Q&A: Winner of Next Food Network Star

By Kelly Dobkin  |  August 12, 2013
Credit: Food Network

As we announced earlier today (spoiler alert), Damaris Phillips is the most recent winner of Next Food Network star, beating out competitors Russell Jackson and Rodney Henry in last night's finale episode. Damaris hails from Louisville, KY, where she has worked at restaurants like 610 Magnolia, Harvest and Wiltshire Pantry but currently teaches at Jefferson Community and Technical College. We caught up with the newly crowned star this afternoon via phone to find out her thoughts on winning, plans for her upcoming show and how she hopes to change the world's perception of Southern food. Check out our chat below.

Zagat: Congratulations, first of all. How did it feel to hear your name called as the winner?
Damaris Phillips: It was overwhelming and the absolute best moment ever.

Zagat: A lot of the blogs were speculating that you were the favorite to win. Did you feel you had this one in the bag?
DP: Absolutely not. I tried pretty hard not to read a ton of the blogs, just because early on I had my feelings hurt and I didn’t want the outcome to be tainted. Inevitably, I ended up reading some of them and so when I read some that said I might be the favorite I got very very excited so I had to stop because I didn’t want to be disappointed in case it didn’t turn out that way. I wanted to be very proud of the work I had done, no matter if I won or not.

Zagat: What can you tell me if anything about your new show on Food Network?
DP: We are just in the very, very early stages of talking about it. We literally just filmed the finale a couple days ago. I’m really excited to start talking about the avenues we can start taking with it. I cannot wait to in some way showcase Southern food and my cooking style.

Zagat: Will it have anything to do with the Eat Date Love concept you presented on the show?
DP: I sure hope so. I hope that we'll talk more about that and I hope that’s a spot they need to fill and I hope that in whatever way it connects people and helps them love food and love each other. I hope that’s part of it, but we’ll have to see.

Zagat: What was the most difficult challenge for you this season?
DP: Probably that first challenge at Burger Bash. It was not chartered for me in the beginning because and I was trying to figure out who they wanted me to be. Like anyone, you go up and people are watching you and there are a lot of different layers to every person. In 30 seconds you’re trying to reveal the layers that you think you want to see. That was very very difficult to me.

Zagat: What was the hardest piece of criticism to hear about yourself during the show?
DP: It was really hard for me to hear that I was always being flirty, or using "being sexy" as a way to connect with people. I think of myself as just a really friendly person but I think that was really important to be brought to my attention. So I appreciate that, because it did make me more aware of how I present myself. It’s embarrassing to think that you’re not always appropriate or charming or not classy. It’s not awesome to look at but it helps you grow.

Zagat: Which mentor was the most influential for you?
DP: I had an "a-ha moment" with each of them. But I think who stood out most for me was Alton [Brown]. I have always loved the way that he approached food as a teacher and the way he was experimental and a scientist about it. Because I teach, I really identified with him so much and wanted to be able to impress him.

Zagat: Would you ever open your own restaurant?
: I'd like to have my own events space. Restaurants are tricky. They can be a great opportunity but they are hard and I really really love the way when you have a celebration food is always part of it. So I’d like to have a space where I can help people celebrate the big moments in their lives - weddings, anniversaries etc.  

Zagat: What do you hope to teach America about Southern food that they may not know?

DP: I hope to help people understand better how Southern food isn’t always chicken-fried steak and gravy. I think that traditionally, Southern food, while it has meat in it, has always played second fiddle to all of the amazing produce. We have the longest growing season and we get such a variety of fruits and vegetables that it fosters us having really interesting preserving techniques. Because you have a lot of great land and you get to raise stuff in a way that is kind and conscientious, it produces better products, ie, a better pig. A happy pig is a better pig. And because we have such great products we can make beautiful sausages and the cheeses being made in the South are just remarkable. I want people to understand the sophistication of the South and not just the generic perception.

Zagat: Your hometown of Louisville has really stepped into the national restaurant spotlight lately. Do you feel that it's finally getting the attention it deserves?
Every time I travel anywhere in the South I am amazed by how remarkable the food is. Louisville is phenomenal for chefs and food culture. People really love and respect food - it gets a lot of praise and attention and a lot of spotlight and it should be that way everywhere in the South. I am glad that Kentucky in general is breaking out of the stereotype of "barefoot, no teeth." I could not be happier.