If you plan to watch "The Next Food Network Star" when its new season begins airing Sunday, don't expect Kelsey Nixon of North Ogden to share any spoilers. Her lips are sealed as far as how she did as a finalist, who gets sent packing and who ultimately wins.
"I've gotten really good at keeping it from everyone," said the 23-year-old Brigham Young University graduate in a telephone interview. "But it was hard when I first got home, because you've just finished a super-emotional experience and want to let it all out."
Nixon spent January and February in New York competing with nine other finalists to show off their culinary chops and on-screen charisma, with the winner receiving a six-episode Food Network show. The program has evolved since its first season aired in June 2005. Last year's season was the Food Network's highest-rated, most-watched series ever.
For those who haven't tuned in before, Nixon said, "It's not 'Top Chef' or 'Hell's Kitchen.' It's a family show, so there's not 500 bleeps in every episode, which is nice. But I believe the challenges have gotten more difficult over past years."
They included a late-night race through the streets of Manhattan, creating easy versions of complicated dishes for the staff of Bon Appetit magazine, teaming up with Girl Scouts to create healthy meals and cooking under the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip.
The contestants lived in a loft known as the Carriage House, "the girls on one side, the guys on the other side," Nixon said. "That was definitely interesting, getting used to other people's eating habits and everything. Especially with me coming from BYU. I've never been in a house with guys before."
Her LDS religion didn't come up as much as she expected.
"I was thrilled it turned out that way," she said. "I obviously don't drink, and I didn't drink on the show. I thought that people really respected me rather than thinking I was crazy."
Was it hard sharing living quarters with the same people you're competing against, with everything on camera?
"When you're going through so many emotional experiences together, you can't help but care about them and want the best for them," Nixon said. "It ended up being more of a competition against myself. I wasn't thinking, 'I've got to beat this person so I can move on."'
While at BYU, Nixon created 100 episodes of her own cooking show, "Kelsey's Kitchen," for iProvo cable TV. She also did internships with Martha Stewart Living's "Everyday Food" program, the Food Network's "Semi-Homemade" and ABC Ch. 4's "Good Things Utah." After graduating from BYU in broadcast journalism, Nixon earned a culinary-arts degree from the Kitchen Academy in Hollywood 10 days before heading to New York for the Food Network competition.
Even armed with all that experience, Nixon said she considered herself the least experienced finalist.
"The majority were trained chefs, so I was really intimidated going into it. But I told myself that I don't need 20 years in the restaurant business to relate to the mom who is trying to feed her kids," she said. "The lessons I learned from this are invaluable, how to better describe food and how to think about the viewer."
In one episode, chef Tyler Florence shared tips for feeling comfortable on camera, but for the most part, contestants didn't get much advice, she said.
"Mainly, the only coaching you get is the evaluation period, when you're standing before the judges," she said. "It's hard to stand there when the judges say your food wasn't good or your concept wasn't good, but you try to look at it as constructive criticism. My piece of advice is to be yourself, but I never knew how hard it would be to be myself, because I was trying to impress someone else and be what they think I am."
The 2006 "Next Food Network Star" was California restaurateur Guy Fieri, whose spiky bleached-blond hair can be seen on several shows, including "Guy's Big Bites" and "Ultimate Recipe Showdown." He was in Utah a few weeks ago, shooting segments of his Food Network series, "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives."
"Nothing can prepare you for it," said Fieri of his "Food Network Star" experience during a Deseret News interview. "You are challenged in all kinds of ways, and one person doing it is worth about 10 people talking about it. I applaud anybody who puts their name in the hat and says they'll try it."
Since coming home, Nixon is teaching cooking classes as the Sur La Table cookware store's assistant culinary director. She's also freelanced some food articles for the Salt Lake Tribune and is planning her July 11 wedding.
Nixon met her fiance, Robby Egan of Salt Lake City, when they were BYU freshmen. After dating off and on over the years, they became engaged before she went to New York City to do the show.Viewers can vote for the show's first "fan favorite" at www.foodnetwork.com/Star beginning Monday. One of the prizes is a new kitchen, "And since I'm going to be a newlywed, that would come in handy," Nixon added.
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