Star Salvation Exclusive: Eddie Jackson Returns to the Competition to Judge Ousted Rivals

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It was just one year ago that Eddie Jackson was in Food Star Kitchen, battling 11 other hopeful rivals with the goal of earning the coveted title of Food Network Star. Now, with that victory secured, he's returning to this hallowed arena, this time not as a finalist but as a judge of Star Salvation. Find out what it's like for him to return to where it all started and get his thoughts on the pressure competitors face at this stage of their journey.

What's it like to be back in Food Star Kitchen, where your own Star journey began just one year ago?

Eddie Jackson: I got to be honest, it’s weird. When I walked into the kitchen I almost ... had a mental breakdown because I thought about all the stress and stuff that I had to go to just to win, and it’s only been a year, so, you know, it’s still fresh in my mind. So I got to admit: It’s a little awkward coming back in because I’m freshly removed from the competition. But at the same time I’m just privileged and very honored to be giving these eliminated finalists any advice that I can.

Does the fact that you’ve participated in Food Network Star and that you know better than anyone what it takes to do this job change the way you judge? Maybe a little more harshly?

EJ: You know, I wouldn’t say that my experience on the show would allow me to judge them more harshly. I just think that I know what I’m talking about. You know what I mean? You know, I was there, I was ... in your shoes, and I was not only in your shoes, but I was in your shoes very recently. So I know everything that you’re feeling. I know all the things that’s going through your head, so I’m going to give you every bit of advice that I possibly can because I know. I was there.

Knowing what you know now, thinking back to what you were like on day one of Star, how would you explain the growth? What do you wish you had known then, if you had a crystal ball and you could have seen where you’d be?

EJ: The thing that I’ve learned now is to always create a nice balance. A nice sense of calm but at the same time you want to be fun, you want to be energetic, you want to be yourself. And I think if I had had that knowledge at the very beginning of the competition, I could have breezed through. But nobody gets it on the first try. It’s all about trial and error, and through my experience in the past year, you know, doing other shows, I’ve learned to always create that balance and just always let yourself shine through.

What’s your greatest piece of been-there-done-that advice that you can offer the finalists?

EJ: My greatest bit of been-there-done-that advice, I would have to say — and I keep saying this and this is something that I feel like I do very well — however I am off the camera, when I’m just hanging out, is exactly how I am on the camera. It’s not like [I] turn it on or turn it off; it’s always on. It’s one of those things that you either have it or you don’t.

That's been your greatest key to success?

EJ: I think that is my greatest key to success, is just always staying true to myself and being myself and not trying to be something that I’m not. I’m not going to be Alex Guarnaschelli. I’m just going to be Eddie Jackson because that’s who I am, and that’s what I bring to the table.

What’s the greatest piece of advice that you’ve received, either from Bobby and Giada last year or just elsewhere in the business that’s really helped you excel?

EJ: I think the greatest bit of advice I’ve been given is just last year on Food Network Star I was in the bottom, and Bobby Flay looked at me and was like ... you’re an amazing cook, just be yourself. And he said the food will take care of itself. And I was too busy trying to make sure that I was trying to get the dish right, trying to get things perfect that it was sort of holding me back from being myself because I was so worried about other things. ... He just told me that — let yourself shine and the food will take care of itself 'cause you obviously can cook — and I did that, and the sky was the limit after that.

What is it like working with Alex? A year ago she was judging you.

EJ: You know what, working with Alex ... she’s an Iron Chef. Just the fact that I’m here, alongside her, being a mentor is something that I always look forward to — something that I wanted to get to. That was one of the reasons that I came to Food Network, so that I could be working hand in hand with these amazing chefs from across the world, and now I’m here and I’ve made it. And any advice that I can give to these finalists to help them get where I’m at, I’m going to do it.

What do you need to see in them in terms of camera skills and cooking chops in order to find your winner?

EJ: I think that what we’re looking for is that one person that as soon as you see them, as soon as they open their mouth, they pop. Because I think that that’s what a star is all about, you know. I’ve been through the competition, so I really know what it takes, and I think that the most-important thing for me is going to be able to see which one of these finalists is going to just pop as soon as they open their mouth. As soon as I see their food, I’m like, "That’s the one."

Everyone who’s competing has had a bad day, either in the kitchen or on camera. Somewhere there’s been a flop. Which part of the job do you think is harder: mastering the cooking or presenting effortlessly?

EJ: Without a doubt I think that it’s hard to master the on-camera part. Because everybody here, you know they’re chefs and they’ve been cooking pretty much their whole lives. They didn’t just start cooking right before this show, so I know they know how to cook. But the thing is, to be able to take that and present it on camera, whether you’re talking or cooking at the same time, that’s going to be the key: Who can do it in front of the camera?

So many finalists let nerves get the better of them. Do you have any advice for finalists in terms of putting them aside and getting the job done?

EJ: One tip that I would give for anybody that’s having nerve issues is to just literally relax, you’re here for a reason. You can cook, you have a personality or else you wouldn’t have been chosen to be on the show. And just be yourself. We say it time and time again to just be yourself, but people don’t realize how easy it is if you just relax, take a deep breath, and just close your eyes, so to speak, and just imagine that you’re hanging around with your boys and your family. And I think that’s something. If they do that, they’ll be OK.

How would you explain the kind of do-or-die pressure finalists are feeling right now?

EJ: It’s do or die at this point, so my philosophy would be to just let it all hang out. I mean, just go all out. I think that’s one of those things you have to do in this competition because you have nothing left to lose at this point. You’ve already been eliminated ... so there’s no need to play it safe. Put yourself out there when you get in front of that camera, go for it, like, really go for it, high energy. I mean, you have nothing else to lose. So that would be a little bit of advice I would give all these eliminated finalists.

What's your mentoring strategy? Do you have a specific type of approach you like to use to inspire finalists?

EJ: My approach is going to be taking my experiences from the show because I know what it took for me to win. So I’m going to give them that advice, everything that I know in myself that I had to do to win, you know: being myself, always smiling on camera, creating a point of view and sticking to it, and just having fun on camera. You know, one of the biggest things that I learned how to do was to have fun on camera because that’s who I am naturally, and I feel like a lot of times people are scared to be themselves on camera, so that’s the bit of advice I’m going to give them.

Everyone here wants the job of a Food Network Star. How would you explain what that job is really like, now that you’re living it?

EJ: It’s tough and it’s fun at the same time. ... You’re a Star now, and there’s a couple of things that you have to understand when you become the next Food Network Star, is all eyes are on you, so you have to make sure that, you know, when you’re out in public, people are going to recognize you. So you want to make sure that you’re being respectful to people because, at the end of the day, it’s just not about you — it’s about the whole brand at Food Network.

And I think that’s very, very key, is just to make sure that you’re always showing the best side of yourself because you’re representing something that’s much larger than yourself. And then, you know, you’re going to be put to work; you’re part of Food Network, and Food Network is the mecca when it comes to food, and you’re going to be traveling a lot. And just understand that if this is something you really, really want, you’re going to have to put in the effort and the time after you win to basically take yourself to the next level.

Star Salvation premieres Sunday night, immediately following the end of the new episode of Food Network Star, which airs at 9|8c.