Chatting with Alex and Jeff, the Mentors of Star Salvation

Hear from Jeff and Alex about what they're looking for in finalists' journeys to potential Salvation.
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Hosts Jeff Mauro and Alex Guarnaschelli observing contestants competing in the challenge #SnackandaHack, as seen on Star Salvation for Food Network Star, Season 13.

Photo by: Eddy Chen

Eddy Chen

Nearly four weeks into the Food Network Star competition, several finalists have already experienced the sting of elimination and left the contest in defeat — but perhaps they'll be back. Starting Sunday night immediately after the new episode of Food Network Star, which premieres at 9|8c, Alex Guarnaschelli and Jeff Mauro will come together to mentor those ousted competitors on Star Salvation. This web-exclusive series on FoodNetwork.com will feature six weeks of challenges for the finalists eliminated along the way, and in the end one hopeful will earn the ultimate redemption: a chance to return to Food Network Star and rejoin the competition.

We checked in with Alex and Jeff on the set of Salvation about what they're looking for in a Star hopeful and their own roads to Stardom on Food Network. Read on below to hear what they had to say.

You've both mentored on Star Salvation before. What have you learned before that you’re bringing to the competition this year?

Alex Guarnaschelli: My co-hosts always went to the culinary school of Food Network, so to speak. I think I bring the street smarts half, which is someone who offers advice about how to do a few fundamental things in front of the camera without having gone through this exact process. Plus a few totally impossible things that I actually learned from working with Bobby Flay: "Hey, relax and be yourself. Hey, if you don’t like the shirt you’re wearing, change into one that’s comfortable. Hey, if you make it like that at home, chances are you should have the nerve to make it here, in this competition, the exact same way."

Jeff Mauro: Follow my instincts and look for the complete package, and look for somebody who is maybe looked over because of a bad day or a bad dish, and see through that one flub.

What makes someone worthy of a second chance in this competition specifically?

AG: I think Food Network has always been a place that grows its own flowers and grows its own talent, and that takes time. Sometimes you get a little too much rain going on, and the flower can’t breathe, so in all honesty, you need at least two times. Everybody deserves a second chance, in my opinion, and I don’t mean that in a hokey or corny way like let’s all be goodhearted. But sometimes when you get eliminated and you have a chance to sleep and drink water and reflect for a minute on whether you really, really want it, then this is the place where you come. And if you do really want it, then you win this thing.

JM: It’s hard being kicked off anything, so you’ve got to come in to this with twice as much passion to win, and that’s got to convey on screen and in the food.

Given your places in the Food Network family — Chopped judge, Iron Chef, Star winner, co-host of The Kitchen — what do you have to teach the finalists? What can you offer?

AG: I think if you really want a career in this, I hope you have a decently think skin. There have been so many moments where I’ve just said: "Boy, that really wasn’t good. Gee, that’s not how I wanted to act. Boy, I could have played that differently. Boy, that was dumb." If you don’t have an auto-edit and an auto-forgive button — you need both, because you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. But, hopefully, like Julia Child or anybody else — Emeril, Mario, any number of other people that anybody’s involved in seeing — it’s the humanity of those stars that makes you go back time and time again. The question is can you be charming enough in your humanity and your mistakes that I want you? Will I download your eggplant parm [recipe] and make it, or not? Chances are, I might not.

JM: You know what, if I can do it, anyone can. I set my sights on this goal 15 years ago, and I orchestrated my life to get to this point, and I never gave up. And to me, Food network Star was the ultimate job interview. I only had one shot at it, and I wasn’t going to screw it up. So, if I can be any inspiration — I mean, I’m not saying I did it perfectly. There was a lot of stumbles on the way, but I think what I can advise is know your food, know who you are, but also be a pleasure to work with. Ultimately, you could have all the talent in the world, but if you’re difficult to work with, people aren’t going to want to work with you

Like on Food Network Star, many of the Salvation challenges feature a digital component: Facebook Live, Instagram Stories, Snapchat top snaps, etc. What should finalists be thinking about when trying to hook an online audience specifically?

AG: If [fans] have a question, are you going to answer it? They’re going to either start to develop or not have confidence in you as a food authority in those really static, quick-moving places right away. What if you don’t win Star Salvation? You can still theoretically build a really good platform off participating in this competition, and you’re going to do that on social media. So, if anything, the stakes are higher, because you want to retain that platform building no matter what. Every split second, every decision you make now can so much dictate what goes on beyond this competition. It’s quick. It’s 140 characters. It’s 15 seconds. For TV, we can shoot you slicing a tomato for 45 minutes and cut it down to 10, 20 seconds. You don’t get that forgiveness here on social media. You’re also dealing with it for a different audience. The demographic of social media is different. Can you relate to that demographic? Do you know what a 14-year-old wants to make? Do you know what a 17-year-old is interested in learning? Do you know what a 22-year-old wants to do with her life? What if you don’t? You’re gonna find out in 140 characters and 15 seconds.

