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Rogers & Cowan, Valerie Phillips
Kelsey Nixon on the set of Cooking Channel's show "Kelsey's Essentials" and she recently presented at the Pillsbury Bake-Off in Orlando.
We believe in the power of food, how it can build stronger families and communities. —Kelsey Nixon

ORLANDO — Kelsey Nixon, star of the Cooking Channel's "Kelsey's Essentials," wants you to sit down and eat dinner with your family. On her show, she not only shares cooking skills, but memories of her Utah family's mealtime traditions. The Brigham Young University grad even introduced Bobby Flay to some of Utah's signature foods, such as the pastrami burger and fry sauce.

Nixon was a guest at the Pillsbury Bake-Off in Orlando, where she did a media seminar on the importance of family mealtime. She talked about the "magic" that happens at the table when the whole family sits down to eat together.

"We believe in the power of food, how it can build stronger families and communities," Nixon told the 50 food journalists at the seminar, which was sponsored by Smucker's. "I grew up in a home where family mealtime was very important, and it affected me so much."

She referred to some of the research in a book, "The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes You Smarter, Stronger, Healthier, and Happier," by Miriam Weinstein.

According to Weinstein, regularly eating an ordinary, every-day supper with your family is strongly linked to emotional stability and lower incidence of teenage drug and alcohol use. It correlates with kindergarteners being better prepared to learn to read. It discourages both obesity and eating disorders. It supports a connection to your extended family, your ethnic heritage and your community of faith. It will help children and families to be more resilient when life throws curves and arrows.

"My mother worked full-time, and yet she came home and prepared a home-cooked meal nearly every day," Nixon said. "Instead of looking at it as drudgery, she considered it a hobby and almost therapeutic after a day of work. Her attitude and approach to cooking is what made me fall in love with cooking in the first place."

On Sundays, her extended family would get together for dinner at her grandmother's house. "There would be 40 or 50 relatives, all eating together," she said.

Nixon paid homage to that tradition in a recent episode of "Kelsey's Essentials" that highlighted some of her grandmother's classic recipes. She even used her grandmother's roasting pot that that has been passed down through several generations.

Nixon recognizes there are many challenges to getting the family together, such as busy schedules, or maybe parents who don't enjoy cooking. If seven nights of family mealtime is impossible, she said, set a goal for a few nights a week at least.

"Remember that the most important aspect of family dinner is the people with which you are sharing it," Nixon said. "You may have to order pizza, but you are still sitting down together. Family meals are something I want to carry on as my husband and I have children and raise our family."

She and husband, Robby Egan, now live in New York City where they don't have family around them. But they have their "city family" of good friends that come together for Sunday dinner.

"Families come in all shapes and sizes. It can be a traditional family, or this idea that you rely on close friends as your family," she said. "It's the idea of sharing a meal together and togetherness and talking about things that are most important."

Lack of space can be another challenge. Her New York apartment is just 700 square feet, but they have someone how managed to cram in 18 of their friends for their "city family" dinners. This is when a menu of foods that can easily be juggled on laps is important.

"I have to store my pots and pans in my oven, and I have to take them all out and put them on the bed every time I use it," she said.

And no, that loft apartment where "Kelsey's Essentials" is filmed isn't Nixon's.

"We wanted it to look like I was inviting people into my own home," she said. "Unfortunately, I don't live there, but maybe someday."

While it appears that the 27-year-old was an "overnight success," the truth is she has packed a lot of experience into a few short years. The North Ogden native got her first taste of food TV as a broadcast journalism major at BYU. She started a start in TV cooking while a student at BYU. She started a cooking show, "Kelsey's Kitchen," emphasizing fast, fun and affordable college meals.

"There's no book written about how to become a cooking show host, but I wanted to figure out," she said. "I lured people in with free food. I was trying to score some dates as well."

After graduation, she attended culinary school in Hollywood while working as a private chef for a family. She also packed in internships with Martha Stewart Living and the Food Network's "Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee."

Then she auditioned for the reality series, "The Next Food Network Star." The chefs compete in nerve-wracking challenges, with the grand prize being their own series on the Food Network.

"I had no idea of what I was getting into — the million-dollar experience you would never pay a dollar to be in again," she joked.

She made it to the final four of the 2008 competition, and viewers voted her the fan favorite of the show.

That summer, she married Robby Egan of Sandy. The two met while at BYU before Egan left on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When he graduated in advertising, the couple moved to New York City to pursue their careers.

"Bobby Flay became a great mentor to me," Nixon said.

The Food Network put her on their "farm team." When the network created the Cooking Channel, Flay could see the possibilities for Nixon, and his Rock Shrimp Productions became her show's producer.

On a recent episode, Nixon learned burger-making tips from Flay at his restaurant, Bobby's Burger Palace. In turn, she made him a Rocky Mountain Pastrami Burger (popularized by Utah's own Crown Burgers), and slathered it with Utah fry sauce.

With "Kelsey's Essentials" in its third season, Nixon is also hosting a new show, "The Perfect Three," that involves both Food Network stars and at-home cooks. She will also soon be competing on "Chopped," where contestants take everyday items and turn them into a three course meal.

"I've got to start practicing for 'Chopped' on my husband," she said. "He is picky. I test a lot of recipes on him and get a lot of feedback."

Egan came with Nixon to the Pillsbury Bake-Off, and the couple spent some time walking the competition floor and taste-testing finalist recipes.

"It's my birthday, so it's great timing to enjoy a trip to Orlando," he said of the event at the end of March.

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"My husband has a traditional 9-to-5-job with vacation days and so on," said Nixon in a telephone interview. "I consider this my dream job, but there's instability. It makes me not take it for granted, because I could very well not sell another season of a cooking show. I don't want to have any regrets about how I spent my time living and carrying out this dream job. I get to talk about what I am most passionate about and teach people about what I feel is most important."

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com. Email: vphillips@desnews.com