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Hi friends, family, cooks and eaters! Every Monday I will offer my reflections and thoughts as Food Network Star unfolds. I want you to invite you to join me here on my blog every week so I can share my journey with you, in solidarity!

Source: http://goo.gl/6ZaVZy
Source: http://goo.gl/6ZaVZy

When I turned 30 on January 31st this year, I sat down to write a list of “30 things I’d learned by 30,” but it was #1 that I kept coming back to.

1. I have become courageous.

It is no small feat to quit your job and chase your dream on a national stage. I’ve always wanted to sing what I stand for and share what I love with the world, since I was three years old crooning duets with my twin sister in the bathtub and imagining the show we would have one day! I’ve reflected at length on how I mustered the courage to apply for Food Network Star, America’s most exciting reality cooking competition, which will garner about 1 million eyes at prime time every Sunday evening this summer.

Climbing to the top in Cuyuja, Ecuador.
Climbing to the top in Cuyuja, Ecuador.

Mamma taught me from an early age that I’m capable of doing anything I put my mind and heart to. I’ve always embraced that in small and big ways. As a college student I helped catalyze one of the first farm-to-table cafeteria programs at a major university, working with America’s biggest food service providers – Aramark and Bon Appetit – to boost the percentage of regionally-grown food in dining halls. This was before “farm-to-table” became a slightly more commonplace phrase at the dinner table (with help from leaders like Michael Pollan’s!) – the phrase still seems far from being overused. If it were, I’d be onto the next thing by now, like doing the necessary detective work to find loopholes that allow me to own a pet monkey.

I also draw enormous courage from my family, my friends and my community. I am blessed to live in a town where people support you in manifesting dreams. Ithaca and the Finger Lakes have ignited my passion for food like never before, and Food Network Star felt like the perfect opportunity to be an ambassador for the home I had fallen in love with – a culinary treasure that is historically rooted in farm-to-table.

So, let’s talk about the show…

For all my hootin’ and hollerin’ about courage, I’ll be the first to admit that I was quivering like a storm-blown leaf on Episode 1. With courage comes great risk and vulnerability.

When I walked through the doors on the Hollywood set, I was immediately overwhelmed by the sheer talent that surrounded me. “Holy smokes,” I thought, “every single person here is confident and bad-ass in the kitchen! What’s lil’ ole’ me doing here?” At the same time, I immediately wanted to make friends, not enemies. Just as the conversations were beginning to flow and my nerves mellowing out, the judges round the corner…! Suddenly we were asked to stand on a crate and prove ourselves and all we stood for in 30 seconds. Repeat: 30 seconds.

Source: http://goo.gl/6ZaVZy
Source: http://goo.gl/6ZaVZy

Even though I was wearing my “power dress,” with pineapples – a symbol of welcome – and reported as the hottest trend this summer, it was not the warm, fuzzy, empowering experience I imagined.

Source: http://goo.gl/rQLhPy
Source: http://goo.gl/rQLhPy

But rather, I felt like an intrepid traveler thrown into a hungry lion’s den.

Source: http://goo.gl/uXyB0Q
Source: http://goo.gl/uXyB0Q

I think my nerves translated to shyness, and thus, the dreaded and forgettable “boring.” I realized then and there that it was time to WAKE UP EMMA!

So, Why Farm-to-Table?

It’s true that I was scared to use the phrase “farm-to-table.” It’s still not mainstream and can risk sounding romanticized or “scary.” I hadn’t intended to introduce myself as the “farm-to-table” guru, but I quickly realized that this was what made me distinct among the other finalists! I have truly worked my way from farmer, to middle(wo)man, to restaurant owner, to food blogger and chef. Since I was 18 I have worked hard to understand how to find the best ingredients for our health and mouth-happiness, and learn ways to spread this human right and pleasure to others. And I have high hopes!

It’s no secret that I have a strong affection for freshly harvested, nutrition-packed food grown close to home. I’ve always been inspired by some of the most renowned chefs in the world, who pay careful attention to where their food comes from and sourcing local when possible because it simply tastes the best (like Alice WatersEric RipertJudy Wicks, and Wynnie Stein). With that being said, I’m not a locavore by any means, and would never want to come across as a purist.

Photo credit: Kyle Hepp (www.kylehepp.com/2012/08/a-connecticut-farm-wedding-bobby-emma/)
Photo credit: Kyle Hepp (www.kylehepp.com/2012/08/a-connecticut-farm-wedding-bobby-emma/)

We all do our best with what we have available to us in our nearest market and our wallets. I am lucky to live in a town where the more affordable option is a weekly farm-share of fruits and vegetables from Full Plate Farm Collective (around $22 per week for all my produce). I also wouldn’t dream of giving up chocolate, olive oil, lemons, coconut milk and other foreign ingredients that are staples in my kitchen. (But we’ll talk more about that another time.)

