Food Network Star Winner Damaris Phillips Talks Paula Deen and Her Vision of Southern Food: 'It's Not Just Fried Meats and Gravy'
The 32-year-old Kentucky native recalls watching an early season of Food Network Star and deciding it would be an ideal career option, given her addiction to cooking. She applied to culinary school soon after.
“I literally enrolled [at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, KY] because I thought it was one of the necessary steps in order to be on Food Network Star,” says Phillips, who eventually scored a teaching job at her alma mater, and then went on to follow in the footsteps of Guy Fieri and Melissa D’Arabian by taking home the Season 9 crown. “My journey was never hard, it just happened. From the second I held a knife, from the second I was in culinary school, it’s all felt too good to be true. ‘This cannot be my job, my life. Somebody has to be kidding with me!’”
TVLine caught up with Phillips to talk about what was the best dish she made during her Food Network Star run, why she embraces kitchen disasters and how she feels about unofficially taking over her channel’s title as southern-food expert from disgraced host Paula Deen.
TVLINE | After 11 weeks of having cooking challenges thrown your way, I have to ask, are you actually a fan of experimenting in the kitchen?
Always. My favorite way to cook is to look in my cabinets and see what I have. That’s the most fun. “I don’t have tomatoes, but I have this chili-garlic sauce from the Asian grocery store. Let’s throw that in there and see how it affects my beef barley soup!” [Laughs] And the best part about teaching is, you have 25 people in a class and they all want to be chefs, and they’re all really creative. So I’ll teach them to make croissants, and the next day they come in with ideas they’ve been thinking about all night: “Chef, what would happen if we changed this or that, or used coconut oil instead of butter?” A lot of times I’ll say, “I don’t know, let’s try it!” I get to dictate the lessons, so I find myself saying, “This sounds interesting. Let’s push ourselves.”
TVLINE | To dabble with the unknown also means you end up with the occasional disaster. Do you embrace that, too?
If you always made everything perfectly, you would never know how to teach. Part of being a really good chef or cook is being able to fix disasters. You want to have a respect for ingredients and — as much as you can — not be wasteful. One of my favorite recipes is a “Burnt Peanut Cookie.” I accidentally burnt the peanuts I was using, and I didn’t have any more, so I was like, “Well, let’s just taste ‘em.” And they were pretty good. [Laughs] So now I intentionally burn the peanuts to go on my peanut butter cookies because it adds a smoky flavor that balances everything out — because sometimes peanut butter cookies are too sweet.
TVLINE | When did you finish filming the bulk of Season 9 — up to the point you made your pilot pitch?
We finished filming in March.
TVLINE | So as you shot your pilot, the whole Paula Deen imbroglio — which happened this June — wasn’t even in play. But now here you are, perhaps trying to fill a gap on Food Network as the voice of southern cooking. Is that daunting? Exciting?
I am very, very excited to talk about my version of southern cooking. Even when Paula Deen was on the network, I thought there was a place for my version of the south. I really believe I have something to say. I make my food in such a way that people can eat it every single day. My dad passed away from a heart attack, so it’s always been very important for me to make food I love, the food we made growing up, but in a way that it won’t be harmful to my body or to the people I love. Just as long as it’s not boring. It has to be flavorful and delicious.
TVLINE | There were always some complaints that Paula Deen didn’t capture the diversity or complexity of southern food anyway.
I just feel southern cuisine has been misinterpreted. Everyone thinks of it as fried meats and gravy — chicken-fried steak with gravy on top. But growing up, we didn’t eat a lot of meat. It was too expensive. And if you look at southern food, it’s not super meat-heavy. It is very, very vegetable-heavy. If you think of greens, it has flavorings, leftover parts like a ham hock or a little bit of bacon to flavor the greens, but the bounty was the greens.
And oh, the cheeses. When you go to the farmer’s market in Nashville or Atlanta, what people are making — the cured meats, the beautiful diverse squash, the different heirloom tomatoes, it is astounding. I want to look at how abundant the harvests are in the south, what we grew up with as our southern food, and introduce people to that.
TVLINE | The sample pilot you shot for Food Network Star was Eat, Date, Love — with the idea being that you’d show hapless bros how to win over women’s hearts with southern recipes. We all know, though, the Food Network Star winner’s eventual series can change in concept. What will happen with yours?
There definitely will be conversations, since we just finished the finale. We’ll see if that’s the best idea or if there’s a better way to utilize me. I just want to make sure I bring my point-of-view to the table.
TVLINE | Some TVLine readers complained the Eat, Date, Love concept was antiquated or maybe even sexist, since a lot of men are very good cooks. Did you envision a broader concept where you might not just focus on bros?
