Girl power wins big for UVM alum

On Sunday, Aug. 2, Bobby Flay announced that UVM alum Melissa d’Arabian was officially the winner of “The Next Food Network Star.” Thanks to her experiences cooking for her loved ones, d’Arabian blew away the judges week after week.She was the only non-professional chef on the show, but she burned the competition with her inviting personality and “gems” of wisdom, as her fellow Food Network colleague Ted Allen said.Luckily, she took a few minutes to give The Vermont Cynic a behind-the-scenes scoop and a peak into the life of a newly-working mother and an incredible chef.The Vermont Cynic:  What was running through your mind during the finale?Melissa d’Arabian: Oh gosh, funny enough, while we were filming the finale, Bobby was about to make the announcement and my kids who had been in the audience … started getting really fussy. So I really thought they were going to yell “cut” and restart because they were being so loud.I actually got relaxed because … I really didn’t think they were going to make the announcement.When he said my name, I almost missed it. So maybe it was kind of a blessing that I was focused on something and wasn’t quite as stressed in that moment as I could have been.VC: When you were watching your pilot episode for your new show, were you happy with how it turned out?MD: When I was shooting the pilot with “The Next Food Network Star,” it was harder than it looked. I was really grateful that Alton Brown came in with advice and said, “focus on  bringing yourself and your experiences to the table; you know the food because it’s yours, so focus on those items and let the technical stuff take care of itself.”That was great advice because I do think that what I bring to the table are my experiences as a stay-at-home mom, but also as a career woman, also as a graduate student, also as a college student trying to pay my way.So if I can bring all those experiences to the table, that’s when I can be most successful.VC: How do you think the show has changed you as a cook?MD: There have been a lot of different phases in my life that have changed the way I cook, shaped the way I cook and “The Next Food Network Star” was an important one. It taught me to trust myself with the ingredients in the kitchen and adjusting as needed. VC: During the show, where could you see your experiences cooking for your girlfriends in your UVM sorority house and your childhood experiences cooking with your mom coming through?MD: I think that all of my cooking experiences blend together and put me in a place where I have a lot of opportunities to draw from.For instance, the pilot presentation, the four step chicken, I’ve done a version of that for girlfriends back when I was a career woman. I think Ten Dollar Dinners is a real, great example – each one of those recipes pretty much has a story somewhere in my life.VC: How was it living with all the contestants? Was it difficult or easy?MD: Food Network Star was such an intense around the clock experience, and you sort of just embrace it and go with it. Living with the contestants was actually kind of fun and a little bit reminded me of my UVM days living in the sorority house.VC: Did you find once you got in front of the cameras that you were pretty comfortable with them?MD: I thought the cameras would be the easiest part, I thought the food was going to be the tricky part since I was the only non-professional there. Interestingly I found the camera to be the toughest challenge. I’ve been in front of thecamera before, but engaging the camera was really a whole different skill.VC: Speaking of challenges, how was the filming scheduled? Did you only have one challenge a week, or was it every day?MD: Well, we shot the whole season in about six and a half weeks. So it works out to be approximately two challenges a week.VC: Was that pretty grueling for you to be cooking that much, thinking of new recipes and being on your feet?MD: Yes, yes, it’s a grueling schedule. That being said, my schedule here is exhausting, with four kids and life and everything.I’m glad they kept the pace moving because I was away from my family and I’m sure everybody left their lives somewhat reluctantly, although we’re very excited for the opportunity.Personally, I would have been a little bummed had there been a bunch of days off in between. I would have thought, “Can’t we keep shooting, can’t we go home?”VC: Were you able to talk to your girlfriends and your husband during the show? Were they supportive?MD: I was definitely not allowed to talk to non-family. I was allowed to talk to family once or twice a week fairly briefly, mostly because our schedule was such that we were just going, going, going, but also the producers are very careful about making sure things are fair; that no one is getting outside information.It was hard for us, but my husband and I are very long-term thinkers and definitely strategic planners.We have a clear sense of what we want to get done in this world, what kind of mark we want to leave and this fit into our family philosophy.VC: What do you think is ultimately the best part of doing the show was other than, of course, winning?MD: I love being a stay-at-home mom, and I love having four girls, but it was nice to do something for me. I found myself again.Win or lose I would have walked away from Next Food Network Star a better woman which in turn makes me a better mom and a better wife.VC: Is there anything else you want to tell the us?MD: I think the magic is in creating inspiring, unusual recipes; recipes that are really fun and interesting to make; that celebrate different flavor profiles.I tried to make Ten Dollar Dinners appealing to yes, the families, and the family of four who’s going to be cooking on a budget, but also people new in their career that don’t have a lot of time and money but still want to eat some interesting foods.Also to the college student, the grad student who wants to have some fun and interesting recipes, or maybe have a few friends over on a Sunday for brunch before hitting the books.Even though the Next Food Network Star is over, d’Arabian’s career is only beginning with her new show, Ten Dollar Dinners, which seems like a pretty darn good idea for thrifty college students.See the complete interview with online at www.vermontcynic.com.