A Star Salvation Preview: Host Alex Shares Must-Have Skills and Reflects on Competition Flashbacks

Read an exclusive interview with Star Salvation host Alex Guarnaschelli as she previews the all-new season.
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Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Eddy Chen, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

While three Food Network Star finalists have already met their fate at elimination — and another one will do the same this week — all hope is not lost for those competitors, or for the next few to follow in the coming weeks. Beginning this Sunday night, ousted rivals will have the chance to rejoin the competition, but only if they can survive a six-week journey on Star Salvation, a Web-exclusive contest hosted by Jeff Mauro and Alex Guarnaschelli. At the end of boot camp, one rival will have verified his or her worth, and will ultimately return to the on-air competition with the finalists that remain.

Ahead of Sunday's premiere Salvation battle, Star Talk is catching up with Jeff and Alex for the inside details on what they have in store for the contestants, and what it will be like for this dynamic duo to work together as both mentors and judges. Read on below to hear from Alex about how her past competition experiences will influence her judgment on Salvation, then click here to hear from Jeff.

What's it going to be like working with Jeff? What's your professional relationship like?

Alex Guarnaschelli: We are like Starsky and Hutch. We are like Rizzoli and Isles. ... We have a really great relationship because we both use a lot of humor in what we do, and yet we take food super seriously. We know that there's so much at stake for these contestants that we want to be the perfect balance of lighthearted where the contestants are open to learning and hearing from us, and yet also critical enough that they can grow and kind of sculpt themselves, give themselves clarity, fill in the blanks, color in the lines, curate their own personality. That's what Food Network is all about: growing really good flowers. Start with a seed, some dirt, some water, and just keep on going with that sunshine.

What do you want to see in terms of camera work and kitchen chops in order to find the eventual winner?

AG: I don't think they're at a point yet where they can really articulate all that they need to articulate to be the next Food Network Star. I don’t expect that from anybody. What I expect now is honesty and that they've kind of edited themselves to a point where I'm getting a sense of the kind of food they want to cook and how they feel about it. And what approach they want to take to sharing that with America's viewers.

What are three skills every Star Salvation finalist should be able to master before beginning?

AG: I think if you want to go from Salvation finalist to Salvation Star, you need to have a few things in your tool belt. The first thing I'd say is pick a few dishes you know you can make no matter what, and tell a story that makes us believe you — No. 1. No. 2: It's the cooking that makes the talking so good. It's both watching the process of watching the Star Salvation contestants cook and then the food that they end up with and then eating it — that whole process, that has to feel like one fluid thing. So if they hone in on that good idea, I'm going to taste that, and then that taste becomes the point of view right then and there — boom.

So many of the Salvation finalists are just so nervous to be here. What's the best way for them to put their nerves on the back burner, so to speak, and just get the job done?

AG: There is no putting your nerves on the back burner. I love when people say to me, "What's a quick and easy solution to making a four-hour braise?" And I say, "Set the clock for four hours and make the braise." They've got to braise those nerves right out of themselves. There's nothing we can say or do. If anything, I think saying less, letting them be in the moment, letting them feel those nerves and kind of getting past them just by feeling it for a minute, it doesn't feel good, but I think that's the only way to get through them. There's nothing I can do or say.

Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis really stressed the importance of having a clear, concise point of view, and many of the Salvation finalists were eliminated on Food Network Star for not being able to deliver on that. Why do you think a POV is so crucial?

AG: I think that if people don't know why they're going to turn on their TV set and watch you, or why they're going to follow you on social media or read your blogs or read articles about you that you've written or that others have written about you, we need to know what we're going to get, because that's what American culture is like. What do we get out of this? What's the reward? What's the payoff? How am I enriched? Because that's what cooking's really about: sharing those ideas. So when you have a point of view, like ... I'm going to fix all your kitchen mistakes; I'm going to spend five years turning you into a superstar chef by just going through mistake after mistake, then I know ... What mistake is this person going to make this week, and what can I get out of it? And I think we like when the contestants are flawed and when they're human and when they're real. And we need that — that honesty. That needs to pierce a hole in the camera.

How do you think you'll balance the mentorship, teaching aspect of the job with the need to judge and eliminate them?

AG: Take it from someone who's been eliminated from many a show: Even if you're eliminated, it's still a moment where you grow. Is it nice, is it fun, does it feel good? No. I'm not going to lie to you. I'm not going to say, hey, we should feel good — I got eliminated, but I'm feeling good. No, you're not. You feel like crap. I know what it feels like to be eliminated, and it is a terrible feeling. But it's also one you can learn from. And I think for those contestants that are really not ready to kind of stand in front of a camera and in front of people and share their food and share their feelings and have it all gel, they need to go back to the drawing board. It's not like we fold up the drawing board. We're just putting away the drawing.

Before winning The Next Iron Chef, you competed on that same series and didn't earn the title. Does this experience, working with eliminated finalists, bring back flashbacks for you?

AG: This is exactly where we shot The Next Iron Chef. So we are not only somewhere that's kicking up memories, we are actually shooting on the same lot in the same room with a lot of the same crew members and the same director and the same producer. So, is this kicking up memories? Of course it is. The smell of the set. The feeling I get when I walk outside and it's so beautiful and I go inside and it's like ... all the flowers have died in all of the world. But I mean, I know that anxiety. I know that pressure. And Jeff Mauro is a Food Network Star winner, so our combined feeling about this is coming from the heart, because we've both been in their shoes, literally and figuratively.

You've judged countless Chopped battles and even several FNS challenges. What do you think fans at home might not realize about what it takes to judge contestants?

AG: Being a judge is hard. You've got to kind of have a poker face and yet I think show some heart and show some feeling. Have an exchange with the contestants so they can have some sense of where they're at, or they can learn from the moment or understand what elicits an emotional response from a viewer in what they're doing. I think that's the judges' responsibility. And then the last thing is, as a judge, you can't judge on whether they made food you like. Oh, they don’t like bananas. I only like mangoes when they're cooked. Whatever it is, you have to put your personal preferences aside and try to put yourself in their shoes.

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