En route to her Food Network Star Season 9 victory, Kentucky-born culinary instructor Damaris Phillips won over the judges and viewers alike with her quirky Southern charm and heart-on-her-sleeve openness.
So when Phillips looked positively subdued during the live season finale — and even after she was declared the winner — fans of her sunny style couldn’t help but wonder what was going through her mind. In a word, says Phillips, nothing.
“I just wanted to shut my eyes,” Phillips recalls. “I was like, ‘I’ll just close my eyes and when it happens I’ll know if I won or not if people are congratulating me or are like, I’m so sorry, buddy!
“The funniest thing is, whenever anybody says your mind goes completely blank — I have never had that happen ever before in my life,” she continues. “So I didn’t understand what people were talking about. I look back on it and I’m like, ‘I wasn’t thinking anything, nothing, at that moment when they said it. I had zero thoughts. I was just standing there. People were trying to talk to me and I had nothing to say!”
Phillips says reality finally sank when she fist walked onto the set of her new Food Network series Southern at Heart, in which she uses her natural teaching skills and “Southern food is the food of love” philosophy to help fledging cooks win over their loved ones with a tasty meal.
We talked with Phillips about the heart of her new show, her unique take on Southern cooking and her own first attempt at a romantic meal.
Channel Guide Magazine: Cooking for a loved one is such a lost art in this age of drive-thrus and restaurant reservations — but feeding someone really is the ultimate demonstration of caring for them. Are you just kind of thrilled to pieces to have a platform to reinvigorate that?
Damaris Phillips: Absolutely! And I think you phrased it better than I ever have, so I’m going to borrow that in the future!
You know, the hardest part about being on a competition show is they keep pushing — “What is your POV? What would your show be about?” — and it’s difficult to figure out exactly what you would want to say, or what you would want to invest your time in and could get behind for a long time. So I feel really fortunate that what I get to do is cook food that I love for with people who are trying to show love. I don’t think that ever goes out of style or ever gets old — because there is nothing negative about it. It feels good to be able to help people and to remind people that the best things in life involve other people.
And the other thing is, I remember things that my dad cooked really well or food that my mom cooked really well and it became a part of our life. It became a part of our tradition. It became a part of our family. And so while at this point it’s just a couple, if you start to build a family with this person, these recipes and these foods that you’re cooking can become a part of your family. And that feels incredible, to think that you teach a guy to make a chocolate cake and that becomes the chocolate cake that he makes for his kids, and then when his kids go to make a chocolate cake, that’s the one they’ll make and it goes on and on. And I think that’s the sweetest thing about recipes.
CGM: Your Facebook page is filled with people telling you that they feel like your very best friend just from watching you on Food Network Star. Is that kind of the heart of what you’re talking about with the motto of Southern at Heart?
DP: That always feels like the ultimate compliment to me! But then there is something about being open. There is something about the South where people are just very generous with their emotions and with their time that I hope I can do. I hope I am that way and that I let people in enough that they get to see the real me — because that’s what people like. That’s why they watch a show.
CGM: Describe for me the Damaris Phillips take on Southern food. What will we see you and your charges making on Southern at Heart?
DP: I grew up with a dad who is from Dalton, GA., so I got from him a really, really classic palate for Southern foods. Like, very, very classic. And then I had a mom who loved health food and international cuisine way before it was popular. So growing up, I had this kind of mesh of Dalton, GA., chicken fried steak and my mom’s tofu-and-nori-wrapped sushi. It was an interesting mix. And that’s what I think you see a lot in my cooking, is a combination of classic Southern food, but maybe with flavor profiles that you don’t expect in Southern food. Or sometimes a healthier take. My dad passed away from a heart attack, so I’m always trying to mindful of food that we can eat all the time.
The South has a beautiful harvest and tons of really special food — great meats, really nice cheeses, and vegetables and fruits are really just super-abundant and have always been the centerpiece of all of our dinners. I don’t think that people always know that in the South, vegetables and fruits are such an important part of our meals, so I would like to introduce people to that.
And the guys I’m working with are just the sweetest, most genuine guys who are genuinely excited about learning to cook for somebody they love. It’s super-humbling and really, really fun.
CGM: Bobby, Alton and Giada cited your natural abilities as a teacher for making you a natural on Food Network Star. Has that translated into actually having to cook for the cameras now, or are there moments where you’re trying to add an ingredient in camera-friendly fashion and going “agggggghhhhh”?!
DP: It’s definitely different than teaching. But thankfully I have this other person with me in the kitchen for every episode that is learning how to cook, because it really does make it easier for me to continue to just be a teacher. I think that if it was just me and the camera, I would lose the ability to really speak to people and teach to people.
But because I have this person who is with me and is like “Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa whoa! What do you mean by ‘julienne’?” the format just helps out so much.
CGM: Do you remember the first thing a gentleman ever cooked for you? The first thing you ever cooked for a gentleman?
DP: The first thing a gentleman ever cooked for me was there was a guy when I was 20 — he was my first love — and I worked at a coffee shop and he had a crush on me. So he made chocolate chip cookies for me and brought them into the coffee shop and just dropped them off and left. He was like, “Here, I made you these.” And then he just left. I remembered just being floored!
And then the first thing I cooked for a gentleman was senior prom. The first time I was trying to mack on a honey with food was, instead of going out to eat, my best friend was a guy and we decided to make food for our dates. So we made spaghetti and we got some heart-shaped pastas [laughs]. Now it seems so incredibly cheesy, it’s even painful to mention! We had rose petals on the table. You know, it was prom, so at the time, it seemed magical!
CGM: Might we see heart-shaped spaghetti with rose petals resurrected on Southern at Heart?
DP: You never know! I just might run out of ideas and have to upgrade that one!
CGM: Before I let you go, your Twitter profile says that you are a karaoke superstar. What’s your go-to song?
DP: Well, part of being a karaoke superstar is that I never like to do one song too many times. I always try to do something new every time I go. Right now, my favorite is “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse. And my other favorite is Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” But I have a whole list — I probably have 50 songs. I could go on and on!
Southern at Heart airs Sundays at 10:30am ET on Food Network. The show will also air Wednesdays at 5:30pm ET beginning Nov. 6.
Images/video: Food Network