from our partnerLightWorkers Guest
written byMelissa d’Arabian
Excerpted with permission from Tasting Grace.
Nearly a decade after I’d arrived in France and discovered my love of food and how God was connected to the ingredients, I arrived on the set of The Next Food Network Star, having no idea that I was in for a continuation of those lessons I learned in Paris. Back then, the show followed the classic reality show format, where life in “the house” was a big part of the episodes. We were mic’d and filmed much of the day, even outside the cooking challenges. The first thing filmed was each contestant arriving at the house, meeting the other competitors, answering questions about their backgrounds, and appearing to look interested.
But as later on-camera interviews confirmed, we were primarily sizing up our competition: How good were the other chefs? And how many safe weeks did we have before the real competition kicked in?
I had watched enough reality television (or “documentaries,” as I like to call them) to know what I was getting myself into. Reality shows cast certain archetypes.
A few hours into filming, I figured it out: I was the well-meaning but underqualified suburban housewife from Texas. I would be the kindhearted mom of four kiddos in diapers, bumbling around in a commercial kitchen for the first time. All of this was technically true, but from my perspective, these were all merely elements of my life experience, not the entirety of who I was. It never occurred to me that I would be defined this way, both by the viewers and by my fellow contestants. In a casual conversation during one of our many van rides to a challenge, I mentioned having visited Thailand before moving to Paris for my job with Disney. You’d have thought I said I’d traveled to the moon. The other contestants were shocked that this suburban, diaper-bag-carrying mom had traveled beyond the borders of Costco and Babies “R” Us. That I had an MBA and a pre-baby, decade-long career in finance was another mindblower.
On that first morning we headed to the Food Network Kitchen, where we met the judges and stood shoulder to shoulder in a lineup while the cameras captured them sizing us up in awkward silence. Glancing out of the corners of my eyes, I glimpsed a huge commercial kitchen that looked nothing like mine at home, and the contestants included incredibly talented individuals—one was the official cook for a major league sports team and another had opened thirty restaurants across the country. I was more than a little overwhelmed. I felt sure I would be the first elimination. Maybe I was just a token baby bottom–wiping addition to the show.
We received our first challenge right away: make a dish for a large party celebrating Food Network’s sweet sixteen. I made mini apple tarts with a butter crust that my mother-in-law had taught me the first year Philippe and I were together. I’d never made pie (or anything) for a hundred people before. I multiplied my pastry recipe in my head and hoped for the best. As I carefully counted the many cups of flour and poured them into the gigantic Food Network food processor, Bobby Flay stopped by my station to chat, per standard reality-cooking-TV-show operating procedure: “What are you making? Are you afraid you might not have enough time? I’ll leave you to it!” This was the first time I’d ever spoken to him, unless you count the time only a few months earlier when I stood in line for hours at Williams-Sonoma to get his autograph on his cookbook, and I’d had zero chill. (I still have that photo of our first meeting—adoring fan and television star!) And I had zero chill now, meeting Bobby again while I was cooking on his show.
Were my hands even moving and adding flour to the monster-sized food processor as he spoke to me? I had no idea. I’d completely lost track of where I was in my recipe, which in baking spells catastrophe. When Bobby walked away, I looked at the mound of flour and butter and had no idea about how much of what I needed next. I had a moment of reckoning: Was I going to fall apart and go under? The answer was in the bowl of the food processor: focus on the food, the ingredients. And that answer was from the same God who had shown Himself in the ingredients every time I cooked. Let the baking ratios guide me—sure, especially in baking—but rely on the food itself to tell me what it needed to shine. I dug my hands into that dough (I removed the blade—safety first!) and felt my way through, deciding if it needed a little more flour or butter. I was, after all, a creator, and touching the dough connected me back to my Creator.
I created tarts for a hundred people, and Bobby and Giada praised the pastries as one of the best dishes of the night. I was elated to make it to a second week, but more than that, I was relieved to have found my footing in something solid: God. This served me throughout the entire seven weeks of filming.
“Trust the ingredients” became my mantra.
I found God to be my rock; reliable in a strange, unpredictable world. I wrote prayers of gratitude to Him at night, and during the day I fought my nerves by attempting to find Him in the food displayed on tables for us by the Food Network culinary department. I focused hard on the God who created the greens that sat there unassuming and ready to be transformed by a food challenge. I was deliberate about finding God through the food I made each day with nothing but His ingredients to inspire me—no recipes, no slips of paper, no internet, not even a magazine or book to read at night. The food is what got me through, the food is what invited me to create, and the food is what settled me and made me feel okay and worthy of my point of view when compared against the fancy plating and swooshes from chefs using ingredients I’d never seen sold in a Safeway. I adjusted to the emotional rhythms, clung to God and I finally stopped trying to guess what was ahead.
Just get to the ingredients, because God is there, I told myself. As I learned to trust that God would fill my creator’s well abundantly, the fear of running out of ideas subsided. Trusting the creator in me was one of the greatest gifts I received from being on The Next Food Network Star.
Embodying home cooking at its finest, Melissa d’Arabian naturally connects with today’s diverse families to offer unique yet relatable food and lifestyle solutions that are part of a bigger story about how to eat well, be a mindful consumer, and spend with purpose. d’Arabian won season 5 of “The Next Food Network Star”, subsequently hosted “Ten Dollar Dinners,” and is the New York Times bestselling author of Ten Dollar Dinners: 140 Recipes and Tips to Elevate Simple, Fresh Meals Any Night of the Week. Melissa and her family live just outside San Diego.