Metro-East News

She didn’t win, but this Belleville girl still shines on Food Network

Every TV at Jefferson’s was turned to the Food Network, the restaurant hushed as the judges on the Kids BBQ Championship prepared to announce the winner.

“And the winner is...”

Friends and family held their breath. But 11-year-old Ava Wagner and her family, who already knew she hadn’t won the competition, sat flushed with pride for their daughter.

Ava was one of four contestants on the Kids BBQ Championship episode that aired June 12 on Food Network. The winner, Josh Loyd, a 12-year-old from Marion, Ill., walked away with $10,000.

Although she didn’t win the competition, a wide grin never left Ava’s face. Not winning wasn’t disappointing, she said, because of how great an experience the show was.

“My jaw hurts because I was smiling so much,” Ava said after the show aired.

The four contestants had two challenges: “steak and eggs” and “surf ‘n turf.” Ava made an Ava avocado eggs benedict and a moo rub rib-eye and lobster tails with lobster mac and cheese. She said she was happy with her meal from the first challenge, but that she could have done better on the second.

Judges said her steak was great — “you should feel very proud” — but that the mac and cheese was too soupy.

“I think I made a $5,000 dish, not a $10,000 dish,” Ava said on the show.

After the show finished and Ava’s friends and family found out she hadn’t won, the restaurant was filled with hugs and smiles. Ava bounced around, the grin never leaving her face, hugging and high-fiving those who came to support her.

“Wait a few more years then come work for me,” said David Sandusky, the owner of BEAST Craft BBQ Co., with a hug.

Ava’s dad, Adam Wagner, is also a competitive griller. Watching his daughter on Food Network was emotional for him. At a few points, he was wiping away tears from his eyes.

“I couldn’t be more proud of her,” Wagner said. “I think she did wonderful.”

When Wagner submitted the application for the Kids BBQ Championship, he didn’t expect to hear back. But he did, and Ava was one of the 32 kids who traveled to Malibu, Calif., to film an episode for the show. The episode was filmed in January over a four-day period, in what Ava called a “once in a lifetime experience.”

Ava has been barbequing since she was 8, and has won two out of the three steak competitions she’s entered. Although she loves grilling — steak is her favorite — Ava doesn’t see cooking as a future career.

She’s focusing on gymnastics over cooking, because “cooking isn’t a priority in life.”

For now, Ava said she wants to be a marine biologist when she grows up. But that doesn’t mean she’ll be leaving the grill anytime soon.