A Star Salvation Preview: Host Jeff Dishes on Working with Alex and the Importance of Calming Nerves

Read an exclusive interview with Star Salvation host Jeff Mauro as he 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 Jeff, then click here for an exclusive interview with Alex.

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

Jeff Mauro: We've done other events before, and I think we've shot some stuff together before. I know she's judged me on Chopped before. So we do have a rapport. We see each other out; we're friendly. But I get her totally — I know what she's all about. I get her gruffness, but her level of comedy is so underappreciated, I think. And I think she's so warm, and you want her to like you, which is an interesting gift. But she does it in such a way where I'm super comfortable around her. So I think my kind of goofy attitude and her kind of faux sternness, it's a nice little straight-talk-silly-man combo.

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?

JM: It's one thing to be nervous when you're awaiting possible elimination, but it's a totally different thing when you have visible nervousness when you're presenting. That's something you really have to get ahold of because you can't sustain a career. And I know this is all new and exciting, but there has to become a point where you learn how to control your breathing and control your emotions and anxiety. But I'll tell you, it's a lot less nerve-racking when you're outside this competition, because you have the support of a whole culinary team and produces and directors and hair and makeup, and everybody just trying their hardest to make you look good. This is like prove to me that you deserve that — so it's a different platform.

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

JM: It's not easy, because you are guiding them and you want them to make the best decisions. But at the end, the hammer has to drop and we have to send somebody home. Just have to do it all, and I think we're just going to play it cool. We can't be their best friends, but we can be their mentors and somehow be lighthearted, but still knowing that, hey, we still have to make the decision.

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

JM: I think someone who deserves to go back to the competition that can stand up to the final people remaining on Food Network Star. I think we need somebody who can be a winner in this. So it just can't be, "Oh, let's give this person another shot because they got a little something." I mean, they have to come with the package, and hopefully during the selection process with the other mentors and the Selection Committee, they missed something or some of these people slipped through the cracks. So it's our job to slurp them back up through the cracks and put them back in this spotlight.

While you were never eliminated from the Food Network Star competition, it was only a few years ago when you were being judged like these finalists are now. Does this experience bring back flashbacks for you?

JM: Always. It's like you see those guys standing there, waiting for the judgment, for the evaluation — it's not that long ago. It's still very fresh in my mind. I still have nightmares about it. You know people have that proverbial I'm-in-school-naked nightmare? Well I have, like, the I'm-doing-Food-Network-Star-naked-and-being-shuffled-around-and-being-away-and-competition-after-competition-and-never-knowing-what's-coming-next [nightmare]. So I feel for these guys. They don't know what we're going to do to them next. They don't know who's going to go home — again. I've been there. I think I can sympathize with them greater than most people can.

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?

JM: Because you have to differentiate yourself between the other talent, not only in the competition but also currently on Food Network. You can say you're making fun, crazy food, but you have to be able to tell us: A. what exactly fun, crazy food means, and B. why are you the one teaching me about fun, crazy food. So you have to have that authenticity, and you have to have that passion, and it's going to come through in this point of view. And I know it's like beating a dead horse, and I get it — not everybody has a culinary point of view — but this is not Best Cook. This is Food Network Star. You have to have something different, and you have to bring it and share it eloquently and through your food and through your presentation. Especially now that these eliminated finalists have a chance to go back in the competition, you should have it locked down by now.

You had a very narrow point of view — sandwiches — when you started on Food Network Star, and it surely worked out well for you! But was there ever a time when you felt constrained by that?

JM: After Day One of Food Network Star when I was on it, I was so happy to be in a box because I knew my point of view top to bottom; I had 400 recipes. I could literally make anything into a sandwich. And I've done it professionally at that point for 13 years, so it was like: "Why would I do family food? Why would I do Italian food? Who am I kidding?" So I was so happy to be in that box, 'cause I knew I can prove to everybody that there is so much more beyond your BLTs and your club sandwiches. So that was my mission, and it only fueled me to work harder and perform better, because I knew I could easily convince the jury, essentially. Like, I was the lawyer proving sandwiches had a place on Food Network. So I think that these guys, if they want to have something in that bubble, whether it's like soup, or just salads or fried chicken, you have to own it. I owned it, and I knew how to execute it.

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