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

Hear from the seventh finalist to leave the Food Network Star competition in an exclusive interview.

Finalists Dom Tesoriero, Alex McCoy, Eddie Jackson, and Michelle Karam during elimination, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

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

It's the nature of the Food Network Star beast that even though no matter how badly finalists want to achieve their dreams of stardom, ultimately only one can win the coveted title, and with that, 11 finalists will be going home. Every week Star Talk will bring you the first exclusive interview with the most-recently eliminated finalist. From thoughts on mentors' critiques to reflections on past challenges and hopes for the future, be sure to check back every Sunday night for the latest one-on-one chat. We're about to break down the ins and outs of tonight's new episode and reveal who went home, so if you've yet to watch the show, read no further until then.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

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

This week marks an unprecedented unfolding on Food Network Star. For the first time ever, a finalist left the competition after voluntarily quitting, not being eliminated. Michelle's decision to walk away from the contest — as well as potential Stardom — with just weeks left to go shocked not only fans at home, but also mentors Bobby and Giada, and her fellow rivals. After a rough Mentor Challenge that left her frazzled and unfocused, and a Star Challenge in which she turned out a flop of a soup and a basic grilled cheese sandwich, Michelle ultimately said goodbye, explaining, "My family is what's calling me right now."

Star Talk caught up with Michelle in her first exclusive interview. Read on below to find out more about why she left, plus her parting words to Bobby and Giada.

Please tell us as much as you can about what led to your decision to leave the competition early.

Michelle Karam: I realize that my decision to leave early isn’t one that everyone is going to understand or think it was a wise decision to make. This is a ONCE in a lifetime experience that I’ve been working towards my entire professional career. HOW could I walk away from it just like that?! Well, my answer is kind of simple: my three kids and my husband. They trump everyone and anything else. I’ve never once during this entire competition had anyone else in my mind. Every second. Every minute. Every day. They are my life.

The day of the last challenge with the food trucks, I woke up that morning and all I could think about was my oldest boy. It was his 11th birthday. I’ve never missed a birthday in their entire lives. Not for any of my kids. Like, ever. I’m the mom who plans the parties and has the sleepovers and hugs them when they blow out the candles on the cake and says, “I love you!” And I wouldn’t trade that for the world. So for me, that day was so incredibly difficult to know I couldn’t talk to my son or be there with him. It was crushing me. Not to mention, I’ve truly never spent more than a week away from my kids, and at this point I’m seven weeks in ...

My heart. My head. Everything hurt. All I could see was their little faces. It was to the point that it was clouding all judgment that I had in my brain. Like, any sort of rational thought that I may have had that would say: JUST STAY IN THIS COMPETITION, MICHELLE! YOU’VE GOT THIS. YOU’RE THE LAST WOMAN STANDING FOR A REASON! COOKING IS YOUR PASSION! Yeah, well, just throw all of that out the window. I couldn’t think about anything else but them. So when I finally stood there in front of Bobby and Giada to tell them I had made the decision that I would like to go home to my family ... please don’t think I didn’t have the fear of God inside of me. I was shaking. I was so tempted to tell them I was staying when they told me I could still change my mind. There was a small point where I almost blurted out back to them: “Yes! I’m staying!” But then I realized [that] the next day, the next week, going into the next challenge, my head wouldn’t be in it. My heart wouldn’t be in it ... and I would be exactly where I am standing right now in front of them yet again.

What do you want to say to your fellow finalists, and to Bobby and Giada, about your decision to leave?

MK: To my fellow finalists: I am beyond proud and honored to have been able to work alongside you. You are all incredibly talented and to say I was intimidated every day in Food Star Kitchen working with you is an understatement. You are beyond impressive competition.

Most of you were aware from the get-go of my struggle to stay focused and my teary nights when I was missing my kids; some of you even comforted me to help me past that and give me strength to go onto the next challenge and helped keep me focused! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I am forever grateful to you. Ultimately, my family took precedence and I’m sorry if I stayed longer than I should have, as this meant you could have stayed another week or possibly won. I hope you accept my apology. I didn’t know I wasn’t going to be able to go on any further until I got to that point. Truly. I left the day if not the moment I figured out I could no longer go on.