JM: It’s a constant job. It’s one that maybe I’m not the best at, because I’m a daily poster, not a minute-by-minute or hourly poster, because I’m busy living life, but you have to adapt with the times. Between my TV career and my restaurant career, my third career is social media. You’ve got to stay on it, you’ve got to post what you’re eating, you’ve got to be funny, you’ve got to give a little insight into your life. You can’t sustain a career in this business without being social media savvy.

Hosts Jeff Mauro and Alex Guarnaschelli observing contestant Blake Baldwin filming his live stream for the challenge #SnackandaHack, as seen on Star Salvation for Food Network Star, Season 13.

Photo by: Eddy Chen

Eddy Chen

Thinking back to your early days on Food Network, what do you think you came in with on Day 1 versus what you learned along the way through mentoring?

AG: I had a lot of cooking chops. I’d cooked for many years, so I came in my first day on Food Network, and I really felt like I had a good command of cooking. But it was a trap, because then I thought: "Well, what do I have to do? Nothing, I‘ll just be myself." And that wasn’t entirely true. There’s more to this, unfortunately, than cooking. Being able to look up while you’re cooking, being able to answer someone’s questions, being interactive. This is a time when you can’t afford not to be. That was something I was able to learn over a little bit of time. There’s no learning curve like that anymore for interactiveness. I can’t cook without braising, and I can’t make a dish without tasting it, and I think that that was really to my advantage, because I immediately connected with the food. Any flaws you might have seen in my character development were overshadowed by the fact that clearly I knew how to cook, and I knew how to connect with food. I learned that simple is better. I learned that 400 ingredients does not a great dish make. I learned that just because I’m a professional chef and I have many skills, doesn’t mean a home cook can follow me so quickly. Do less more carefully. Be fun.

JM: I came in here with a young energy that needed to be groomed a little bit, maybe a bluer sense of humor that’s maybe not as appropriate for our viewer — which I still get to crowbar in here and there when it’s rightly timed. I was willing to be malleable and grow, and I grew in this business.

When you look at the finalists and perhaps see in them the same flaws that you may have started with, do you tend to forgive them more quickly because you know what they're going through?

AG: Totally. I totally forgive their flaws. It’s very intimidating, and if I had never met Giada and Bobby before, that would really freak me out. Anybody who’s ever turned on Food Network, if you lived under a rock for 20 years, you know who the two of them are, and those are intimidating mentors. I don’t know if I would be able to hear them.

JM: Totally. I’m too forgiving maybe. You want to vote for everybody, give everybody a second shot, but that’s just not how it works. I’m here to judge and to give one more chance to that willing person. There’s always going to be a winner and losers.

Do you still have mentors in this industry today?

AG: I do. I don’t think you’re ever without mentors. In fact, my last mentor — my last male mentor — is Bobby. He’s probably been my mentor for the past five or six years, which is interesting, because we’re not that different in age and whatever else. We grew up in the same place, but I have so much respect for the way he straddles being both a professional chef, really cooking and being a food authority, and also being on television. So, I definitely look up to him. I have many mentors though. Many.

JM: Of course I do. I’d say Geoffrey Zakarian is my biggest mentor, just because we spend so much time together, and he’s — I’d like to say — the hardest working man in this business. I don’t think anybody works as hard as him. I consider him not only a mentor, but a friend and a part of my family. He helps guide me through the business end, which is a whole other animal of this Food Network business, and he helps me make the right decisions. So, GZ for the win. Sunny Anderson too.

Alex, you're going to offer finalists a series of Mentor Moments throughout the competition. What key learnings and advice do you want to impart on them?

AG: I don’t think you should be in a hurry to know exactly how you want your food to be through 20 episodes [on your would-be Food Network show]. You should focus on making good food first. I think Giada’s really about personality and being genuine and smiling, because that’s infectious. I think even she would recall her first day as a Food Network star and admit how nervous she was. The other thing is, if you left the competition, there was a reason why you were eliminated, and that doesn’t get forgotten just because you magically reappear like the winner of Star Salvation. They still remember what they thought your flaw was that left you eliminated, and so it’s not like you go back in there with a completely blank slate. You’re still fighting the same thing you were before, and the question is, how do you do that? You find some confidence within you, mix it up like a salad with a drive to win and a desire to have your whole life change, your career change, your visibility, your profile – it’s a lot of things that change when this happens.

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