Eric Bates of Goldsboro, NC, proved he could stand the heat in the kitchen Thursday, winning LongHorn Steakhouse’s Steak Master Series and walking away with a $10,000 prize and ultimate bragging rights.
“It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had,” Eric said. “I’ve been smiling for hours, and I got very emotional. This has been one of the best days of my life.”
Fidi Rodriguez of Athens, GA, who won the competition in 2017, won second place, and Kimberly Markley of East Wichita, KS, who was runner-up in 2018, won third place. They won prizes of $7,500 and $5,000 respectively, after returning for more grilling glory in the competition at Darden’s Restaurant Support Center in Orlando, FL.
“I’m feeling great,” Fidi said. "I wanted to place in the top three, and I did. That’s what I wanted.” Kimberly said she was a little disappointed but “it’s still pretty good, and there’s always next year.”
LongHorn Steakhouse cranked up the sizzle factor in the fourth year of its epic competition, awarding more than $200,000 in prizes throughout the competition. Also, for the first time, each finalist brought a guest and will enjoy a paid day off after the competition, enjoying all that Orlando has to offer.
Eric’s guest, his proud mother, Belinda Bates-Smith, jumped up and hugged him when he was pronounced the champion. “She grabbed me and she was crying, so I started crying,” Eric said. They will celebrate today at Universal Studios. He intends to spend his prize money on his fixer-upper house.
The competition was intense and closer than ever. Each finalist had to grill six steaks and plate them, along with side dishes, in 20 minutes. The steaks were of different cuts and grilled to different temperatures. As the finalists cooked, the judges peppered them with questions about their culinary knowledge. The steaks were judged based on grill preparation, selection of the perfect cut, boldness of seasoning, and grilling to the perfect degree of doneness.
Hours earlier, the finalists, dubbed the Magnificent Seven by LongHorn Steakhouse President Todd Burrowes, arrived with their managing partners to the roar of more than 1,000 team members lining a red carpet, cheering, blowing horns and ringing cowbells. “The foundation of LongHorn Steakhouse is, has been and always will be steak,” Todd said before introducing the finalists, decked out in red chef coats. “Nothing we do is more important. That’s why we created the Steak Master Series. These seven finalists are the best of the best.”
“You are all winners,” said Darden CEO Gene Lee. “Enjoy the day, take it all in and have fun."
The contest started in February, when more than 5,000 grill cooks from the more than 500 LongHorn Steakhouse restaurants across the country and in Puerto Rico vied for the chance to be named champion. The excitement built as they put their skills to the test until only the Final Seven were left standing.
Four finalists tied for fourth place: Oscar Hernandez of Greendale, WI; Brandon Magyor of McCandless Township, PA; James “JW” Wigfall of Spring Hill, FL; and Nic Marcum of New Braunfels, TX. Each of them took home a $2,500 prize.
“This competition shows that LongHorn Steakhouse cares about us,” said Eric, who has been with the brand seven years. “They appreciate the things that we do for the guests. They have this competition to reward us but also to make us more knowledgeable, which I really appreciate. I’m here for the long haul.”