Eight weeks ago, nine home cooks entered All-Star Academy for a chance to join a mentor’s team and compete to win $50,000 and bragging rights as the best home cook in the nation. Tonight one of those cooks did just that. The finale began with Team Alex’s Lee, Team Robert’s Natasha and Team Andrew’s Zoe, but halfway through, Zoe was eliminated, and she and her mentor left for good. That left Lee, a home cook with a Northern California flair, and Natasha, a home cook specializing in foods with a Southern inflection. Their final challenge required them to cook a dish from the heart — something that showed how far they’ve come in the competition. It all came down to that last dish.
In the end Natasha’s elevated shrimp and grits won against Lee’s scallop dish. Although Curtis appreciated the simplicity Lee presented, Curtis thought the complexity of Natasha’s dish won him over more, taking him on a flavorful adventure. Natasha’s dish displayed her admiration for New Orleans and her love for her son, for whom she competed. Throughout the competition, Natasha put up a fight to stay in it to win it, putting aside any doubts about herself. Although she ended up in the bottom twice, each time after she came back stronger with a goal to put out better dishes that elevated even the humblest ingredients. Not only does Natasha leave with $50,000, but she also gains so much more knowledge and understanding of food, and a confidence that will stay with her for life.
What made you sign up for All-Star Academy, and what were your expectations before the competition even started?
Natasha Clement: Well, I had just recently started to try and compete, because my friends and family had pressured me to do so, because they believed in how good my cooking was … and it just so happened that All-Star Academy was doing a casting call down the street from where I work. And being a lover of Food Network and watching the first season, I was like, “You know, why the heck not?” So I went, and I brought a dish, and literally just prepared it … late the night before in hoping that maybe Food Network would see something … and my expectation was … never to win or necessarily go as far as I did.
On the first day of the competition, what made you choose Robert as your mentor? What was appealing about him, and was he your first choice?
NC: Robert was actually my second choice, and … when the mentors stood up there and they all sold themselves to us, when it got to him, something just resonated with me with him, and I’ve always known him to be someone who does the impossible on the Food Network, or just someone who has such a big heart, but goes about it in a very aggressively competitive way, and when he sold himself to us, he really just said some things that outweighed the other three mentors, and it was just, basically, if you don’t want to win, don’t pick me. If you don’t want to work with the tools that I give you, don’t pick me. And the whole point of being there is to win, so I figured he was the best one to go with.
You had the opportunity of being mentored by Andrew during a challenge. How was he like in comparison to Robert?
NC: It was nice to work with Andrew. It was kind of like a breath of fresh air. The level of intensity wasn’t necessarily there — I didn’t feel like I had a dragon breathing on my back, but … with that being said, I also felt like I wasn’t being challenged as much as Robert would have challenged me. It was a completely different approach, and I respect the approach. It was a very elegant and more refined approach to that particular challenge, but I missed Robert definitely the whole time.
Andrew made a comment that he believed you were the best cook in the competition, and that it scared him. How did you perceive your growth in the competition up to that point?
NC: That was a shock to hear Andrew say that, because I know how much he had invested into his two girls. I just think that at that moment during that challenge when I heard him say that, that made me believe that I did come a long way from Episode 1, because coming into that competition, I felt like there were a lot of people to beat. I think it wasn’t until that point that I realized, “Maybe I have really listened to the mentors and learned as much as I could to possibly be the one to beat instead.” So, it was a humbling moment, but at the same time it was a wake-up call, too, that I’m this close. Maybe I can do this.
During much of the competition, viewers saw that your style of cooking is fast and furious. Was that because of Robert’s coaching style, or are you really an intense person in the kitchen?
NC: No, I’m a very intense person, and I’m always in fifth gear; I’m always 100 mph. I feel like to get something accomplished that’s going to wow somebody, you have to try to do as much as you can and push yourself as far as you can in the small amount of time you may be allotted to do so. So, my personality is very much portrayed correctly on the show, and I know Robert is intense, and so that’s kind of one reason why I picked him, because it is very true to who I was on the show.
Up to that point, who did you see as your biggest competition?