When Cowboy Lenny says “all chefs preach farm-to-table,” I’m intrigued. Because frankly, I’m just not seeing this trend as universal … yet. It’s not because people don’t want to eat better food. It’s because we still have a lot of work to do to lay the foundation through farms and distribution systems to make it possible for EVERYONE in this country to access fruits and vegetables from their region in local markets, restaurants and other outlets. I think we’re on our way!

Photo credit: Kyle Hepp (http://www.kylehepp.com/2012/08/a-connecticut-farm-wedding-bobby-emma/)
Photo credit: Kyle Hepp (http://www.kylehepp.com/2012/08/a-connecticut-farm-wedding-bobby-emma/)

Less than a decade ago, the word “organic” had the same “scary” effect. Now it’s driving consumption across social, economic and ethnic classes. A Deloitte survey showed that 64% of consumers say they are increasingly seeking out food retailers that are socially responsible, 42% would trace their food’s origin online if possible, 56% are growing fruits and vegetables in their backyard, and despite the fact that food prices are increasing, 75% of consumers are still choosing to buy “organic.” That’s pretty inspiring stuff!

This morning I was dismayed to read the description “Emma utters the dreaded phrase ‘farm-to-table’ in her pitch,”  in the Top Moments of the Premiere. Is a phrase that so aptly describes a better farm and food system really “dreaded”? If so, then I’m grateful for the judges’ constructive advice, and am willing to find another way of sharing what really makes my approach to food unique and making it available to every home cook across America. My intention is to help people have equal access to the best food, and I want to help them find ways to track down the best ingredients at the most affordable prices, and cook them with confidence!

Source: http://goo.gl/PcO3Nv
Source: http://goo.gl/PcO3Nv

Open-Face Grilled Cheese with Apple Chutney

Well, first of all I had the outrageous pleasure of working next to handsome Luca and reviving my Italian . My mamma raised me speaking Italian, and I’m lucky to have my Nonna in Connecticut so I can keep it up when I visit with her. I felt at home cooking next to Luca, peeling an enormous bowl of apples while he broke down an enormous piece of raw beef into a gorgeous tartare.

Source: http://goo.gl/TJaih9
Source: http://goo.gl/TJaih9

In an attempt to represent my point of view, I picked this recipe because chutney is such a wonderful condiment and an easy way to preserve food and make the flavors of bygone seasons last longer. It’s easy and can also be made in under an hour, and served up as an appetizer at parties. I put it on an open-faced grilled cheese (less bread for a light party bite!) because I like to add Frisch Twists to classic American comfort dishes, which I have always felt are an easy way to take simple recipes and begin to experiment with creativity. This is how we practice and build our confidence as cooks.

The Red Carpet

Have you ever felt so nervous that you were chattering like a puppy in the first snowfall? Well this was me on the red carpet. At heart I’m a gal that prefers to climb rocks and scamper outside than don heels in the city. I’m the country mouse and Dimity (my identical twin) is the city mouse. She’s always helped outfit me for chic occasions, and I admit I felt lost without her and overwhelmed by the lights. I am grateful beyond belief to have another week to try and break out of my shell – to be HERE AND NOW. I do not want to let myself down again by missing the opportunity to show America who I am and why I’m here!

The Bottom Three

I’m not going to lie, being on the bottom in Episode 1 was devastating and confidence-shattering. I was terrified that my hard work to get here would end without me having a real chance to prove myself. No one wants to be the first to go home. When the judges said “you’re safe,” it was like a flood of relief washed over me. I also realized I better pick it up ten thousand notches or I’m going home next! Anyone who knows me, knows that I am rarely – if ever – the introvert we watched on screen last night, and I plan to let the inner Emma shine :).

Source: http://goo.gl/QykD2X
Source: http://goo.gl/QykD2X

I think Donna’s message is important and I am so proud of her for putting herself out there with such tenacity. She may not win Food Network Star, but she’s already been in the NYC spotlight (and she’s crushing us all in Twitter followers). I wish her the best of luck, and look forward to collaborating with my new cheffie friend and certainly a teacher! Please visit her website!

Source: http://goo.gl/mFN9eE
Source: http://goo.gl/mFN9eE

As the competition unfolds, I hope to move on, arm-in-arm with my cast members. I am honored to be part of this journey, and grateful for sharing it with all of you. Stay tuned for Episode 2, next week!

Top moments and photos from this episode

Watch the full Episode 1 on Hulu or Amazon

Watch a quick Recap of Episode 1

Watch a Sneak Peak of Episode 2

Season 8 Winner, Justin Warner’s Recap

Make my Spiced Apple Chutney

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