Star-a-Day: Sita Lewis

Get to know Sita, a finalist on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Eddy Chen, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

There are traditional job interviews, which are surely daunting, then there's Food Network Star: an intense 11-week journey that requires nothing short of flawless technique in the kitchen and a downright sparkly personality on camera. Beginning June 7 at 9|8c, 12 all-new rivals will put their dreams on the line as they endure mentors Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis' lofty challenges, all in the hopes of scoring the most-sought-after culinary career: Food Network host. Star Talk is bringing you the first look at each of the finalists in exclusive, candid interviews, and today we're introducing New York's Sita Lewis.

Sita, 47 (New York), is a veteran television producer and culinary instructor, and now it’s her time to be in front of the camera. She has produced countless food segments for daytime television shows and knows just what it takes to succeed. Sita has an African-American and Italian background, and both food cultures come together to form her “Italian Soul” food philosophy, with dishes like sweet potato stuffed shells, and sinfully good soul-food classics like mac 'n' cheese, candied yams and fried chicken.

Describe your culinary POV in one sentence — if you can.

Sita Lewis: My culinary point of view is Italian soul; it's Italian flavors mixed with Southern soul flavors all put together.

If you could ask Bobby and Giada to teach you one thing in the kitchen, what would it be?

SL: I would ask Bobby how to make the perfect steak on the grill, and Giada, I would ask her how to make the absolute perfect risotto.

What one thing do you really want to convey to the mentors about you, your food or would-be Food Network show?

SL: My food is sinfully decadent. It is absolutely over the top when it comes to calories. But it tastes so good. So it's got that Southern flavor and Italian flair. It's got bold flavors. I would want people to know that I'm half Italian; I'm half black. I put those two culinary backgrounds together to create the food that I make. And I'm a home chef. I come from the best of both worlds. I can relate to people. I teach inner-city youth. And I've also produced TV shows myself for about 15 years, starting in 1990. And I was in the music business. So I have, like, a really wide view of the world. I've eaten dinner at the White House, and I've also eaten dinner at a crazy situation in the inner city, so I can relate to all kinds of people.

How did you prepare for this competition?

SL: I think I've been preparing for this competition for 47 years. I'm 47 years old. My mother, who was Italian, she taught me how to cook Italian. And then she passed away when I was 12. And then I had at 14 a stepmother who was African-American, and she taught me the most-incredible African-American dishes. So over the years, I was forced to cook fresh, whole foods at home. Nothing processed, nothing from the box. So it was just a natural progression over the years. And as I was producing television, I was actually in charge of the food segments because I loved food and I had a passion for food. I used to cook for the crew when I was on tour with my girl group. So that was always, like, a hidden passion, and only my close friends knew about my passion for food. And then I just busted out with it in 2010; I just said I'm going full force. And I just started a culinary blog on YouTube. It was a video blog, and I started getting a lot of hits and people were loving my recipes. And here I am.

Win or lose, what's something you want to take away from this experience?

SL: Win or lose, I want to learn from what I think is the most-professional television outlet that puts out culinary, and that's Food Network. I want to learn from the experts that come on. I want to learn from the mentors that are there: Bobby Flay and Giada. All of them have something that they bring to the table that's different. And I just feel like, win or lose, I'm a winner because I'm sitting here already. So if I don't win the competition, that's OK. But I'm going to learn so much that I can take my culinary skills to the next level.

What's your greatest strength in the kitchen?

SL: I think my greatest strength in the kitchen is cooking with whatever I've got. Because I'm not a really planning person, so maybe that's going to come into my favor here. Because I open up my refrigerator door and whatever I see — and I always keep it stocked with the basics. ... So whatever I have, that's what I use. And I think that's going to work to my advantage, because when I see certain ingredients, I'm just going to fall into action and just put something together. And nine times out of 10, what I put together always tastes good, even if you've never seen it before.

What is the strangest thing we'd find in your refrigerator at home right now?

SL: One thing I keep in my refrigerator all the time is ginger beer. It's a strong ginger soda. And I just like to mix that with things, because one, it's a soda and it's got that ginger flavor in it. You can pour it into a dish that you're making, or you can pour it into some mango nectar and make yourself, like, a spritzer.

My freezer is filled with herbed butters. I'm the herbed butter queen.

What do you consider to be your signature dish?

SL: When people call on me to come over with a dish, they call on me, honestly, for my seven-cheese mac and cheese. And I've got breadcrumbs and butter and all kinds of herbs on top of it that give it a really crispy crust. Then when you bite into it, there's all of these different cheese flavors. ... So I don’t use the traditional cheeses that you would find in a soul food mac and cheese, but I would use some Italian cheeses and put that together. And I might even dip some chicken Parmesan into the mac and cheese. I'm talking about tomatoes, fried chicken pieces, mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese. It's sinful. But it's good.

What was the first dish you perfected?

SL: I would say, I had this sweet potato souffle, and I do add some fresh Italian herbs, like fresh sage, into the sweet potato souffle. ... I've experimented with it and added some herbs into the sweet potato souffle. And then I'll even squeeze those into some stuffed shells and put a creamy nutmeg and Parmesan cheese on top. ... I really haven't seen that dish anywhere.

What dish or ingredient will we never catch you eating?

SL: Something that just wouldn't come naturally for me to buy would be sardines, just because they're bony and they're oily. It's just not my style. I actually don't mind the taste if it's mixed in and somebody else made it. But it's just not my thing. I wouldn't work with cow tongue [either]. No, thank you.

What's your favorite late-night snack?

SL: If it's not something sweet, I just basically get some nacho corn chips and I just pile up all different cheeses and whatever meat is cooked; I'll put that on top. I'll put sour cream. I put avocado on everything.

What is one must-have dish at your last supper?

SL: Fried chicken because I make fried chicken all kinds of ways. I make fried chicken with waffles. I make fried chicken by itself. I turn chicken tenders or chicken nuggets into the craziest, most-delicious fried chicken. It doesn’t have to have a bone to have flavor for me. I'll dip it in the egg and the flour and the panko three times over, so it's always going to be crispy. And then of course I'll drizzle some honey on top of that. Why? I'm addicted.

What do you want to say about yourself to fans watching at home?

SL: I think the most-important message that I want to say is that I am so down to earth. I want my food to speak for my personality. I want you to see that when I'm cooking something and I'm explaining how it's made and I'm having a conversation at the same time, you could see that I'm so down to earth. I kind of accept any kind of person. I love people. I would have to say, I'm more in the people business than I am in the culinary or entertainment industries, because I just love people. That's my No. 1 gift. So I just believe that I my food would draw people to me to be able to see that I've traveled the world, yet I'm still humble and I have a really good heart. I want to be able to express and get that across ... they call me Mama Sita for a reason. That's a nickname. I don't have any kids, but I'm like everybody's mother.

Rapid fire: Think fast!
Ketchup, mustard or mayonnaise? Ketchup
Chocolate or vanilla? Chocolate
Bagels or doughnuts? Doughnuts
Cream cheese or butter? Butter
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Burgers or hot dogs? Burgers
French fries or onion rings? French fries
White meat or dark? Dark
Cake or pie? Pie
Beer or wine? Wine
French toast or pancakes? French toast

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