Bobby and Giada, I don’t think that either one of you knew to the extent how badly I was struggling in this competition being away from my family. I did my best to camouflage that, but as everyone knows, the show must go on. That being said, I can’t begin to express my gratitude to even have been in the same kitchen as you, let alone cook for you. It’s been my lifelong dream to be on Food Network and for years I worked towards this. It was one of the hardest moments of my life standing in front of the both of you and hearing you give me an opportunity to back out of my decision to leave. I mean, how could I say no to the two mentors that have been guiding me and molding me to become a Food Network Star? You both saw potential in me that I didn’t even know I had, and I’m sorry I let you down. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for all of your invaluable advice. You are both the crème de la crème of Food Network talent, and how can I ever express my gratitude? I can only hope to be standing alongside you both again one day as part of the Food Network team. It’s still my hope and dream.

How did you feel about being the last woman standing among the top six finalists?

MK: That was a pretty incredible and a scary feeling all at the same time, knowing that I was the last woman standing for two reasons. The first feeling was that of something pretty incredible in that I had some pretty fierce, amazing and talented women that I had to beat out. The second was a bit scary, in that I’m really not a very cutthroat or competitive person like some of these remaining guys are. It’s just not in my nature. But again, it was a pretty proud moment to be there with these boys, and had I not had such a hard time dealing with being away from my family, I was ready to kick some booty — Mom style.

Finalist Michelle Karam preparing her dish Mediterranean Veggie Grilled Cheese, during the Star Challenge, Food Truck Showdown, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

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

Talk to us about your final challenge and dish in Episode 7. What did you think of your tomato soup and grilled cheese? What was the team camaraderie like between you and Eddie?

MK: Out of all of the partner challenges I had done throughout the competition, working with Eddie was not only a highlight of being on this show, but a highlight in my professional career. Eddie is the true definition of what a team player is. He is not only calm, cool and collected (which is the polar opposite of who I am), but he is motivational, has precision and the focus of a laser in the kitchen. For such a big football guy, finesse is not what you would think of when you think of Eddie — and he has that. I loved working with him. He’s just a good person all around who motivated me to do my best. Truly.

Ohhhh. That final challenge. Well, let’s not lie. Let’s call it what it was. That tomato soup was flavorless and not so great. That tomato soup just got away from me. It’s a soup I’ve made a thousand times — and executed quite well before, I might add. I’m a huge soup maker (if you couldn’t tell from the previous challenges), and I think we’ve all had a day in the kitchen where things just don’t go as planned. Then add the stress of cooking in a food truck (which I’ve never done before), plus my head was already somewhere else, and you have what was presented to Richard Blais, Giada and Bobby, not to mention the other guests: a failed attempt at making velvety, warm and delicious tomato soup. The grilled cheese. I mean, while I promised “ooey and gooey,” which it might not have been, I really thought it was flavorful and pretty tasty. I could be wrong about that, too, though. I did do my best, though, to “sell” this to the people who chose our truck and make them smile and laugh and give them “Michelle, The Mediterranean Mama!” in full effect. I think I succeeded at that at least.

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

MK: This competition is like nothing I could have ever imagined in my wildest dreams. In previous years when I would sit at home and watch people compete on Food Network Star, I’d be screaming at my TV: “What’s wrong with you?! I could do that in my sleep!” I’d like to say right here, right now, I apologize to everyone I’ve ever said that about. I can only describe it like this: For someone like me who is truly just a mom and a wife — and yes, I’m OK with that title — this was so exciting! The lights! The cameras! Bobby, Giada and all the other guest judges that I had the honor of meeting and cooking for. Getting dressed up really nice and putting on makeup every day is a luxury for most moms! Just ask us. Admiring all of Giada’s incredible wardrobe options and those fabulous heels she always wore — it was exhilarating, amazing, incredible and fun! But then, there’s the other side of this. Not just the physical pressure to perform in Food Star Kitchen and make sure that your dish is complete, tastes good and you finish in the allotted time given to you, but more so the mental pressure — all the twists and turns and sudden decisions that need to be made. Your mind is never at rest. There never was a moment where I felt like, “Yes, I know what’s coming next.” And that part can be more exhausting than anything else. There are lots of high highs and lots of low lows. And one week you can be up and doing great in front of the judges and the following week you’ll be on the bottom three standing in front of them on the chopping block so to speak. It’s hard to recover from those times because you get in your own head.