NC: Anna being brought back was scary because I definitely thought she was a competitor from the get-go, and also Lee. I always thought Lee was kind of like that dark horse … brooding kind of guy with a heart of gold and very nice, but underneath all that super competitive, and his food tastes great.
When your team consisted of you and Jermaine, what was it like sharing Robert’s attention? In those early episodes, we could see there was tension with Jermaine holding back the team, especially in the fusion challenge.
NC: That was so early on in the competition that there was never a sense of feeling like we shared Robert. There was just a sense of getting the job done, and I just felt like Jermaine wasn’t up to getting the job done. I don’t know if it was his nerves, or maybe Robert intimidated him, but for me it was … a frantic situation where you just wanted to get food on the plate. There was never, ever a sense of sharing Robert — it was a sense of “we’re going to let him down.” It was just a very scary moment for me.
After Jermaine had been eliminated, did you feel that you had a better relationship with Robert, a better chemistry, or that the two of you shared the same vision?
NC: Yeah, definitely after Jermaine, unfortunately, had to be sent home, there was definitely a different perspective between Robert and I. There wasn’t so much of Robert just mentoring Jermaine and having to fix mistakes. There was a lot more, “OK, what are we going to do next, how are we going to elevate your skills now, what can we do to impress the guest judges today?” It was more about what haven’t you done and what we’re going to push you to do, and so it became more of a learning process at that point than a just competitive process.
You landed in the bottom two episodes in a row. After those almost-being-sent-home moments, how did that change the way you attacked future challenges? Did you feel like you were fired up more?
NC: Oh, being put in the bottom two, two weeks in a row, definitely lit a spark. For sure I was angry with myself. I was angry with the challenges. I was disappointed in the opinions of the guest judges. It’s the combination of everything, and it made you just kind of have to shake it off: OK, that was five minutes ago, that was a day ago, that was a week ago. And you just move forward from that point. And I think, being so upset with myself, my approach was to be a little more calm and collected and try to think about what have I learned from Robert that I can use and apply to getting better, because I don’t want to go back to the bottom two.
What did you like most about having Robert as your mentor? What do you think was the best lesson you learned from him?
NC: The best thing about having Robert as my mentor, I think, was definitely his approach to being super-aggressive and making sure the food tastes good and it was executed perfectly. His technical skills and my technical skills together was a level of perfection that made each challenge hard, but I think that was my favorite part about him, because no matter what compliment he gave me, I still knew I could do it better, or we could possibly elevate it and make it better. … What made our relationship work was he taught me a level of bringing back my intensity just a bit, calming down and focusing on the food. You know, it’s just food, focus on it and make it better. And for me I’m always worried about, are they going to like it, what if they don’t like my approach, instead of worrying about … executing the food properly. And he turned my focus from being frantic and worried about how it would turn out into worrying about making it perfect on the plate.
During the finale’s first elimination test, Robert thought that you were rushing too much. He actually said, “The worst thing you can do is panic.” Can you talk about when you were plating your duck dish? What was going through your mind?
NC: The duck challenge was probably the most-uncomfortable one for me because from the get-go we had an issue with the searing of the duck breast and rendering the duck fat, and I knew that wasn’t going to be executed properly no matter how much time I had left, just because the pan got too hot, and the duck would have burned if I would have kept it in the pan. So just throwing the duck in the oven just threw my whole game off for that rest of that challenge, because I knew that fat wasn’t going to be rendered down enough. So all I could do was frantically try to redirect my focus onto executing the other elements of the plate perfectly, because I knew that duck dish was going to be a challenge for me to get further in the competition.
In the last challenge, you had to cook a dish that represented who you are. You cooked an elevated shrimp and grits. What did that dish mean to you? What did it represent about New Orleans, your cooking style?
NC: Well, that dish to me had one meaning, and that dish meant victory for me because I took a Southern comfort-style dish that I’d cooked many times for many special occasions and I decided to elevate it with even better ingredients to represent where I’m from in New Orleans, but to also elevate my skills and make it look [like] a restaurant-quality dish instead of just comfort food at Grandma’s house. I took the shrimp and grits and I built it with other ingredients, like the snapper, to give it more of a, I guess, a Cajun Southern luxury-type spin on it. Everything I threw on that plate that day was victory for me. Whether I win or lose, that plate was 100 percent me, where I come from, and it was a combination of growing up, how we ate and how sophisticated, as an adult, I want to cook now, because that’s pretty much what that represented for me.