Absolutely! When you do a pilot, it’s just a little bitty snapshot of what could be done with it. I’m a big believer in the idea that food connects you to people. And so when I’ve loved somebody or had a crush on somebody, I’ve always used food to show that. And I’m a girl, and I love a good love story. So combining connection and showing people you care about them through food seemed very logical. Plus, when people think of being loved they think of comfort food, and when you think of comfort food, you think of southern food. But the concept could be opened up. I don’t want to exclude anybody. I’d love to have women on the show cooking for men, I’d love to have women on the show cooking for women, or even moms on cooking for their kids. I just really love to cook, and I love the idea of showing how we can use food to bring us together and be more loving.
TVLINE | Whatever your show turns out to be, though, it’ll have you in the kitchen, actually cooking, yes? Because I feel like that’s one of the main things people want to see from you.
I hope so. If I go a couple days without cooking, there is a burning inside of my stomach. I constantly get the question: “What’s your favorite thing to cook?” And what I always say is, “I’ve always been most excited about cooking somebody’s favorite food. Whatever your favorite food is, that’s what I want to cook for you.” I show affection through food. It calms me, it makes me feel grounded, it makes me feel connected to people. So I hope my show would reflect that.
TVLINE | What’s your favorite dish you cooked in the course of Food Network Star?
The cabbage with cauliflower and mango pickle [from the "Unusual Ingredient" challenge]. It’s a really good representation of what my food looks like at home and what I want to bring to Food Network. It’s a vegetarian dish, so it works for everyone. You’re adding an updated flavor profile to southern food. And you’re taking something traditionally Indian and bringing it to the southern setting.
When I make greens, I make them with miso instead of bacon. I’m happy any time you can make a food that’s delicious and yet doesn’t exclude people who are vegetarian, or eat gluten free, or have food allergies. Plus, there’s joy in a surprise element. The first time you make something, there’s always that sense of pride and excitement.
TVLINE | If you could have a do-over for one moment or recipe during the season, what would it be?
I would do over the burger presentation for sure. When I watch that one, I just cringe. I was so nervous, and I was grabbing people’s attention by being goofy and funny rather than by being an authority. I learned through the competition that it’s better to be a teacher with a sense of humor or a chef who’s quirky than to be a quirky girl who can cook or a funny woman who is also a teacher.
I know I can teach people, and I hope that gets utilized on my show. I’m a goofy, goofy woman. I am fun loving and I like to laugh, but the side of me that didn’t get shown as much is my serious, absolute love for and attention to detail about my craft. You don’t have to be a bummer to love something and take it seriously. I always wanna feel like my food is good, and when people eat it they will like it.
TVLINE | OK, so not every Food Network viewer watches Food Network Star. Give us your 30-second pitch for why they should watch your show when it debuts this fall.
I will absolutely help you fall in love with southern food. I will introduce you to the south in a way I don’t think people have seen before. But it’s also my intention to help you feel connected to people. So besides just learning how to cook, you’re going to remember why we cook, why it’s important to love people and to connect with people. So in the end you’re going to learn how to make a biscuit, but you’re going to also feel good about making that biscuit for somebody. Some people aren’t gonna like me, but I think I can grow on them. I’ll have to keep plugging away, and there may always be misperceptions about me. But if I’m true to who I am and make the food I love, eventually I’ll earn people’s respect.
TVLINE | So since you’ve brought up the idea of misconceptions, I feel like the fact that you’re a southern woman with a new show about to debut on Food Network means you’re also going to get the inevitable questions about racism in the kitchen. Because whether or not it has anything to do with you, the shadow of Paula Deen’s scandal and exit from the network still exits. Are you prepared for those questions, and do you dread that discussion?
I don’t dread questions like that because questions can open up to discussions. And the only way as a nation we’re going to become better and closer and stronger and more equal is to have that discussion. I don’t feel like I have anything to hide ever. I am blessed to have a diverse life, and it’s only made me and my family and our lives better.
TVLINE | Have you ever dealt firsthand with uncomfortable language in any of the kitchens where you’ve worked?
I have always tried to pick kitchens based on the chef, and one of the things that a good chef does is to be a good leader. And you’re never a good leader if you allow for any sort of prejudice or racism or negativity even to happen in your kitchen. You know, though, everybody at some point in their lives comes in contact with something that pushes us to be better people. So being a woman in the kitchen — where there are not always a ton of girls — I’ve heard comments about how I look and whatnot. [Those experiences] made me more compassionate and more aware of what happens for everyone I work with. I’m a caucasian woman, but it’s important for me to mindful of other people’s struggles — even if they’re not my struggles.
Excited about Damaris’ Food Network Star win? Have any ideas for what you’d like her series to look like? Sound off in the comments!Follow @MichaelSlezakTV