Star-a-Day: Monterey Salka

Get to know Monterey Salka, a finalist on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Eddy Chen, 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

It was only recently that Star Talk broke the news that an unprecedented 12th season of Food Network Star is set to unfold this summer. For the first time ever, a prequel competition — Comeback Kitchen — will bring together seven past Star contestants for a no-holds-barred battle. The winner of this three-week tournament will join the dozen first-time Food Network Star finalists in the premiere episode on Sunday, May 22 at 9|8c. But before the new season kicks off, we're introducing all 12 of the hopeful rivals in exclusive, one-on-one interviews. Keep checking back every day to meet a new member of the cast. Today we'd like you to meet Monterey Salka.

Having deprived herself of culinary indulgences for so many years as a model, Monterey, 26 (Nashville), decided enough was enough and finally gave in to her one true love: food. Holding onto skills and confidence gained through trial and error as a chef and caterer, Monterey knows that food isn’t something to be scared of — it’s meant to be celebrated. Inspired by her unrelenting culinary wanderlust and her jet-setting past, Monterey has discovered that her best dishes are made from the adventures and flavors she’s experienced during her travels.

Describe your culinary POV in one sentence.

Monterey Salka: I like to bring extraordinary flavors into my ordinary kitchen.

Who are you most intimidated to be working with, Bobby or Giada?

MS: I am most intimated by Bobby, actually. I know him as this very fun, playful kind of guy that I want to cook alongside of. ... But here he just looks so stoic and so — it was like he was looking into my soul. It was so intense. I was just like, "Eeeeeeek!" And, of course, I mean, Giada's smile was like a 1,000-watt smile, so of course she seems a little less scary at this point.

If you could ask one of them to teach you one thing in the kitchen, what would it be?

MS: I haven't thought about that. ... Giada made a point that I speak with my hands too much [and] that I have kind of a little bit of a nervous kind of frenetic energy, and she's also very expressive with her hands and with her body, so I'd like to know how to still do that, because that is part of who I am, without it becoming too over the top. So I guess it's more of a persona thing that I'd like to learn from her and the food — I gotta keep my own food in my head, not theirs.

What one thing do you really want to convey to the mentors about who you are?

MS: The same thing I've been trying to show people for my entire culinary career. I mean, I started after I quit the modeling industry, which I did for seven years, and it has been difficult for me to even show that I have a culinary point of view. People look at me and they don't expect that at all. And it's not easy to put my culinary point of view in a box. ... I'm doing a little bit of everything. So, it is a little bit hard to explain. But I'm hoping that I can boil it down soon because it's time for me to figure that out. So I don't know. I think I have to show them. It's hard to tell them, so I'm more about showing them what I'm about.

How did you prepare for this competition?

MS: It's funny. I actually spent days, weeks pouring over all of my old menus, all of my old recipes, all of my old notebooks with little ideas for dishes in them and kind of tried to pick a couple of things that I could just pull out of the back of my mind for any challenge that comes up. It could be anything. It could be things I can't even think of. So just reminding myself of flavor combinations that I like, reminding myself of different techniques I can use that showcase my ability, things that I've learned in my career and stuff. But also I know that ... whenever I make too much of a plan, like, if I have anything rigid, like, "I need to do X, Y and X," then if I get thrown for a loop, then I just kind of break down. So I didn't want to make too many plans, but I also had to be ready for anything. So, I hope I prepared enough. I really do.

What's your greatest strength in the kitchen?

MS: I am great at problem-solving in the kitchen. I've had to learn how to take control of my situations. I adapt very easily, and from working in a professional capacity like I have been, the stress of a kitchen doesn't get to me. ... So I know how to step back from the stress and kind of re-evaluate and reassess and then dive right back into it. I don't let things get to me because when you're working in a kitchen doing a dinner service on Friday night, it's not just doing it once. It's doing it over and over and over again, so you can't get caught up on one thing 'cause you have to dive right back into it.

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

MS: I'm a big fan of beef tongue, so I'll have cow tongue in my fridge because not only is it super-cheap because everyone's afraid of tongue, but, yeah, it's delicious if you do it right.

What do you consider to be your signature dish?

MS: That's actually a really tough question because since I don't really have a singular culinary point of view ... I worked with a bunch of cuisines and a bunch of different — I used to cater, so I would write menus for my clients and had to make, I mean, I have signature dishes all over the place. Currently, one of my favorite dishes that I'm doing is a miso-poached cod. It's impossible to screw up because cod is such an oily, hot-fat fish, and it has great subtle umami flavors and then I do some sauteed bok choy with wild mushrooms and a couple things that are completely top secret because if I tell you, I'd have to kill you. And that's just too messy.

What's your favorite food city to visit?

MS: New York, obviously. I mean, you get everything. You turn the corner and you're in Armenia. You can get incredible dim sum down the block. That's the culinary epicenter of the country, if not the world, at this point. And everything from going to Le Bernardin, where you're paying — it's exquisite food — to finding some hole in the wall where the lady doesn't even speak English but makes the most-incredible dumplings you've ever had. That's what I love — New York.

What dish or ingredient will we never catch you eating?

MS: Hazelnuts. I use them. I can appreciate when they're done well, but I am not a fan of hazelnuts. So, one thing you're never going to see me eat or cook with is Nutella because I can't stand it.

What's your favorite late-night snack?
MS: Wasabi peas
What's your guilty-pleasure food?

MS: I'm not much of a sweets person, so, like I said, freshly baked, crusty sourdough and just-colder-than-room-temperature butter, so you still have some of it that's not melted and some that [is] melted ... uh. Yeah. Really good bread and really good butter. That's my guilty pleasure.

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

MS: My grandma's pot roast. Yep. I mean, she and I have very different philosophies behind cooking. I mean, growing up she didn't have any money, and when I was growing up, the formative years of my childhood, we didn't have a lot of money either. Then it was more sustenance and making whatever you could taste edible so that your family could eat. Salt and pepper is the extent of her spice cabinet, and it's just whatever the cheapest cut of meat was on sale, seasoned. She still uses powdered gravy mix. But she made it. And it's not the best I've ever had, but it's hers, and that's — you know, we can talk about being a creative chef and unique chef and doing things no one's ever done before, but at my last meal, I don't want the best steak I've had. I don’t want some exotic dish I had that one time. I want my grandma's pot roast.

What do you want to say about yourself to fans watching at home?
MS: Hi! Thanks for watching! I don't know. It sounds so insecure, but I really hope y'all like me. That's about it. And I hope y'all want to learn what I have to teach and you're digging what I have to offer because that's really what it's about. I mean, if no one likes you, what chance do I have of being the next Food Network Star?
Rapid fire: Think fast!
Ketchup, mustard or mayonnaise? Mustard
Chocolate or vanilla? Vanilla
Bagels or doughnuts? Bagels
Cream cheese or butter? Butter
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Burgers or hot dogs? Both. Yeah.
French fries or onion rings? French fires
White meat or dark? White
Cake or pie? Pie
French toast or pancakes? Neither
Beer or wine? Beer

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