In a city like New York, you’d have to be blind not to have a few celebrity sightings and I’ve come across my share of them over the years. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when my daughter and I bumped into Melissa D’Arabian at the Chelsea Market a few weeks ago. She’s the winner of this season’s “The Next Food Network Star,” filmed in the same building as the market, and the host of “Ten Dollar Dinners,” a series that airs on the East coast at 12:30 p.m. on Sundays on The Food Network.
Melissa, who lived in France and worked in the corporate world before starting a family, is just as down-to-earth and likeable in person as she is on the screen. A few weeks after our encounter, the 40-year-old mother of four girls (all under four!) graciously granted Ciao Chow Linda an interview by phone from her home in Kirkland, Washington.
Q. What was the hardest thing about competing on the show, especially against some people who were professional chefs?
A. I think when I first arrived, I let the resumes of the people around me intimidate me. The power for me was to look at my own experience of what I bring to the table and celebrate that - my own experiences as a stay-at-home mom and a working parent. I think that’s how I ended up winning “The Next Food Network star and what “Ten Dollar Dinners” is, as a result of those strategies.
Q. Do you think your experience in the corporate world helped you win the competition?
A. Yes. My experiences of working 80 hours a week and having dinner party for girlfriends on a Thursday night absolutely feed into “Ten Dollars Dinners.” That was very much my life and informs my culinary point of view and experience. In terms of helping me through “The Next Food Network Star,” perhaps it enabled me to depersonalize the feedback. They were constructive criticisms, but the evaluations lasted about 5 hours. Having come from corporate world, I took that feedback as a professor telling me what to do to earn an “A” on an exam.
It was a fantastic opportunity. When do I as a 40-year-old women have the attention and thought of people who are so well respected in our field, thinking about just us? It’s the best tuition-free school you’ll ever get. I really think they were our biggest cheerleaders. They gave some feedback that can be hard to hear but it was all very fair.
Q. What’s the best thing about having won “The Next Food Network Star?”
A. Getting to do “Ten Dollar Dinners” and being able to expand the platform for sharing information and ideas that have worked in my own kitchen. That’s the best part. I love to hear from people across the U.S. who connect with me on some level.
Q. What advice do you have for someone who might want to try out for the Next Food Network Star?
A. Absolutely know who you are, what you’re about and what you bring to the table and draw on that. This is what I call playing a game you can win. If you’re not winning the game you put out there you need to change your game. What I bring to the table is having four children under four, and having been a career woman. That’s what I call a game I can win. That’s what I needed to focus on. You have to be true to who you are.
Q. With two-year-old twins, a three-year old, and a four-year old, was it difficult to be away from your family for the six weeks or so of shooting the competition?
A. It was tricky but my husband and I are very much partners. We take our roles very seriously. We think about our guiding principles and as a family think about what do we want our mark on this world to be. We’re very big-picture focused. Going on “The Next Food Network Star” very much fit into the life plan. It was worth the sacrifice. There aren’t a lot of things out there where I’d leave my kids for a month.
In the middle of the interview (conducted at 6:30 a.m. her time) her oldest daughter woke up early and scurried to find her mother. A few minutes later, a little crying could be heard in the distance, as another one of Melissa’s daughters scampered to find her. I’m including a little of Melissa’s response, which I couldn’t help overhearing and which demonstrates what a really thoughtful person she is.. This TV cooking show host is not only a real working mom, dealing with situations that real moms deal with all the time, but she does it with a gentle approach, kindness and plenty of love, as you can deduce from her remarks to her daughters:
“Did you wake up and not know where everybody was? Want to go snuggle with Daddy? No? What’s wrong sweetie? You want to sit on my lap too? You’ll have to share a lap - or no lap – you choose.
I’ve got my two big girls on my lap right now. Everybody can stay as long as we’re quiet.”
Back to the interview:
Q. Where do you get inspiration for your recipes?
A. It is often about what is in my refrigerator and pantry. Sometimes I have to get food on the table and there’s not time to go to the grocery store. Also it’s driven a lot by what is on sale at the grocery store, especially the produce and proteins. Over the last eight or nine months, I’ve been cooking more to experiment. After the kids have gone to bed, I like to create new things.
Q. Would you say you have a signature dish?
I probably lean on my four-step chicken more than anything else (recipe below). I make it all the time, but switch it up with different ingredients. The dishes on “Ten Dollar Dinners” are exactly what I cook for my family.
Q.How much influence does having lived in France and being married to a Frenchman have on your cooking?
A. Moving to Paris really added another layer to my cooking. Cooking in Paris is very ingredient-driven. Cooking there is very much about going into the markets, asking the butcher and the produce people what’s fresh, what’s best today. In terms of a cuisine style, French cooking has definitely influenced my cooking more than any other because I lived there and I have family there.
Q. What language do you speak at home with the children?
A. My husband only speaks French with them. When he’s around we speak in French with them. When it’s just me, I speak English with them. When native parents speak their native languages, the kids develop the right accent. We may switch in the future to speak French in the home and English outside the home. But while they are developing their skills, it’s helpful for them to hear the native tongue.
Q. How do you combine family life with taping the show? How long does it take to tape an episode of “Ten Dollar Dinners?”
A. I taped all six episodes at once. I was gone for little over a week. It’s the perfect job. I do what I need to do in New York, then the second I’m done with work, I’m back to Seattle to see my family. I’m joining the ranks of millions of working parents, but I confess I’m pretty lucky.
Q. You moved from Texas to Washington about six weeks ago. Why?
A. It’s unrelated to anything in terms of “The Next Food Network Star.” My husband (who works for Microsoft) got a great offer and we decided to go.
Q. What’s the best thing you ever ate?
A. Fries in Belgium with mayonnaise. One of the best things I’ve every had. I’m not even a salty food fanatic. But something about it all together in Belgium really works.
Q. If you could choose what to have as your last meal, what would it be?
A. It wouldn’t really matter, I would just want to be with my family.
printable version of recipe, click here
Melissa D’Arabian’s Four-Step Chicken
- 4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, sliced in half crossways (butterflied, cut all the way through)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme, plus 1 small bunch fresh thyme, leaves chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup white wine, optional
- 1 cup chicken broth
- 3 lemons, juiced
- 1 to 2 tablespoons butter
- Spinach "bed", recipe follows
Season chicken with dried thyme and salt and pepper. Heat a large saute pan over medium heat and add the oil. Dredge the chicken in flour, add to the hot oil and saute until cooked through. Set chicken aside to rest on plate tented with foil.
In same saute pan, over low heat, add onions and fresh thyme and cook until aromatic.
In a measuring cup, measure out wine, if using, and broth, and add the lemon juice. Turn the heat up to high, and deglaze the pan with the broth mixture until starting to reduce.
Remove the pan from the heat and finish the sauce by whisking in butter. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Place a bed of cooked spinach on a serving platter, top with the chicken. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and serve.
- 1 bag pre-washed fresh spinach
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Microwave spinach in a microwave-proof dish with a few tablespoons of water on high for 5 to 6 minutes, or until hot. Drain, and toss with butter, lemon juice, and salt and pepper, to taste.