In the Kitchen: The Ladies of ‘The Next Food Network Star’

By Fabiana Santana

Photo courtesy of The Food Network

Photo courtesy of The Food Network

This weekend a new cluster of cooks are going to strut their stuff on the fifth season of Food Network’s “The Next Food Network Star.” This time around, five of the finalists are women. Three are married and two are single, but they all have interesting backgrounds, culinary points of views, and style.

We have Melissa, the stay at home mom from Texas who once worked for Disney in both Burbank and Paris. Then there is Katie, a Registered Dietitian who owns Healthy Bites – a company that offers in-home nutrition and culinary services like organic meal delivery and cooking lessons – and believes in “Green Cuisine” that not only feeds your body but decreases your carbon footprint. Jamika is a personal chef from Atlanta, GA, who specializes in exploring international cuisine. Debbie is a former Hollywood caterer who blends her Asian heritage with her Southern upbringing. The fifth contestant is French Culinary Institute alum Jen, who calls herself a modern housewife with a penchant for organizing her kitchen.

“The Next Food Network Star” has quickly become the highest rated show for the network, most likely because of the range of personalities found in the contestants. Episode one shows the contestants working in teams but showcasing their individual talents by having to produce their own dishes for the entire cast of the network’s current hit shows. That’s right, the entire Food Network cast of stars. That includes the likes of Giada DiLaurentiis, Bobby Flay, Paula Deen and the uber-popular Rachael Ray.

So what’s it like for regular girl trying to be a star cooking for stars? And who was the scariest? We chatted with the girls to find out.

How nervous were you for the first challenge?

Melissa: The nine finalists around me were amazingly talented, and I was the lone home cook in the bunch. So even before I knew what the first challenge was, I was nervous! The amazing list of stars we cooked for during that first challenge added another layer of pressure. Ultimately, though, we all had to focus on what we do best; each one of us brought a different point of view to the table.

Debbie: Definitely nervous but at the same time so excited to be of such an amazing journey.

Jen: There really was no time to be nervous. I would say I was more determined and focused rather than nervous. There is no time to think – just act. I figured I’m here to do a job, and I did it. Then I was able to breathe after the challenge was over!

Jamika: Oddly enough, I was not very nervous cooking in the first challenge. I had a good mix of talent on my team and each of my teammates felt like they had their individual dishes under control. The nerves did not kick in until we had to present our dishes to the Food Network stars. I got tongue tied a couple of times talking to each of them one-on-one. I could not stop stuttering when talking to Bob Tuschman for the first time. I had to take a deep breath and pull it together.

Katie: I was not very nervous at all until I was standing in front of a room of people I both look up to and wanted to impress; that is when the nerves hit me! I could not believe I was actually in that room talking to that crowd. It was so amazing and overwhelming; I have no idea what I said.

Who was the food network star you were most intimidated by?

Katie: Iron Chef Morimoto

Debbie: Definitely Bobby! But I learned that he is one of the nicest guys ever on this planet and in the food industry. He’s your biggest cheerleader.

Jamika: I was initially intimidated by Bobby Flay. I thought he would be the “Simon Cowell” of the panel. I figured as a well seasoned veteran in the culinary world he would have been very judgmental, but he was the total opposite. He turned out to be very warm and just an all-around cool guy.

Jen: Morimoto was very intimidating; he is the pinnacle of what a chef is. His knowledge and respect for food and cooking is top notch.

Melissa: I admire Bobby Flay tremendously, so I was a bit intimidated that first day we arrived in New York for the show and saw him walk into the Food Network kitchens to announce our first challenge!

What is your first food memory?

Katie: Cutting homemade French fries at my mom-mom and pop-pop’s luncheonette (my grandparents on my mother’s side) and spending time with my grandpop at the butcher shop tasting one of his garden fresh tomatoes.

Jen: I remember counting grapes to Sesame Street… I loved grapes and zucchini – it’s all I liked to eat as a kid.

Debbie: Making breakfast for my folks of pancakes and over easy eggs. I had my brother do clean up and work as my sous chef.

What do viewers have to look forward to from you this season?

Melissa: Viewers can count on me to be me, unabridged, imperfect.

Debbie: I will change any perceptions you had about the Asian woman!

Katie: I am not afraid to be goofy. I am extremely real; you will laugh with me and cry with me and for sure see how passionate I am about what I do!

Who is your Food Network star idol chef?

Melissa: Guy Fieri has done an amazing job of building his career after winning The Next Food Network Star season two. We’re very different in cooking styles, but I’d love to follow in his footsteps

Debbie: I’ve gotta say Paula Deen. She’s all about the love…and the butter!

Jen: INA GARTEN- by far! I love the Barefoot Contessa. I like to think that I am kind of like her – just in a different time. I love how she entertains and works with her friends and family. She brings people together; that’s what I want to do.

Jamika: I truly admire Chef Duff, the “Ace of Cakes”. I watch his show in awe. Although I love eating cakes and pastries, I’m no baker myself. I love his artistic vision and his crazy ideas. When I get married, I am calling Duff to make me the most outrageous cake ever!

Katie: Bobby Flay and Tyler Florence as I felt they were both great mentors on the show and were truly trying to help us all succeed! They are great people! I also like to watch Giada and Ina and love Rachael Ray’s Yum-O foundation as I feel it is very important to get kids into the kitchen to teach them the importance of cooking and healthy food

What is your go-to, they-are-going-to-love-it meal?

Melissa: Definitely my crab cakes with crispy potatoes and warm roasted vegetable salad.

Favorite meal you make for yourself?

Melissa: I make a meal of my homemade citron mayonnaise with a big plate of broccoli, and a small filet grilled rare, with blue cheese compound butter.

