"Food Network Star Finalists, I Support You in Pursuing Your Dreams:" A Letter from a Former Winner and Guest Judge

Food Network Star, Season 5 winner Melissa reflects on her journey to Stardom and shares inspiration with this year's cast of hopefuls.
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Guest Judge Melissa D'Arabian in evaluations for the Mentor Challenge, Kraft Pantry, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Eddy Chen, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

On Sunday night, I judged a challenge on Food Network Star. Returning to where it all started for me is more emotional than one might expect. I arrived at my hotel well after 1 a.m., exhausted from a full day of work. I set my alarm for 5:15 a.m. and tried to sleep — but I couldn’t. I couldn’t help but put myself in the finalists’ position. I remembered all too well tossing and turning in the bunk bed that was my home for weeks during the filming of my own season of Food Network Star. I could almost feel myself lying there only inches from the ceiling (I had the top bunk), waxy earplugs wedged into my ears to blot out evidence of the other female finalists who were both my competitors and my roommates. I would lie there, trying to quiet my mind with focused breathing, doing my best to stamp out thoughts about whatever had happened in the latest challenge or elimination, only to find myself speculating on what challenge might lie ahead, or even, what time we would be awakened with the next task.

I feel for these finalists, and I know how deeply they want to succeed. They have left behind careers and families to pursue their dream job, and missing the mark on a challenge can feel like ultimate failure in the moment. Hearts are broken and character is built. It is about so much more than just cooking. It is harder than it looks.

But here is the thing: There is nothing like living on the precipice of a dream to remind us that we are alive and that we get one go-around. On that edge, we are forced to take stock of what really matters to us and to take risks to reach for a brass ring we had always considered too high up to attempt to grasp. If only we could apply this high-stakes mentality to all that we do, so that hours don’t whiz by and morph into days, months and years lived unexamined — unnoticed.

Food Network Star finalists, I support you in pursuing your dreams. To all of us: Life is in session. It’s happening, and we are invited to take an active part.

In honor of Food Network Star, this week I’m sharing with you the chicken dish I made for my season’s finale, Four-Step Lemon-Onion Chicken.

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