Robert and Monti Talk the Making of a Food Network Star

Hear from Robert and Monti about what they'll be looking for when they judge the Food Network Star competitors on Sunday.
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Photo by: Eddy Chen

Eddy Chen

On Sunday's Food Network Star premiere (set a reminder for 9|8c!), mentors Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis will dole out what has the potential to be the most-important challenge of the season: the task of auditioning for them in person and on the plate in order to officially become finalists. Guest judges Robert Irvine and Monti Carlo will be on hand both to guide the competitors as they work through nerves and an immeasurable amount of pressure, and also to help Bobby and Giada as the mentors look out for early glimmers of Star power.

We caught up with Robert and Monti about Sunday's episode, and both noted the enormity of the competition. They're no strangers to all-important experiences, and their been-there advice will be key for the finalists as they hope to move forward. Read on below for an exclusive interview.

There's so much on the line in this competition, and all of the finalists want to make a strong first impression. What are some dos and don’ts for succeeding in something like this?

Robert Irvine: Well, I think succeeding in Food Network Star is two-fold. It’s not only the food — yes, the food, it’s Food Network — but I think you really have to impress the judges on who you are. You can’t pretend to be somebody else. You have to let your personality shine through right from the beginning. You can’t warm up and get to it. You have to get to it day one, cause if you don’t, you’re losing already. So I think what I would say to the contestants is: "Listen, put it all out on the line immediately. Don’t wait, cause if you, do you’ll fail. You’ll be going home."

Monti Carlo: In life, it’s always best to spread joy, especially if you’re a Food Network Star. Really what it all boils down to is people watch what you do because it gives them joy. So, my only suggestion for anybody entering this game is, spread joy and believe in yourself. Because you wouldn’t be here if somebody that is really important didn’t think it was worth it.

You'll be meeting the finalists in the first episode, when they'll still be getting comfortable with the competition and finding their bearings in a new kitchen. In other words, nerves will likely be high. Do you have any tips for combatting the anxiety?

RI: Anxiety — it’s no different than when I cook for the troops or for presidents or whoever, whatever. It’s about focusing on the task at hand: What is the job they’re asking you to do? And focus on that. Don’t worry about what anybody else is doing. Just worry about your plan and work your plan. That’s it. Head down, keep it clean and move forward.

MC: Man, when you get nervous, you just have to say, “Bye, Felicia! Bye, nerves!” Cause this is it. This is your moment to shine, and if you are a real champion, you know how to compete now. Be nervous later.

This week the finalists must audition themselves for Bobby and Giada, as well as you guys. When you're personally auditioning for a new role or preparing for an exciting opportunity, do you have any rituals to hype yourself up

RI: Well, for me, I always do pushups. It vents the system, and it makes me feel good. But then when I’m trying to make a good impression, it’s a repertoire of cooking, in this case, or a repertoire of speaking that puts the best you forward. So, I look at like: "OK, if you’ve got 45 minutes to put yourself on a plate, it better be the best you ever." And I’ve done numerous competitions when I’ve gone against Bobby and I’ve gone against all these great folks who cook, and I’m always of the opinion — I can tell you, Bobby’s the best chef on the menu, hands down. He knows that cause I tell him all the time. But I think when you go against somebody like him, you better have your A game. And the A game only comes when you can focus on you, and it sounds really weird. It’s not the ingredients; it’s taking those ingredients and thinking, "How can I best put that as a meal or a compilation of food that best signifies who I am?" That's what I look for: me in that plate.

MC: Oh, I take a long bubble bath, and I talk about all my dreams and aspirations because I have a vision board. I’m that person. I’m a person with a vision board. I focus on what it is that I want, and I set my intention for the day. What is my intention for today? And I make sure that I live that. I think that’s the most-important thing really.

How do you go about judging someone's first presentations and dishes, and what are you hoping to feel or know about them afterwards?

RI: I’m very hard. I’m very hard because if you think you’re going to be the next Food Network Star, you better be as good as the talent that’s been on there since the start of the network. ... I want to walk away thinking there’s four or five good people who are going to represent and stand by the side of me at some point in their career. This is a life-changing moment, and as I said earlier, if you don’t put everything on that’s your knowledge, that’s your personality, that’s your fears on the table right away, then, you know what, see ya. You’re going to go home.

MC: I want to be transformed. I want someone to present the dish that is going to completely blow me away. I want to see somebody out there who has not only an incredible personality and incredible skills in the kitchen, but someone who's fresher than a farmers market.

On Sunday, you'll meet the winner of Comeback Kitchen, who just earned redemption and a ticket back into the Food Network Star competition. Do you think that person will be at an advantage having just completed a boot camp of sorts, or will he or she be at a disadvantage because expectations are especially high?

RI: It’s a double-edged sword because [being on] Comeback Kitchen, you’ve been kicked off [before]. So, there’s a negative connotation there. But there’s a positive because you’ve cooked for the judges, you’ve spoken to the judges, you know what you’re being critiqued on by them. But you know what, the other 12 competitors might just have the edge over you. You’ve never met them before, you don’t know them. So, it’s kind of a 50/50 chance.

MC: I think that that person is in a great position because nerves are mostly about what’s unknown, right? They don’t know what to expect; that’s why they’re so nervous. The Comeback Kitchen winner knows what to expect, because he or she has done this. So, I think that person has an incredible advantage. I think the only disadvantage — I mean, really, the only person who could be hurtful to you at this point of the game is you.

What does the term Food Network Star mean to you?

RI: It’s interesting because there’s not been many since we’ve started Food Network Star itself. Guy Fieri is a standout, as is Melissa d’Arabian. They’ve been the two that, for me, have been the most-dynamic Stars. Here we are however many years later, and Guy is a face of the network, along with Bobby, Giada and Rachael, so I think whoever comes better have the pedigree. And it’s interesting to watch Food Network and see who the stars are. It's really simple. The viewer wants to know you. The viewer wants not a façade or a box around you. They want to know what you do, what your life is, who your wife is, who your kids are, what do you like to drink, do you drink, how do you sleep? They want to know everything about you, and if you’re not willing to share that with them, you won’t be on the network long.

MC: A Food Network Star is somebody that, duh, is on Food Network. But also somebody who connects with not just people in our country, but people all across the world. Because food is a language that we all speak and that we all love. ... I think to be a Food Network Star is an incredible opportunity. It’s a life-changing opportunity. It can take you from wherever you are right now to a place where you can literally be a part of the most-amazing channel. If you love food, it doesn’t get any better than Food Network. It’s the Super Bowl for foodies, so I can’t wait to see what they bring up, cause when you think about it, these are the dishes that can change your life. These people can look back on this day and say, "This was the dish that completely changed my life." How many times in your life do you get to say that?
What’s been your greatest lesson learned after all your years as a Star on the network?

RI: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that people tried to mold me in a way that I wasn’t, and I think when I realized that I’m doing these things that are not really me, that’s when it changed. I could have been gone based on somebody else’s advice. Just be yourself. When I started to be myself — here I am, you know? ... Listen to the advice you get from the judges, but then take that advice and interpret it the way you feel. Don’t go word-to-word verbatim, because if you do, you might go overboard. Take those words, mash them up, think about them, and then deliver them the way you want to deliver them.

MC: Believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will believe in you. You have to believe you deserve it. They deserve it, and if they don’t believe that, they’re going to be holding themselves back. They are here for a reason, and they need to treat every day as a new day, no matter what the day before held. Whether they won or they lost, every day is a new opportunity, and just go out there and kill it.

Don't miss the premiere of Food Network Star on Sunday at 9|8c.

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