Star in Training
I wake up thinking, "Holy crap! I won!" It's the morning after the taping of The Next Food Network Star finale. One of my two fellow finalists, Tom Pizzica, is still sleeping, but the other, Herb Mesa, has already showered and worked out. Amazing, considering how late we were out last night. We celebrated at Bobby Flay's New York City restaurant Bar Americain. We were all so ready to talk smack about Bobby’s food, after all those weeks of him critiquing ours. But we were speechless. His food was exquisite. Fine, Bobby, fine! You're excellent, OK? Later that morning, I head to a conference room at Food Network, where I meet with my production team. My production team! I still can’t get over saying that. I'm intimidated, though. How am I going to stack up against past winners?
I learn that I have two days to provide 24 recipes. And eight show themes. Gulp. I know I already have that many recipes. But wow, that’s fast! My husband, Brendan, starts going through my blog and writing down the names of all of my recipes. Prepping recipes for air is different than I had expected. I had assumed I'd make one dish at a time, but I'll actually be making them all at once. I remember Bobby telling me that I needed to learn to multitask. Bobby, why are you always right? At Food Network we choose a code name so that no one will find out I'm the winner while we work on the show. My secret name is Whiskey, my favorite drink. A little old-school, a little brassy. Love it!
My head is still spinning. I won two days ago, and now I'm planning my own show -- Aarti Party -- on Food Network! Somebody pinch me! When I get to my hotel that night, I check in under another secret name: Denise Brown. (It's hard to keep track of them all!) In my room I find a disguise I'll have to wear out in public: big sunglasses and a long, wavy wig. I feel like Beyonce! I even have my own production assistant. Her name is Maureen, and she follows me around to make sure I’m fed, hydrated, chocolate'd. She's amazing. She knows everything, like what kind of obscure tea I'm obsessed with at the moment. Can I take her home with me?
Wardrobe time! Woo hoo! My stylist, David White, shows me some gorgeous jewel-toned outfits. I have to wear colors that are a little dark, so if oil splatters on me, it won’t show on camera. Yet another lesson! Makeup consultation: ah, my favorite. I go from looking tired and splotchy to glamorous and well rested. I'm especially enchanted by the individual false eyelashes. If I had steady enough hands, I'd put these on every day!
Rehearsal day. Oof, this is it. But I'm strangely calm. I have to remember that I love this; this isn't a chore. The second I forget that, the camera is going to catch it, and so will you! And I can’t let you down. I go to see my set and I’m breathless. It's as if the set designer, Wendy Waxman, crept into my head and designed from all the kooky stuff she found in there. I add a couple of things: a photo of my mum, and one of Bren. Now it feels like home. Then reality sinks in that I'm on my very own Food Network set and I think I might start to cry. But I remember those false eyelashes and I relax. I can't mess them up! The rehearsal goes great. The executive producer, Mark Dissin, allows me to improvise my intro, which instantly puts me at ease. I'm still learning my way around (where are those damned tasting spoons?) and trying not to turn my back to the camera, but I get through everything fine, and we can go home early. I high-five myself. The first call I make when I get back to the hotel: room service. Three-scoop sundae, please, with all the fixin's.
The first shoot day is harder than I expected. I have to remember all my steps and weave in my stories and cooking tips. But at the end of the day, Mark tells me I did a great job. And I feel it, too -- this is what I'm meant to do. We shoot each segment twice: one wide shot, the second up close. Between takes I watch what I just shot. This is surreal. It looks like a real cooking show! It's really helpful to watch and learn from each take, but it's also a little disconcerting to see myself in high-definition. Every blemish is glaring! On the third day of taping, I walk out of makeup and get changed. I'm just pulling on my Spanx (yeah, girl, the secret's out!) when all of a sudden, the lights go out. There's a blackout at Food Network. We can't work, so I'll have to shoot one and a half episodes and the show intro the next day, in addition to doing a promotional photo shoot during my lunch break. Tomorrow's going to be a looooooong day. Can I keep my energy up? The next day during the lunchtime photo shoot, we go through four outfits in an hour! I've always struggled with photos: When I smile, my normally massive eyes disappear into little slits. The photographer helps me figure out a half-smile so you can still see my eyes. It feels weird! I wonder which of these photos will hang on the wall with the others. My photo's going to be on the same wall as Guy Fieri’s! Agh!
After five days of taping, I'm done. That's my show. Six episodes are in the bag. We organize a toast for the crew, and I make sure to clink glasses with every one of the 45 people on set. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for making my dreams come true, and tell them about how I used to pretend to be a cooking show host with my tea set as a kid. It is so much cooler than I ever imagined.