Except it wasn't working out. On the second episode, Carroll's team had lost the elimination challenge (making a dinosaur-themed breakfast for kids). And, there, at "chef's table," she also lost her composure. Then she lost her spot in the competition. "Pack your knives and go home," Lakshmi told her.
And pack she did. Right after hugging her fellow chefs and erupting again on her way out of the stew room. The f-bombs dropped. The bleeps bleeped. Carroll's verbal explosion seemed destined to become the Mount St. Joseph Academy and Restaurant School grad's most memorable TV scene. It definitely was not her finest.
"It was an extremely upsetting, disappointing moment to me," Carroll said recently, "I let my emotions come through, loud and clear."
After the episode aired, Eric Ripert, her celeb-chef boss at the Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia, where she ran 10 Arts' kitchen, publicly apologized for her. By that point, Carroll had worked with Ripert for about eight years, first at New York's esteemed Le Bernardin, where she held the coveted position of sous chef, then at the local Ritz-Carlton, where she helmed the kitchen.
"I must say, Jennifer should have kept her cool and not been so aggressive," Ripert told BravoTV.com. "The Ritz-Carlton philosophy is ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentleman. In that respect, she's definitely not right."
Still Ripert believed in her, and stood by her side, as, her head of flaxen locks hung low, Carroll returned to 10 Arts. There she stayed more than a year, before she announced that she wanted more. Last year, Carroll said she was leaving the Ritz-Carlton and Ripert to pursue a place of her own in Philly.
Her fans celebrated.
Last fall, rumors circulated about possible locations, menu concepts and names. She decided on Concrete Blonde, which, she said, "describes my personality - a hard, strong type deal with a softer, feminine side."
By winter, however, the would-be restaurateur announced she'd broken with her Philly business partners, whom she prefers not to name. She still wanted a place of her own. But the concrete blonde wanted to do it her way.
Trouble was, her 15 minutes were running out.
Enter Bravo. Again.
This time, TV's reigning reality channel asked Carroll back not to compete, but to document her "Life After Top Chef" in a show by the same name. Wednesday night, the show debuts, and the 37-year-old will join former "All-Stars" Richard Blais (who won season 8), Spike Mendelsohn (whose D.C. joints are favorites of President Obama), and Fabio Viviani (now a celeb chef in his own right, with a successful restaurant and a cameo in a Domino's commercial) in opening up their homes and restaurants for the cameras.
"The show is focusing on my career as a chef, my life outside the kitchen," said Carroll, "You get to meet my family and see a more personal side of me."
So it's not a competition. But it is a comparison. And in comparison to the three guys, Carroll is the underdog, the only one without her own place.
By contrast, her pal "Top Chef" season 7 winner Kevin Sbraga opened Sbraga, his restaurant at Broad and Pine, a year and a month after his win. Citing the pressure to go out on his own while still in the public eye, Sbraga said, "I would have liked to have opened in less than a year."
All this leaves an observer to wonder: Does chef Carroll have what it takes to make it? Or is the hot one just a flash in the pan?
On-screen, she appears weary of people asking her about her next project. She said viewers will see her schlepping around to look "at spaces, having many meetings with my lawyers and investors, and trying to find a space for Concrete Blonde . . . a lot of high notes and a lot of low notes."
More lows come in scenes at her family's home in Somerton. Her mom, whom she described as "extremely independent," had a major stroke a few years ago and is now paralyzed on the left side. Carroll said the situation has been "tough on all of us," meaning her dad, two sisters, herself and, especially, her mom.
Such real-life struggles are tougher, one imagines, than any "quick-fire challenge." Tougher, even, than opening your own restaurant.
Restaurant insiders are torn on whether she's up for the challenge, whether she'll succeed. "The odds are stacked against her," said veteran local public relations dude Peter Breslow. "In this industry, it's not if her place will close, it's when."
On the other hand, Breslow noted she's "an angel in the press . . . the kind of character that a director makes you pull for right away. Even though she goes through her falls, you still want her to succeed."
Local food writer Ashley Primis, a former cook herself, believes in Carroll. "Jen's food at the Ritz was always first-rate, and the fact that she's a woman, and handpicked by Eric Ripert, was impressive," she said.
For her part, Carroll said she's up for it - all of it. She's been the only woman in the kitchen before, where, she said, "girls need to work harder than guys to prove themselves, to get recognized." And she has the support of her "super close" sisters and parents.
She also has the help of her fellow Top Chef contestants, including Sbraga, who let "Life After Top Chef" film scenes of Carroll doing prep work in his restaurant's kitchen and having a "girls' night" in the dining room. He said he believes she'll come out on top. "She's beautiful, she's young, she's very confident in what she does."
And - spoiler alert! - she's found new investors (whose identities she's still keeping hush-hush) and a space for her restaurant. Except not in Philly, in Manhattan's West Village. It's a former Mexican joint named Maracas, "a crazy karaoke drag queen bar scene," she said, "so, we're toning it down a little bit from that."
The menu will be seafood-driven, like at Le Bernardin, but with many vegetarian options - "more of a healthy feel," said the chef, who, despite spending half her time in New York and half in Philly, still finds time to work out regularly. She wants the vibe to be upscale, but casual and comfortable, the kind of place you could go for cocktails or a full meal.
She's aiming for a "vague" 2013 opening.
Although she said she's "thrilled to go back to New York," where she can be "a little more experimental with [her] menu," she also knows she's not the hometown favorite in the Big Apple.
"New Yorkers aren't as forgiving as Philadelphians," she said.
Still, she'll take her chances, and rely on her grit. She said she's "completely focused on her career . . . 100 percent focused on getting [the restaurant] open."
Photographer pal Chris Gabello, who's shot Carroll many times and even carpools with her to New York, thinks she'll make out just fine. "It takes brass balls to open a restaurant in New York before opening one in Philadelphia," he said, "Jen's gonna kill it."
In other words, she's a Philly girl - a fighter, but not without a sense of humor.
"Right now," Carroll said, "I'm wearing a pink T-shirt that says, 'Scrapple, the other gray meat.' "
Contact Lauren McCutcheon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5991. Follow her on Twitter @LaMcCutch.