One-on-One with the Latest Food Network Star Finalist to Go Home

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With only 11 short weeks to ready finalists before a winner will be chosen, the Food Network Star beast is such that week after week, hopeful competitors will fall, faced with the crushing disappointment of elimination. We'll be bringing you the first exclusive exit interviews with the ousted finalists as they're sent home.

We're about to break down the ins and outs of the latest episode and reveal who went home, so if you've yet to watch the show, read no further until then.

Week 4 proved to be one with the highest of highs and lowest of lows for Yaku. He delivered such a strong presentation in the Mentor Challenge, in which he spoke of making vegetable chips out of broccoli stalks, that he and his teammates, Jernard and Monterey, won an advantage in the subsequent Star Challenge. But that very next challenge proved to be Yaku's downfall.

He was working with Tregaye and Damiano to deliver a three-course Honeymooner's Holiday menu for a VIP client, and when that guest requested no red meat, Yaku was forced to swap out the beef in his surf-and-turf dish. Despite Yaku's quick thinking in replacing the steak with chicken, the judges couldn't look past the underdone "surf" element on the plates: raw lobster. His presentation, too, was lacking this week, as the panel kept looking for more personal stories from him. "I know there's something interesting about him," Bobby said. "I just don't know that he's going to give it to us here." Ultimately Yaku's double whammy of missteps was enough to send him home this week, just four weeks into the competition.

We checked in with Yaku following his elimination to get his take on his last-cooked dish and find out his thoughts on his fellow finalists. Read on below to hear what he had to say.

What three words best describe how you're feeling right now?

Yaku Moton-Spruill: Disappointment, heartbreak and relief almost at some point.

What was your initial reaction in hearing that you were sent home tonight?

YMS: I was really shocked because I was trying to work on the things that ... they had given me, like in Week 2, and told me that I needed to work on some background stuff and bringing more out to the forefront. So, I [have] been trying to, over those next couple episodes, to do that, and I never got any feedback whether I was doing it or not doing it, so then when all of a sudden when I got eliminated for not doing it, I was just kind of thrown for a shock. ... If I would have known that I wasn’t giving enough then, you know. But it is what it is.

Do you stand by your last-cooked dish and presentation, or do you agree with the judges' feedback?

YMS: I stand by it. ... I don’t believe the lobster tails were undercooked. I was worried about them being over at one point. ... I just kind of felt like they threw that into kind of stack stuff 'cause I feel like I’ve been almost running the show from the moment. I’ve been doing great food and getting great food reviews, and even when I was in, like, the bottom four one time, the only thing they gave me was positive critiques, like, "Hey, your food was this," and then they went on to the other people, so I kind of just felt like it was, I don’t know, I kind of felt it was one of those just I had to go things, as opposed to what I actually put out or what I actually did.

In your own words, how would you explain to fans at home what this competition is really like?

YMS: It's nerve-racking because we’re put in a competition with people that are like-minded, and whenever people that are like-minded come together, they bond. But at the same time we’re competing against each other, so you start seeing how some people were trying to fake bond just to be snakes, and also people actually had bonds and, you know, really started coming together. But it’s nerve-racking 'cause you also want to send that person home, and when you get put on the chopping block, you’re hoping that it’s one of the other two people as opposed to yourself, but then you’re heartbroken when another person leaves, and all the emotions are real. There is no faking the crying, no faking the tears. You’re hurt whether it’s you going home or whether it’s another person going home because you know that feeling of wanting to be and wanting to do and ultimately not achieving that. So, it’s crazy.

What one piece of mentor feedback will you always remember and keep with you?

YMS: Just letting it all hang out. I mean, being a huge guy, my whole thing is I have to hold back. If I’m happy, even me being excited and happy and jumping — "Yes!" — it comes across as anger. A lot of times people misconstrue my emotions because I’m this big, large, type 2, bearded black dude, and even when I’m happy walking down the street, if I got a straight face on, I come off intimidating, and all my life I’ve had to hold back. ... I’ve always had to hold back and hold back because I’m this big gigantic package, and I just have to be aware of how I open this package up because, for one, I didn’t want to come off as ... a caricature or fake, but then at the same time, I wanted to show that I’m an interesting person. So, I just have to be careful how I convey my message and kind of open my box for people.

What were your most favorite and least favorite challenges, and why?

