Forget love on Valentine’s Day. Food Network’s All Star Academy is a battle field, with amateur chefs (aka “students”) duking it out for a chance to win $50,000. Before the reality competition’s 10 p.m. premiere Sunday, we spoke to local contestant Zoe Kelly, a food blogger (ZoeKelly.com) and University of Central Florida alum who lives in North Miami Beach.
Why did you want to appear on this show?
Being on Food Network has always been a dream of mine since I was little. I grew up watching Emeril Lagasse and being fascinated by every dish he made. Early last year, I wrote down goals I wanted to achieve, and auditioning for one of the [FN] shows was one of them. I wanted to push myself as a home cook and see how my skills matched up to others. When I saw the opportunity to be on All Star Academy, it was almost as if the universe heard me. It’s the biggest validation a home cook can have.
What has the experience been like?
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So surreal. There were moments where I literally thought I was dreaming. I couldn’t believe I had the privilege to cook with some amazing tools and ingredients against some amazing home cooks and have a huge mentor coach me one on one. Working with Alex Guarnaschelli, Curtis Stone, Robert Irvine and Andrew Zimmern was an out-of-body experience. I watch them on TV all the time, and to see them in front of me for the first time was insane!
What was the biggest takeaway?
I’ve learned so much — not only culinary-wise, but I’ve also gotten some great life lessons. One is to truly believe in myself and stand by my choices. What I love most about this show is that it’s meant to build you up, not break you down. All the contestants truly have a respect and admiration for one another. It was a great, positive environment that allowed for some major creativity.
Do you have a signature dish?
It’s a traditional Venezuelan pabellón, which is shredded beef (also called ropa vieja) that has been cooked for two to three hours, along with black beans that I make with peppers and some smoky cumin, white rice, served with plantains. I haven’t been able to see my family since I left my [native] Venezuela, so every time I make pabellón, it always brings me home.
How would you describe your cooking style?
I bring the same flavors your abuela or mom made when you were growing up, but with a different presentation or spin. I love Latin food; the flavors are just as big as our culture. And I love that I have the privilege to share that with the world.
What will you do if you win the grand prize?
I would help my mom pay off her house and take her on vacation. My mother is the reason why I’m in this country. She made so many sacrifices growing up for my sister and I to be able to live the American Dream. I feel as if it’s my turn to pay it back to her and take care of her for once in my life.