Exclusive: Giada on the 'Ballet' of Camera Work, Plus Her Take on the Job of a Food Network Star

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We recently brought you the first exclusive interview with Bobby Flay, one half of the mentoring duo that will make up the judges' panel on Food Network Star, Season 12. Today it's all about Giada De Laurentiis, who will join Bobby in both guiding the finalists through the competition and ultimately sending them home week by week.

Read on below to hear from Giada about what she sees as similarities among the past winners of the show and how she's come to master the craft of Stardom. Plus, find out how the first impressions finalists leave on her and Bobby have lasting consequences for the hopefuls.

We're in Season 12, and by now more people have fallen in this competition than have succeeded. Do you see any similarities in what the winners and losers have done to affect their outcomes?

Giada De Laurentiis: Well, the ones that have ended up winners have taken our advice and made it their own. They have had fun through the process, they have connected with every single group that has come through, and truly, they’re the ones that are most comfortable with who they are and have shared the most about who they are. I mean, Eddie [Jackson] from last year. Eddie had a lot of ups and downs. A lot. There were times when he checked out — we were like, “Hello, are you even in there?” — and then moments where he just was the star of the entire show. But overall he proved to have the most growth, and that’s truly the winner in the end — [it] is the person who grows the most, who we get to know the most and who we feel like you can define that person and they are unique. And Eddie was all those things.

So many people let nerves get the better of them in this competition. Do you still get nervous doing this?

GDL: Certain times, yeah. I think when you stop getting nervous to do something, it’s time to do something else. I think that’s what drives us; that’s what makes us better at our jobs. Otherwise you sit back, relax and just are on autopilot, and I don’t think you get better. And there’s always room to get better, because guess what, there’s always somebody else nipping at your heels.

Do you have any advice for how they should deal with this when they get in front of you and Bobby and prepare to cook for you?

GDL: Well, Bobby had said it [recently]: Use the nerves in your benefit. You know what I mean? Use the nerves to make you real. Use the nerves to get to know who you are, and don’t rehearse everything so much. [Oftentimes] they are all so rehearsed, and you can hear the rehearse. Sometimes a little nerves is actually what makes you charming.

How important are those first impressions finalists make on you? Do you come back to them as the season goes on?

GDL: We come back to them all the time, especially in deliberation when we’re sort of in between people. We’re like, “There’s this person, there’s this person.” When we’re in deliberation that first time — we always go back to it and be like, “Oh, you know what, though? First time we met them, that person was genuine or that person …” So, then maybe they had a down [day, or] they went down a notch. But that first day, that first impression, we keep going back to. And sometimes it saves you and pushes you through.

How do you balance the mentoring aspect of your role, wherein you provide feedback and constructive criticism to the finalists, with the part of your job that sees you judging and eliminating those same people each week?

GDL: That’s an interesting position, because we have to do it pretty quickly, and a true mentorship would mean that we’d spend weeks and weeks and sometimes months preparing them, and we don’t have that kind of time, although we’d like to. So we just try to find a couple of little points — not to overwhelm them — but a few things for them to work on that could truly be a complete difference in their performance. And that is truly what we do: We try to find the one or two key elements, and hopefully they run with that. But it is tough. It is tough, because neither one of us likes sending anyone home, but at the same time, we have such limited time to get someone prepared for this job, and for a lot of them it’s the job of a lifetime. They’ve been waiting a long time.

Speaking of this job, what’s been your greatest key to success as you've held this job?

GDL: For a long time in the beginning of my career, I really cared a lot about what everybody else thought of me, and that defined who I was and what I was doing. And I think in my older years, being over 40 now, I’ve started to realize [that] I just have to do what I want to do and not worry so much about what everybody else thinks, because truly I’m not going to make everyone happy, I’m not going to be the person everybody wants me to be. So as long as I can get up in the morning, look at myself in the mirror and be happy with who I am and my immediate family is OK with who I am, then I think that’s a success.

What’s been the greatest piece of advice you’ve received about what it takes to do this job and do it so well?

GDL: I think Mario Batali told me in the very beginning, and Emeril did too, “Just be you, because that’s what makes you different from everybody else.” If you try to be like somebody else, you probably won’t be the best version of them. And I have had people say to me, "Or maybe you’re the next Martha Stewart or maybe …" and I’m like, “I’m not the next anybody. I’m just Giada.” I’m not looking to be anybody else. I just want to be me, and if that works, great, and if it doesn’t, OK. I’ll find something else.

There's a lot of emphasis on needing to see Star quality in whoever becomes the eventual winner, aka the new Star. What is Star power? What are you hoping to see?

GDL: Star quality is a difficult thing to define. In this business you need to be engaging, you need to grab people’s attention within the first, truly, five to 10 seconds on camera, and you need to have some talent and authority — meaning you need to know how to cook, you need technique, you need to know ingredients, and you need to know how to hold a knife. At the end of the day, it needs to look like a ballet, like it’s effortless, and that is a really tough combination. It’s the correct eye contact with the camera, it’s the smiling at the right moment, it’s the right joke at the right moment, it’s the right story at the right moment. There’s so many different layers to it that it’s hard to say, but I feel like when Bobby and I see it, we see it. And it’s different for every contestant.

Several finalists told me in their Star-a-Day interviews that they'd like to learn how you appear so effortless while cooking on camera. What's your secret?

GDL: I’ve been doing this 13 years. It takes a long time and practice. I was certainly was not smooth at the beginning. It takes a lot of practice. … And the first part of it is to look at yourself in the mirror and really be OK with who you see .... That will be what they need to do. They’re not all there yet. You know, it’s funny, because sometimes people — you feel like they’re there at the beginning, and then they check out midway through. Like they figured something out they didn’t like and now they don’t want to do it.

The entire cast is fighting for the job of Food Network Star. How would you describe what that job is like?

GDL: Like every job, it sounds exciting at first, and then you realize, “Oh wow, this is a lot of work.” I mean, I think a lot of people … well, it’s getting better now, but for a long time people were like, “I can do that. That’s easy. So simple. I can cook and talk. It’s no big deal.” And then they get up there and they realize, “Oh my gosh, this is really complicated.” There’s a lot to remember and a lot to do, and it’s a tough job, and connecting with audiences is tough. And it’s even tougher when you don’t have an audience out there and you’re making up this whole song and dance in front of the camera, and you’re not acting somebody, you’re not pretending to be someone else. It’s not like being an actor, where you can sort of have your motivation. You are your own motivation. Your recipe is your own motivation. So, it’s a job that makes you dig deeper into who you are and the pit of who you are and what makes you who you are, [more] than, I think, a lot of jobs out there.

Related Reading:

Exclusive: Bobby on the Importance of Focus, the Meaning of Star Power and Stellar Advice

New Star-a-Day Interviews with the Season 12 Cast

Meet the Competitors of Comeback Kitchen

Hear from Tyler and Valerie, the Hosts of Comeback Kitchen

QUIZ: Can You Guess the Food Network Stars by Their Dishes?

Tune in to the premiere of Food Network Star on Sunday, May 22 at 9|8c.