Culinary competitions are difficult for even the most-skilled chefs in the business, as past seasons of Food Network Star have proved. But for the young cooks — really, really young ones, in fact — who took on the challenge of Food Network Star Kids this season, the contest was not only doable but actually fun. Mentors Donal Skehan and Tia Mowry challenged the 10 eager recruits to six weeks of camera and kitchen challenges, each designed to ready them for the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to star in their own Web series on FoodNetwork.com. Tonight the top-three hopefuls — Amber, Isaiah and Liam — faced-off in a final showdown, before one of them earned the coveted title of Food Network Star Kid.
If you haven’t watched the episode yet, don’t read any further until you do. We’re about to chat with the winner in an exclusive interview.
What was going through your mind when you found out that you’d won?
Amber Kelley: At first honestly I thought they were joking or I was dreaming. It didn’t really click; it still hasn’t. I started crying, and then Tia and Donal were looking at me. I was like, wait, I think I actually did it. And I was hugging Tia and Donal, and I was so grateful and so — I was really proud of myself that I, well, honestly, that I’d made it that far. But the fact that I actually did it, like, the entire point of the competition was to win, and I actually did it. It was just so amazing and shocking, and I’m still not really processing it yet.
Why was it so important to you and meaningful to win this competition?
AK: I think winning this competition was different mainly because I grew up watching Food Network, and being able to say I’m the first Food Network Star Kid is incredible. It’s basically like my dream coming true, ’cause I used to pretend to be a Food Network Star all the time, and it didn’t really occur that I could actually make that dream come true until now.
What do you think your friends and family are going to say when they find out you won?
AK: I’ve been thinking about what my friends and family are going to say. Honestly, I think they’re going to cry. I know my grandma is going to flip out, ’cause she gets so into it.
Is this the same grandma who inspired you to make the okonomiyaki, which the judges loved, in Week 4?
AK: No, this is my other grandma. The grandma who inspired me to do that, I think she’s going to freak out, too, but she’s also going to be a little bit confused because English is her second language, so it’s going to take her a while, but when she gets it, she’s going to be like, oh, my gosh!
The mentors were wowed by your performance in your finale sizzle reel. Did you do anything different in this final presentation that you hadn’t done before?
AK: I feel like in the finale I was really trying to be myself ’cause I was like: “There is no way I’m going to sound rehearsed. That cannot happen. No way.” So, I was trying to relax, and at that time I feel like I had sort of gotten to know all the producers and camera people, so it felt way more natural, rather than the first week, where I was like, I have no idea who this person is and I have to talk to them. And so it was more relaxed for me; it was fun. I love Whole Foods — I’m there a lot. So that was really fun to be there, and also I was speaking about stuff I knew and stuff I loved, so it just sort of came naturally, and it was fun.
Aside from winning, what was the proudest moment in the competition for you?
AK: I think my proudest moment throughout the competition was either when I did my Facebook Live, because I had never done that before and I was kind of thrown into it, just like here you go, and so either that, finding out that I had done OK, ’cause I was expecting to fail, honestly, I was really not excited for that, and also in the episode where I made okonomiyaki, I think that was probably my proudest moment. … I grew up eating that, and having a recipe that I got from my nana and being able to make that and do good in that challenge was so awesome, especially because I know she’s going to watch that episode and be like: “Oh, my gosh, that’s my recipe.” … So, I think that was my proudest moment for sure.
Was there one “aha” moment in the competition — something that suddenly clicked and helped you realized what you needed to do well?
AK: I think the one thing I mainly learned, sort of my “aha” moment, was laughing. So, for me, I laugh all the time. My friends know this. I can’t have a serious conversation very well; it’s kind of hard. So, I feel like in my camera presentations, if I was just laughing and being myself, that sort of clicked, realizing that’s how I’m not rehearsed. I just have to laugh, ’cause that makes it sound like myself, and so I kind of tried to ramp it up each time, and I guess it worked because I wasn’t rehearsed in the finale, thank goodness.
What’s the greatest piece of advice Donal or Tia gave you?
AK: I think the greatest piece of advice Tia and Donal gave me was, when I made my quinoa with roasted veggies, they told me to be myself, and even though I am going to be going up against fried foods and all that crazy stuff, I need to stick to what I do. And I’m trying to think of the exact words Donal said. He said, like, be true to yourself and everything will work out, or something like that. And, so, that was just, not a realization, ’cause I sort of already knew that, but hearing it from him and from Tia was kind of like, oh, OK, I actually need to do that.
How did you handle the nerves of this competition? It’s such a big deal to be here!
