Say hello to Shannon Mai, President of the FSHN Club and winner of this year’s MasterChef Competition! Shannon is a senior undergraduate dietetics student from Orlando who is dedicated to public policy and consumer safety. She’s also a true foodie who’s on a mission to find the perfect hamburger. Read on to learn about her journey from accounting to dietetics, as well as her plans to make a difference in the world of child nutrition. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Shannon!
Tell me about your big MasterChef win. What was the competition like? What went into your winning recipe?
The competition was very nerve-wracking yet therapeutic! Herschel encouraged me to compete, but I was hesitant because there were so many talented competitors, and I thought my talents wouldn’t be enough to outcompete theirs. During the competition, I was rushing, and the hour we had to create our dishes flew by. It was a full hour of unplugging from all my responsibilities and just focusing on this final dish. I’m used to cooking Asian cuisine, but none of the ingredients I’m used to were available, so I really had to improvise! I ended up making whole-wheat double-fried chicken with mustard-chive reduction and roasted cabbage—I’m a dietetics student, so I had to include the whole wheat, of course! My dad is a chef, so I was so excited to tell him about winning the competition.
Would you share how you chose dietetics as your major?
I was unhappy as an accounting major at the University of Central Florida. I’ve always been interested in healthcare, and I wanted to change my major to reflect that. Then, over winter break, I walked into a cute little teashop in Orlando and ordered a lavender crème tea. When I asked the barista if there was milk in the crème, she said “No, but we can add milk powder.” We got into this whole discussion about milk powder, and then I took a step back and said, “Wait, how do you know so much about food?” And the barista said she wanted to be a dietitian. So, I spent the rest of break researching dietetics and learning how much I could do with the field, especially learning and educating the public on sound nutrition research. I wanted to improve people’s relationships with food. I knew I loved food, but I had never thought of this interest as a gateway to a profession.
To become a registered dietitian, I knew I needed to switch to a didactic program, and the University of Florida has always been my dream school. Without finding my true passion, I would’ve never made it here. I’m so happy that I used my resources to switch majors, even if I had to nearly restart my education again.
Aside from switching career plans, I’m still grateful for all the accounting skills I learned. I use them in classes all the time. When I volunteered for the head dietitian at Shands, I actually ended up doing accounting for their nutrition formulas! Being well-rounded really pays off when I use my education in real life situations.
What do you want to do after graduation?
I will be a dietetic intern at a program emphasizing public policy. I want to make a difference in public policy and consumer safety from a nutrition policy standpoint. That may mean working for the public sector or the private sector—a place where I can work in advocacy and lobbying. I’m also considering going to law school to give me a thorough background in law so that I can more effectively alter nutrition policy, or perhaps a Masters in Public Health or Public Policy. Recently, I’ve developed an interest in child nutrition policy and expanding current policies to benefit children and the way they eat. I love Washington DC and California, so I aspire to live in one of those areas.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to cook for my friends and family, although I don’t do it as often as I’d like. I also go to the gym and do yoga on a regular basis, but I’ve also been making an effort to go beyond my regular activities. For example, I just did a surf trip with the UF Surf Club—I love going to the beach and doing any sort of water sports, like kayaking or paddle boarding. I also love to travel and explore other cultures through art, cuisine, and photography. Electronic music is my favorite type of music to listen to. Finally, in my free time, I enjoy calling friends and family, which has helped to ground myself here in Gainesville.
If you were shipwrecked on an island, which two foods would you absolutely want to have with you? Why?
I love cheeseburgers! If I have a craving, it’s always for a burger. As a kid, when I went to my grandparents’ house, my grandmother would always walk down to McDonald’s to get a Happy Meal for me. That was our thing. I don’t eat McDonald’s anymore, because their burgers make me feel terrible—knowing this also increased my interest in learning about how food affects the body. Now, I usually go to BurgerFi or Shake Shack in Orlando. One of the most notable burgers I’ve eaten recently was a cheeseburger bao at Disneyworld’s Animal Kingdom. It was a cheeseburger in the form of a steamed bun, and the sauce mimics my nostalgic McDonald’s burger sauce.
Anything else you’d like to add?
A huge obstacle I worked through to get to my dream school was thinking I wasn’t good enough. I had to let that go, and I’ve really impressed myself with what I’ve done since I came to UF. I love the FSHN department—it’s given me the tools and resources to grow and develop myself professionally, and I have countless people to thank.