YMS: My favorite was definitely the mash-up. I mean, that’s right up my alley. I do food fusion, so I like being able to take two different foods and fuse ‘em together and make something that people like. Also, that’s what you do a lot at home with kids is, I’m trying to find a way to make them eat peas, so I’m thinking, "What can I add to the peas to make them eat it?" ... The one I didn’t like was probably the one I got eliminated on, the room service ... I just felt, I don’t know. I got so caught up in that transition of changing over what the room service call was that, I don’t know. I feel like I still did great, but that was the one I got eliminated on, so it was my least favorite by far.

What's the best piece of advice the mentors or Committee members gave you?

YMS: Just I guess to open up. Just to let my story get out there, just to touch those that share the same story as me or that came up the same as me, and I’m proud of that. I’m really proud of where I came from and accomplishments that I’ve achieved in my life, and getting my story out there is going to help somebody else.

Fill in the blanks with your fellow finalists' names:

_____ is the class clown. Rob is definitely the class clown. He’s a funny dude.

_____ is the quietest. The quietest of the bunch is definitely Havird. Yeah, he’s so quiet.

_____ is the most-daring. The most daring is probably Monterey. She’s always going outside the box on some crazy — like, she does really high-class, crazy-ingredient food that a lot of home [cooks] ... wouldn’t be familiar with ... but she pulls it off, so that’s her thing.

_____ has the best recipes. See that’s a hard question because we don’t really have time. When you got 30 minutes or 45 minutes to cook, recipes kind of go out the window at that point. ... I would say probably Tregaye.

_____ is going to win this competition. Yaku Moton-Spruill will win this whole thing, rise through the ashes and win it.

Speaking of Tregaye, you guys worked together on Cutthroat Kitchen last year, and you teamed up together in multiple challenges in this competition. What was it like having an ally in her and also a fellow rival?

YMS: That is one of the greatest things to me because it’s bigger than me and Tregaye at that point. When me and her link up on a show, it’s bigger than us. It’s about showing that people from two different areas can come together and still compete, but at the same time shine at the — you know, we never took away from each other, stepped on each other. We both shine, but we competed at the same time, and, I mean, that’s a beautiful thing.

How did you handle the nerves of working with Bobby, Giada and all of the special guests?

YMS: I don’t really have nerves. Honestly, I look at them as regular people. I don’t think they do anything differently than I do in the morning when they get up or anything like that. I mean, the only person I ever get starstruck around is Jesus. ... I really feel like everybody else is — I’m trying to be like them, so I can’t be in awe about them and be, "Oh my, Bobby and Giada." Like, yeah, they’re big, and it’s great to have people that you kind of look up to in this industry that’s right in front of you, but at the same time, I mean, I shake their hand and I move on like anybody else, you know.

Which special guest or mentor were you most excited to learn from in this contest, and why?

YMS: Reverend Run. I like his background, Queens. ... I lived in Queens for a while, so it’s good to have that Queens love and see where he came from and how he’s a pioneer. And, I mean, just some of the things he did in industries and how he was there for a mash-up challenge when he’s the king of mash-ups ... it was just great to be in the room with that, in presence.

How would you and your fellow finalists spend your downtime between challenges?

YMS: A lot of reading, a lot of listening to music, a lot of thinking about — I was looking at my kids’ pictures whenever I had the opportunity, my kids and my fiancee, because those are my reasons right there. So, it’s ... a lot of self-discovery. You start overthinking yourself and then thinking about things in the past, and you start playing all these head games, and then you eventually talk yourself out of it. So, you kind of grow within yourself in these moments and things.

What do you want fans to remember most about you?

YMS: That I never gave up, and I was always cool under pressure. Like, I don’t crack under pressure. I [have] been in the kitchen cooking in front of a whole bunch of people, that’s nothing. I’ve been in situations where a room was getting shot up before, and I’ve survived. Everybody just needs to stay calm under pressure. The pressure, you know, getting stressed out and stressing yourself out, that’s never going to help you out. Stay calm, stay relaxed, stay focused, and then you can do anything that you want to do.

What's next for you?

YMS: Business is booming. I just got Dope Chef Society, which is my company, off the ground and running, and we’re doing it. I’m doing parties all over, teaching, cooking events. I’m going to be going back to my old high school and speaking at their graduation, working with a teen program, a cooking teen program in San Francisco. It’s an opportunity for me to help people. I want to eventually get into motivational speaking, and this is an opportunity and a platform that’s going to help me succeed in that.