AK: Handling nerves is a big problem for me. I’m always nervous, whether it’s presenting a Spanish presentation at school or doing a camera presentation on Food Network Star Kids. I think mainly what I had to do was just go into it knowing the base of what I had to say or what I want to cook, and then also having fun for me is the key, because if I don’t have fun I will sound like a robot and I will panic and probably not do very good. So, I just had to make sure I was having fun and everything would not crash and burn. I mean, it may not go perfect, but at least I did my best.
What did you learn about yourself in doing this competition?
AK: I think I learned about myself, well, one, I can be not rehearsed. That’s, like, a main thing that I had to figure out throughout the entire competition, and also that if I really work hard for something I can do it, ’cause I went into the competition thinking, “Oh, it’d be cool to win, and I can do it.” But then there’s always a part of you that’s like, “Well, I mean, everyone else is thinking the same thing.” So actually being able to say … I actually did it, like, I’m the one person that did it, I think I realized that I can do things if I put my mind to it.
Tell me a little bit about your culinary POV of fresh, light foods. Why is it important to you; why is it yours?
AK: So, I’m all about fresh, wholesome, good-quality foods, mainly because that’s the food I grew up eating, and I know that if you eat those foods it can have a huge impact on your life, ’cause it makes you smarter, stronger, makes you genuinely feel better, you do better in school and sports — all that. And it’s delicious, and I want people to know that. So, I think that’s one of my main goals is to show people that those foods can be delicious, and so growing up with that, like I said, I like to cook foods I like eating, and so all the recipes I made in the competition I would personally eat, and I just wanted to show people it was delicious, and so I think that’s where I adopted that food personality a little bit, and also that’s the food me and my mom and sister and dad all eat at home, and so I’m used to it, and I love it.
To whom or what do you credit your first passion for cooking?
AK: I’ve got to say my mom was the one who taught me how to cook. I grew up cooking with her. It was sort of something we just did together; I didn’t think much about it. I enjoyed it. I mainly enjoyed it ’cause I got to eat afterwards. But I would just help out, maybe dump something in a bowl or turn on the food processor. So, she taught me how to do those things, and as I sort of found a love for it, she would teach me more and more. So, I’ve got to say my mom. She was the main component to my culinary journey, as you might put it.
Would you say she was your culinary mentor?
AK: I would say that partially because she’s always saying, “Oh, I’m only a home cook, I’m only a home cook.” She doesn’t have any professional experience. So part of it, yes, she did teach me how to cook, but also I’ve learned from chefs like Jamie Oliver, Rachael Ray, Guy Fieri, now I can say Tia and Donal. So I think a combination of all of those people has sort of made me who I am today.
How would you explain to kids watching at home what you went through and what this whole experience was like?
AK: This experience was honestly the biggest roller coaster you could possibly imagine. I mean, they would throw us into some challenges, we’d have no idea what was going on, and so people were always so nervous and there was lots of tears, lots of laughs. We were all very loud. I’m sure everyone who was working on this series was probably sick of hearing us by the end of it ’cause we were so loud. But all in all it was just so much fun. I mean, I made nine friends, and I got to cook. I mean, that’s, like, the best thing that could possibly happen.
To the kid who’s watching at home — and they’re like “That looks so cool; I think I want to start cooking” — what advice would you give? What’s the first thing they should do?
AK: I would say the first thing you should do is cook something you love eating, and I always say that because if you cook, let’s say you could be extremely proud of cooking snails, but if you hate snails you’re probably not going to want to cook as much as, let’s say, your favorite food is pasta and you make a pasta dish. You’ll have more fun with it, so you’ll want to keep going. So cook foods you love, and also if you’re a total beginner, don’t go into it trying to make creme brulee or something. Start basic. Maybe make … tomato sauce or something, ’cause that way you won’t feel as frustrated and you won’t give up as easily. So, start with the basics and work your way up.
What do you want to say to Donal and Tia for getting you here and preparing you for the next step?
AK: To Donal and Tia, just thank you, thank you, thank you. It was such an honor to be mentored by you. They were so awesome, honestly. They would keep us laughing when we weren’t filming, and they would try to calm our nerves, ’cause it is stressful — I’m not going to lie. It’s terrifying at moments, and they gave us good feedback to work on, which is the main point of this competition. Win or lose, everyone learned something. So, I definitely want to say thank you to Tia and Donal for that ’cause they taught me so much in those episodes.
Click the play button on the video below to watch the first episode of Amber’s web series, Kids Menu Makeover, then check out the other two episodes here.