic and jelly toll sheet in oven at 350 F for 35-45 min.
Mash goat cheese using the back of a fork, toss with 2 tbsp. chopped parsley, salt and pepper. Mash roasted garlic and gently fold into goat cheese. In a greased lasagna dish line the bottom with lasagna leaves. Spoon the basil pesto over the leaves. Place roasted tomatoes and olives on top of basil. Toss goat cheese mixture to completely cover the roasted vegetables. Finish with another layer of lasagna leaves. Continue layering until the ingredients are gone or the pan is full. Pour the fire roasted tomatoes over top along with any extra goat cheese. Cover with foil and bake at 350 F for 35-50 min. Uncover the baking dish and let brown on top for the last 5 minutes. Let set for 10 min. to cool before serving.