And that’s just scratching at the very surface of what this competition is really like. Don’t be so quick to judge. That’s all I can say.

Finalist Michelle Karam talks about her dish to Guest Judges Geoffrey Zakarian, Sunny Anderson and Selection Committee Giada de Laurentiis and Bobby Flay during the Star Challenge, Trendy Dinner, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

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

Looking back on your Star journey, what was your proudest moment?

MK: Without a doubt my proudest moment had to be when I made the slimy spinach soup with grilled octopus tentacles for Bobby, Giada, Geoffrey Zakarian and Sunny Anderson. First of all, I completely loved working with those women, and how we all worked together as a team was amazing. I pushed myself to work with the octopus in the last minutes, and how that soup came together, well, let’s just say even I’m impressed. I loved my presentation, as I was trying to step out of being “Mom Michelle,” and I tried (this chef makes no guarantees) to be a little sexier in my presentation.

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

MK: It’s kind of ironic. The team challenges were both my favorite and least favorite during the competition. I absolutely loved working on the team challenge with the girls. We had a great time. We worked well without even speaking too much with one another. We leaned on each other for advice and support to help one another if we got in a jam, and although we didn’t win as a team, I still felt really good about working with them.

The opposite of that teamwork with the girls was when Dom and I worked together on the Match.com challenge. Dom has to be one of the most charismatic, funny, witty and brilliantly talented chefs I’ve ever met. However, I think that the dynamic of the two of us working together just didn’t mesh well. For whatever reason, we couldn’t see eye to eye, and it was that same dynamic of working without speaking too much with one another — that worked in the exact opposite way that it did with me and the girls. I feel so badly about that challenge. It was the last thing in my mind that I wanted to even cross him, let alone let him down as a partner, and, well, for that I’m very sorry. I really disliked that challenge. It was not one of my proudest moments on the show.

Which element of the competition were you least expecting, be it good or bad?

MK: I think that I was least expecting me to go as far as I did in the competition. I really did think that I would be out the first or second week. I mean, I went into this competition with the mentality that I am just honored to have been selected to be considered a Food Network Star, but after the first few weeks that I made it through, it really started sinking in that I was better than I thought. I was not expecting that at all.

Finalists Sita Lewis, Michelle Karam, Rue Rusike, Rosa Graziano and Emilia Cirker during the reveal of the Star Challenge, Trendy Dinner, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

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

Fill in the blanks with your fellow finalists' names.
_____ is the class clown. Rosa
_____ is the quietest. Matthew (when the camera isn’t on him)
_____ is the most daring. Arnold (upside-down bowl for the Instagram challenge, anyone?)
_____ has the best recipes. Dom
Considering Bobby, Giada and all of the special guests, you've worked with quite a few big names in the culinary industry and beyond. Did you find that to be intimidating, and how did you deal with the nerves?

MK: I was impressed and in awe over every single guest judge that we met. I mean, they were all impressive. Every time we were introduced to a new special guest, it was like Christmas morning opening a present! A complete surprise that left me wanting more each week. I will say, though, there’s one that really stood out in my mind. Let’s not forget I’m over the moon about Geoffrey Zakarian. He can cook. He’s smart and, well, Armenian. That silver fox. Anything he said, I was listening.

A lot of times my nerves are what would get the best of me. ... I actually meditate quite a bit. I am a fan of Transcendental Meditation, and I found that to be quite effective for me to do once in the mornings and once at night. It absolutely calmed me and helped me focus. I also can say that some of my competitors were equally as nervous and knowing that sometimes helped keep me in check to know I wasn’t alone.

What do you want fans to remember most about you?

MK: I hope they remember that I cook with my heart and my soul, and that I never tried to be anything I wasn’t. I’m genuine.

Keep coming back to Star Talk for the latest on the Food Network Star competition.

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