To win the Food Network show “Guy’s Grocery Games,” you need two skills: cooking and grocery shopping. Fortunately for former Duner’s executive chef Laura Fonner, she frequents her Crozet Harris Teeter so often that employees greet her by name.
Still, it’s tough to completely prepare for the fast-paced competition hosted by Guy Fieri. In a cavernous California warehouse that’s been transformed into a fully operational grocery store, competitors sprint through aisles packed with a chaotic mix of professional chefs and camera crews to complete the contest’s cooking challenges.
They may have to use ingredients that start with the letter ‘F,’ or they might be forced to swap carts with another contestant at any moment. No matter what, they’re cooking with unfamiliar ingredients on a tight timeline, with sweat dripping down their faces and cameras hovering over their shoulders.
A Food Network scout for “Guy’s Grocery Games” called Fonner last year after reading a C-VILLE Weekly article about her work with PACEM, where she leads an effort to cook dinners for homeless individuals at local shelters.
At first, Fonner thought the call was fake. But once she realized this was really happening, there were other things to consider: the week she’d have to spend away from her job at Duner’s and her family, as well as the stringent interviews she had to get through in order to appear on the network.
“You’re basically signing your life away,” says Fonner. “You know, ‘You can come make an idiot of yourself on TV and we own all the rights to it.’”
But after some deliberation, Fonner decided that she couldn’t let the opportunity slip away and agreed to appear in a December 2019 episode.
“I’ve done a lot of things, like catering and restaurant work and concessions stands—a really wide variety of things, but competition cooking is so intense and so nerve-wracking,” says Fonner. “It’s the hardest thing that you could do, culinary-wise.”
While there’s no way to anticipate every challenge “Grocery Games” might throw your way, this episode played into Fonner’s strengths: Fieri told competing chefs that they must cook one meal on a strict $30 budget.
“I had my first child at 19, so I was a single mom for a while,” she says. “And then I have two more kids now. I’ve been on a budget my whole life. …As soon as I heard ‘budget,’ I knew what I was gonna make.”
Her budget dish is chicken dumplings, wrapped in a homemade dough that Fonner has been perfecting for 13 years. The dumplings were good enough to propel her to the next challenge, and to the next. When she was declared the winner of the episode—and the $20,000 cash prize—she says she nearly fainted.
“It was a shock to me,” says Fonner. “And I mean, obviously everyone saw me do that silly little dance, so I’m never going to live that down.”
The dumplings were so memorable, she got another call from the Food Network. Fonner was invited back for a multi-episode summer grilling tournament against fellow alums of the show. Her experience with grills is limited to the George Foreman unit on her kitchen counter, so this new contest presented a bigger challenge—going in, she hoped that 21 years of working in restaurants would carry her through.
The episodes airing this month were filmed last February, in what feels like a different world. Fonner had donated a chunk of her December prize to PACEM. In pre-COVID Charlottesville, she planned to use potential winnings from the upcoming July appearance to buy Duner’s.
“It’s going to be bittersweet listening to how I talked about Duner’s, because I’m not there anymore,” Fonner says.
Instead, she will now run Dumplin’, a food truck from Champion Brewing Company. Starting next week, locals can try her $20,000 recipe by finding the truck at stops between Charlottesville and Crozet, during lunch shifts on Pantops, or on some afternoons at local vineyards.
A new job is not all that has changed for Fonner since her first episode aired in December. Last year, an intimidated Fonner faced many firsts, from flying alone to cooking competitively. Now, she has befriended chefs from across the country and developed a new admiration for Fieri over their shared passion for charitable work.
What’s more, she’s discovered that she loves to compete, something she didn’t realize until she appeared on the show. Even family trips to Harris Teeter have become a heated battle for first place.
“My little boys run through the store, and now I could never, ever tell them they’re not allowed to, because I’m on national TV, sprinting through the grocery store,” laughs Fonner.
Viewers can see her sprint through her grilling debut on the Food Network on July 8, when she faces off against seven other former victors of “Guy’s Grocery Games” during the month-long tournament-style “Summer Grillin’ Games.”
“There’s a lot of food talent in this town,” says Fonner. “We are such a foodie town, whether people want to think about it or not. I think Charlottesville deserves a little bit of recognition for that, and it’s been hard to get it, and I’m not quite sure why…I’m going to try to bring home the trophy and the huge amount of money that’s up for grabs.”