Last night, Kentucky culinary instructor Damaris Phillips was crowned the winner of season nine of The Next Food Network Star, and we all breathed a sigh of relief that she beat out Rodney "What the Hell Does 'Pie Style' Mean?" Henry. Because if it would have gone the other way, we might have boycotted Food Network out of spite. And that would mean giving up our precious Chopped episodes. And no one wants to live like that.
But the smiley Southern chef came out on top, so we had to hop on the phone to congratulate Damaris on her victory and talk about the shocking elimination of front-runner Stacey Poon-Kinney, how she really felt about the final three and what her main goal is as the next Food Network star:
Congratulations on the big win! How does it feel to finally have everyone know?
Damaris Phillips: It is amazing to not have a secret. The last six months I knew I was top three but I didn't know that I had won. It's been a while of knowing and just waiting and waiting and waiting. But the wait is over and it feels fantastic!
You had to wait six months?! Yikes. How did it feel filming that retrospective, where you basically had to sit there and wait for the results?
It was the hardest episode to film, because all the other episodes you were in it. You were in that world and you hadn't had time to think about, it was just happening so fast. But that one I had six months to think about not winning or winning…just not knowing. I could not anticipate how uncomfortable it was going to be to be sitting next to two people who were also equally nervous and may or may not win. I did not anticipate how that would feel.
You did look a little bit agitated, like you just wanted to get to the results quicker.
I was ready to know. [Laughs]. I was ready.
When you first started the competition, did you ever think you would make it to the final three?
No! No, no, no. I thought somebody had made a mistake! I remember walking in the first day thinking, "Oh, goodness. Somebody made a mistake. How did I get here?"
Just as an outsider, who would you have picked as the final three?
I definitely would have picked Nikki [Dinki] and Stacey; those two would have definitely been in there. I really thought Lovely was going to do very, very well. Also of course I thought Viet [Pham] was going to do well, but just because of his time on Iron Chef.
It's funny you should mention Stacey, because most viewers were shocked when she was eliminated. Were you also surprised with the final three?
Yes, it was very shocking, I thought. When we are in it, it's all too close for us to see. I know the remarkable person that Stacey is. I know how interesting and engaging she is. So it's really, really difficult for me to see her as anything except for this amazing, warm, charismatic woman who stands in front of me. But Rodney is, when you are around him, he is infectious. Absolutely just the most fun man alive. And so at the time I just remember thinking, "Stacey should be here." But then also thinking, "Rodney should be there," and also thinking, "Russell should be here." And then thinking, "Oh my god, maybe I shouldn't be here." It's just so hard to see when you're in it.
What was your favorite challenge of the season?
I really loved the donut challenge, where I got to work with Stacey and Nikki. I just thought those two women were so remarkable. And to be able to be on a team with them, I just finally felt like I could relax a little bit and have fun with them. Because I thought, "There is no way we're gonna lose! They're amazing!" So as long as I keep it together just a little bit, we have a chance at winning. So I was thrilled to be able to have fun.
Any least favorite challenges?
I did not love the beginning challenges because I just felt so unprepared. I did not love the burger bash. I remember getting up on stage and it just being a blur and not really understanding what people wanted or needed from me. And that is not ever fun, and getting feedback where you're not necessarily well-received is not favorable. [Laughs].
What was the best advice the mentors gave you?
Alton [Brown] at one point looked at me and just said, "You need to let go of the all the things that are not useful to you." Because I was always so nervous, and he said, "Nerves have a place. And sometimes they are helpful, but at this point, those are not helpful to you anymore. So you need to let go of that and you need to use the things that are helpful. And for you, being a teacher is the most helpful."
What is your end goal with your Food Network career?
I've thought about this a lot, figuring out when is enough, when is success. If it all ended now, I would feel proud of myself. But ultimately, I really would like to help people be more connected to food. I really would like to help people get back into the kitchen. I would like to help people cook more. I'd like to see kids learning to cook and families sitting down to dinner together. So whatever way I can do that and help people be more connected to each other and make people feel more present in real life, that's what I'll be doing.