Jen: I love to eat grilled veggie salads. Being from Florida, we have a ton of great fresh vegetables. Grilling outside and eating on my deck with a glass of white wine is a great way to end a hectic day.

Katie: Chicken sausage, shrimp, white beans, greens and whatever vegetables are seasonal at the time.

Why should you be The Next Food Network Star? And if you are, what would your show be about?

Melissa: I’m the ultimate home cook, and I think a lot of viewers can relate to me.

Debbie: I believe that every person can relate to my story on a plate. It’s the American story and I know America can identify. Everyone, especially women can be touched by my journey as I discover myself as a woman and also as a chef. Besides, who doesn’t love mashed potatoes and kimchee!!

Jen: There isn’t anyone like me on Food Network. There is no one that the 20 somethings and 30 somethings can identify with. My show would center around my real life: cooking for friends and family. I’d like to have the show follow me to cookouts and boat trips with yummy recipes. A real show- not an intimidating show- show that anyone who has a busy life either married or single can cook a good dinner and tasty dishes for their own friends and family.

Jamika: I should be the next Food Network star because I’m young, stylish, innovative and sassy. I think I can show viewers how to create fabulous meals in a non-conventional way with ease and elegance. My show will offer a wide range of cuisines so that viewers will be able to travel the world through my food. It’s entertaining, its fun, and its unpredictable!

Katie: I bring a unique and current culinary point of view to the network. As a dietitian and chef, I am passionate about farm to table food and the impact eating healthy has on our body and the environment. I want to do away with processed foods bring whole foods back to the table and get people back in the kitchen.

What do you eat that you know you shouldn’t?

Katie: I secretly love bacon, but I am a believer of “everything in moderation.”

What tips can you provide for a women who is planning a dinner party but only has one day to pull it all together?

Debbie: Make your grocery store your friend…nowadays we have a plethora of pre-prepped items to cut your cooking time in half. It’s worth the extra change!

DEBBIE, the Korean southern belle restaurant consultant. Debbie, you fuse Asian and American cuisines in the kitchen. How important is staying true to your cultures in the kitchen?

It’s vital. My “Seoul to Soul” culinary point of view. It’s my journey as a child, as a young woman, as an American and as a Korean all in one bite.

What does a Korean southern belle make for a picnic? Definitely some fried chicken, kimchee slaw, and will always have something sweet!

MELISSA, the stay at home mom to four young daughters. What kind of tips can you provide for moms cooking for families who want to save time but still prepare home cooked meals?

Have a few great freezer-friendly recipes that you can keep on hand for those busy days when you might be tempted to pick up takeout because you’re short on time. When you get back from the grocery store, as you’re putting groceries away, make a few of these simple dishes and get them straight into the freezer. For instance, when I buy a big package of ground beef, I put some straight into the freeze, but some of it I mix in a few herbs and spices, a little onion and garlic, and rollup a very quick batch of meatballs, and I stick those (raw) meatballs in a re-sealable freezer bag. In two minutes of work, I’ve created an easy dish that I can pull out on a busy night and cook up quickly.

What are fun, starter recipes to get kids in the kitchen?

Anything in a muffin tin! My girls just love to make anything in a muffin tin from potato dishes to meatloaf to tarts to, of course, actual muffins (where I sneak in a bunch of veggies and whole grains…shhhhhh!).

JEN, the modern housewife and culinary school grad. What was it like cooking in Disney World? Where did you cook?

It’s pretty much a given that if you are from Orlando, you either have or someone you know has worked at one of the three major theme parks in Orlando. Working at Disney really didn’t’ seem that strange. I had the opportunity to cook for a lot of tourists and their families at Palio. Palio was an upscale Italian restaurant in the Sawn and Dolphin Hotel. The great part of the Palio was that there was an open kitchen- leading to a ton of open dialogue with the patrons.

You plan your meals out for the week – how do you decide what you want on Friday when it is only Sunday? I plan my meals to stay on track and on budget. Unfortunately, I am not a cash money millionaire yet and therefore need to try to keep random spending at bay so that we can buy the other fun things that we want. I also plan out my meals because I work and there isn’t that much time to come home, take care of the dogs and fish, take in the garbage cans and change and get dinner ready for my husband and I to eat together. I don’t like to eat at 8pm so having the weekly meals all planned out gives me a head start. Granted some weeks we stray from the planned menu when unexpected wine nights pop up with friends but at least there is a plan!

JAMIKA, the Caribbean personal chef. What is the best way, in your opinion, to jazz up traditional meals?

Always think outside of the box. Don’t be afraid to experiment in the kitchen. For example, if an entrée is traditionally served sautéed, then try frying it; if an item is known to be served warm, try serving it cold. Play with creating different textures and colors. Instead of a traditional tomato sauce, try a red pepper coulis. The point is that you make the rules in your own kitchen, so let loose. Make every dish a little jazzy by putting your own flare to it, This always keeps your guests guessing!

KATIE, the nutritionist. What is the breakdown of the ideal plate (either percentage of proteins, fats, carbs, or should the plate be 50% green, etc.)?

I tell my clients to eat the colors of the rainbow everyday! For the non-vegetarian… when you look at your dinner plate (and steer clear from the huge plates) it should be ½ vegetables of all colors, ¼ carb (rice, potatoes, pasta, quinoa, etc.) and ¼ protein.

How can single women cooking for one shop healthfully and cook healthfully when they are short on time? Plan ahead and cross utilize ingredients. For example, I made a big batch of quinoa over the weekend then I incorporate it into meals throughout the week (it is even great for breakfast). If I make chicken or fish, I always make extra for lunch or dinner the next day. Batch cooking is really helpful as well and allows you to eat seasonal veggies throughout the year. For example, in the summer when tomatoes are in season you can make a lot of pasta sauce and freeze it so you have some when you need it!

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