Betty Joyce “B. J.” Chester-Tamayo is synonymous with the small, downtown diner that she has run for 20 years and this week she will be on a syndicated television show serving up a meal crafted to net a second appearance.
Alcenia’s, which is located at 317 N. Main St., is named after B. J.’s mother. B. J. is known for her delicious soul food and preserves. This Thursday, she will be introduced to a panel of three judges as a contestant on “Chopped,” Food Network’s hit reality TV series.
B. J. will compete against three other chefs. The four chefs will display their culinary skills as they face off against one another to prepare a spectacular three-course meal consisting of an appetizer, entree and dessert. In each round, they have to use all the ingredients the show provides. At the end of each course, the judges “chop” the chef who fails to measure up in terms of taste, presentation and creativity.
The last chef standing takes home bragging rights and the $10,000 prize.
“I hope that when people see me on television that they see my heart and how passionate I am about cooking,” she says. “I never thought I’d own a restaurant and I didn’t attend culinary school. I studied my mother and perfected her recipes.”
With a degree in business from The LeMoyne-Owen College, B. J. was working for Federal Express until a life-changing experience in 1996.
“I lost my only son in a motorcycle accident,” B. J. recalls. “That’s when I knew I could no longer work for somebody else or keep putting off what I had to do. Emotionally, I could not go back to work. When I lost my son, it was like there was a hole in my heart and nobody knew how far it went. …You never get to the bottom. Every time you think you’re at the bottom, the hole drops even further.”
B. J. knew something had to give for her to move from tragedy to triumph and continue a family tradition. “If I’m here at the restaurant, I stay so busy. I don’t have any time to think,” she says.
At Alcenia’s, there are a variety of down-home treats to feed the soul, with the mix varying daily. B. J. likes to experiment with a variety of spices and herbs in her cooking. Some of her customers’ favorites are salmon croquettes, pickled tomatoes, candied yams, chicken and waffles, bread pudding, lemon icebox pie, sweet potato cobbler, apple butter and peach preserves.
Not on the menu but ever present is her sweet spirit.
“If I get you in here one time, I’ve got you,” she says with a smile.
“I pray that no matter how good the food was to you on yesterday, that it’s better today, because that’s what soul food is all about. It’s about a love of joining people together from all over the world.”
(“True Grits” the episode featuring“B. J.” Chester-Tamayo, airs this Thursday, December 7th, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the Food Network.)