Just before the win was announced, as you were standing in front of Curtis, you said that sometimes during the competition you felt like “a stray dog with three legs in an alley.” How did this entire experience reshape who you are as a person? Has it changed your confidence?
NC: I remember saying that quite a bit, and the competition knocked me down a lot, and then I had a lot of high moments, too, which is why I said it’s like being a stray dog with three legs stuck in an alley, because there’s some kind of unpredictable nature of the game that makes you believe in yourself — you’re the best, you’re on top, you’re going to win this thing. And then you’re knocked down, and at the same time, you know, you [have to] get up, but you don’t get up on all fours, because you’re not sure where it’s going to go. It was the most emotionally draining and physically draining thing I’ve ever done, this entire competition, and it made me believe in myself more because I was on the top and the bottom so inconsistently. It just, it showed how much that I will fight and I will keep trying and will keep learning to accomplish one goal, and that is to put that something on the plate, and so that was my stray-dog struggle.
Do you think you’d call yourself the underdog of the competition?
NC: There were moments where I definitely was. You know, food is so subjective to whoever you’re cooking for or whoever’s eating it, and there are moments where even if you are the best person in the room, not everyone is going to agree with your concept of food or your flavor profile, and there were many times where I felt like I was the underdog, and I just remember my husband telling me: “You know, if you don’t win this thing, find yourself a cardboard box in Times Square, because you’re not coming home. There’s too much at stake, leaving me and three kids behind.” That quote that he said to me at the airport made me want to fight more because I definitely didn’t want to end up in New York homeless, for sure.
On the show we saw many touching moments — you talked about surviving Hurricane Isaac. Do you feel that this competition nourished or renewed your hopes and dreams for the future?
NC: Absolutely. I’ve been through a lot of horrible things … just like any other person. We all have our own personal struggles. Mine just happened to fall really close together in the last four years, and I’d hit rock bottom quite a few times and just kind of would crawl out of bed and go to work and do what I had to do just to get by. … Going on All-Star Academy and winning definitely is a true testament to how much I will continue to fight and grow as a person, as a mother, as a wife and as a cook. It was an uplifting experience. It is the first big steppingstone in a positive direction for wherever I go with my cooking, and that is all due to All-Star Academy, for sure.
After doing this competition in which you learned how to elevate foods to the next level, do you feel that you’re going to cook differently?
NC: I definitely always cook differently now. I tend to calm down and not freak out as much. I need to pull the frantic level down a bit and just be comfortable with what I’m doing and what I’ve learned from the show, because there’s so much I’ve learned from Robert that I know can take me to making better and more inspiring, sophisticated dishes. So, I will cook some flavors, and it will come from the heart and from the South, but I can always, now with the experience of the show, definitely elevate everything that I’ve ever done.
What does winning mean to you? You earned an amazing prize of $50,000. What do you plan to do with that?
NC: Because my savings and everything was depleted with [Hurricane] Isaac and my divorce and other struggles I had [during] the last four years, the one goal was to have enough money to put aside to send my son to a school, and for him to get an education that he deserves. I wasn’t able to save money and have a good relationship with his father, my ex-husband, so as a mom I felt highly responsible to have his future secure. So, the 50 grand to me isn’t just money, but it’s his success — it’s Ethan’s success. And what good is a parent’s success without their child’s success? So, for me to give an opportunity for him to be a better young man and to get a better future, that’s how I won.
What’s the future look like for you now? Do you see more cooking down the line or a change of careers or more competition shows?
NC: For me, ideal life would be … to continue to cook and inspire home cooks all over the country to do the same. On top of that … being a mom and raising three kids, especially my son, who’s my oldest, and putting him through school and showing him that no matter how old you are or no matter what you go through in life, you never stop giving up on your dreams. And, hey, here’s your mom at 37, and she accomplished something huge, and I did it for him and for me.