Food Network Star Finalists Answer: "Who's Been Your Culinary Mentor So Far?"

Find out whom the Food Network Star finalists credit with instilling in them a foundation for learning in the kitchen.

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

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

The countdown is on to the premiere of Food Network Star, when this year's eager hopefuls will begin the job interview of their lives. They've been working toward this moment their entire careers — their entire lives, really — and what happens after Sunday, May 22 is up to them. When their Star journey begins, they'll have Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis to guide them through the challenges and offer constructive criticism and been-there-done-that feedback that could ultimately shape their success in the competition, should they heed Bobby's and Giada's critiques. But until then, they have only their training and instincts to rely on, and much of that stems from the mentors they've followed along the way.

Recently Star Talk checked in with all of the finalists, and they told us all about the professional or personal mentors they've enjoyed working with and growing alongside. Read on below to hear whom each credits with instilling in them a foundation for learning in the kitchen.

Aaron CrumbaughYou know what, I’d probably have to say my mom. I started cooking at a really young age, 5. I think it was part my mom wanting to teach us this life lesson, like, “You know, when you get older, you’re going to have to cook.” And then, secondly, she was probably lazy and didn’t want to cook a meal, so you know. Smart woman. ... I think my mom, I mean, she ... sort of invited me into the kitchen and started peeling apples, and my dad would even come in, like, "All right, competition. Who can have the longest peel?" And it was fun. She made it fun. ... And so I think definitely my mom. I mean, she’s by far … obviously not the greatest cook that I’ve ever worked with, but she’s probably the most influential.

Ana QuincocesIn my life, my mother. I went to the culinary institute of my mama. I think years ago, when I first started watching food TV, Nigella Lawson was very much somebody that I loved and thought she was fabulous and sexy and smart and had an amazing culinary vocabulary, and so I kind of related to her a lot.

Damiano Carrara: I think that every single place where I worked before in my life gave me, like, big point of views and big ideas and help in terms of cooking. My dad, definitely. My mom. My home. My grandma. But in terms of pastries, my brother, 100 percent. My little brother is a genius in the pastry world. He trained with world champions, which I recently did too, so I'm very happy about that, because I really needed it to see it from somebody else rather than only my brother. And I'll tell you, it changes you. You see things differently.

Erin CampbellMy culinary mentor, personally, would have to be my grandma. She … was always in the kitchen — both of them, actually. My mom's mom was Hispanic, so Mexican food, and then my dad's mom, Irish-Scottish food. Very bland. Polar opposite. But my celebrity mentor, who's not really my mentor but who I always look up to, is probably Duff.

Havird UsryI had a chef who's also a restaurant owner close to my restaurant in Augusta. His name's David Ross, and he taught me in culinary school too. Classic, French-trained English chef. And he's been just a wealth of knowledge to me and just guided me also through some of the restaurant business things that you run into. And even in the catering world, I always kind of call on him to draw some type of knowledge.

Jernard Wells: Well, it started off, I guess, with two people. It was originally my father, who had become disabled at an early age when I was a child, and I spent all my years up until I was 16 years old learning from him, because he was a chef. And then after that, my mother was also in the food industry, as well, so I really worked closely under them so much … it laid a strong foundation in my life to want to go towards food.

Joy ThompsonMy mom is probably my culinary mentor. I started cooking with her when I was 3, 4 years old. And so I just loved working with her. It's great memories and it's a lot of good experience.

Melissa PfeisterFood Network, honestly. It sounds so weird, but I don’t have those stories of, you know, "When I was 5 I remember in the kitchen making cookies with my mom." Like, no. My family, they can’t cook to save their life. ... Growing up, a very successful day in our family was if my mom could cook pasta correctly. That was a huge accomplishment, because my whole life was playing sports. So, it was school and then practice all night, and then by that time it’s just, like, we’re going through the drive-thru, and we’re getting greasy McDonald’s. ... I taught myself by watching Food Network. So, literally, Bobby and Giada and Rachael and Guy ... those have been my inspirations, my teachers, everything.

Monterey Salka: So, I started cooking because I grew up watching Food Network, and my family's not very adventurous when it comes to eating; it was always kind of more sustenance than it was for enjoyment. It was always meat and a side dish. I didn't even know that green beans were green until I was, like, 7 years old. They always came out of a can. But my grandmother, she was really great at making pies and stuff, and she cooked old-fashioned food, so she taught me how to really cook with love and make the most of what you have and also to not need a recipe. I mean, I don't think she measured anything; it was always by instinct and by feel, so that came a lot from her. And then, I don't know. I think everyone, kind of — the people that I used to watch on Food Network in the '90s and early 2000s, along with, once I started getting into cooking as a career, Anthony Bourdain. I love him so much. He's not only incredibly literate and incredibly smart, [but] he has a way with words. ... I don't think food is very serious business. You can be a little bit risky and you can be edgy with it, and you try things you never tried before and not have it be so structured. And I like that he gets to travel and he gets to eat everything and he gets to just be this … I mean, he's — I want to be the female version of him, frankly. I do.

Rob BurmeisterMy biggest food mentor to this date is actually a chef. It's two brothers, John and Phil Corr. I worked with John as a young kid, and he moved away, and then gave me a call — and his brother's an executive chef in a seasonal kitchen, where in the winter we'd be in Florida and then Nantucket in the summers — and they gave me a shot. And right before they called me, I was going to become a New York City police officer 'cause I was losing my flair for cooking and I was getting burned out. And they asked me to come along, and they've opened my eyes to everything; I've never looked back. I mean, I've learned so much ... from them and every other chef that I've ever worked with. My good buddy Terry Moore also. All of us — we worked together since we were all young. So, definitely Phil Corr — the late, great Phil Corr. He passed away from cancer. He really just sparked that fire back into me. I got to give him the props.

Tregaye Fraser: I have a chef, Anthony Peak. He's not famous. He's not a celebrity. He's a local chef in Orlando, Fla., and he really teaches me everything. I feel super comfortable talking to him. He tells me how to tone it down, when not to tone it down. He teaches me how to cook and all kinds of things, so I think he's my mentor. That's who I look to.

Yaku Moton-Spruill: Probably my grandmother. That's who I got "food is love" from. She was the first person I ever saw cook a whole meal and not eat, and just watch everybody eat.

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