It was just last week that we here at Star Talk broke the news about the upcoming season of Food Network Star, which kicks off on Sunday, June 4 at 9|8c. Among a crop of talented hopefuls judge-mentors extraordinaire Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis will search for that one contender who has the coveted combo of culinary chops and on-camera charm. Each of the 12 finalists comes to the Star stage with unique personalities and kitchen experiences, and in the coming days, we'll introduce you to all of them. Today we'd like you to meet Blake Baldwin.
An outdoor enthusiast, Blake, 30, was overweight after leaving college to start a career in Los Angeles. After realizing he needed to make a lifestyle change, Blake began taking his favorite recipes from childhood and transforming them into healthier versions. Blake eventually lost 50 pounds and gained the attention of his blogger colleagues. Now a senior manager at a digital marketing agency, Blake has previously attended the Institute of Culinary Education and assisted the executive sous chef of Per Se.
Describe your culinary POV in one sentence.
Blake Baldwin: My culinary POV is that healthy cooking can be delicious without being difficult.
What would you most like to learn from Bobby and Giada, be it something in the kitchen or on camera?
BB: I really want to learn how to present myself very well and be eloquent and to the point when I’m trying to talk about my food and my point of view.
What do you think is the most-valuable thing you could teach a Food Network viewer?
BB: I think I bring a very different view than what Food Network currently has. I don’t think there’s someone who does the same style of cooking that I do on the network. So I think I can really show people how to make some quick and easy swaps that’ll make a traditional recipe healthier.
How did you prepare for this competition?
BB: A lot of cooking [and] a lot of on-camera stuff. I do YouTube, so [I was] trying to prepare myself to speak in front of an entire production team and cameras as opposed to just myself and a camera. [Also, I was] really trying to hone in on what my point of view is. I have a lot of different things that I like to do in the kitchen, but [I was] trying to focus on one of them and bring everything together into one point of view. [That] was my biggest training for this.
Which part of this contest — the cooking or the camera work — intimidates you the most? Please explain.
BB: The culinary aspect, because my background is in corporate America. I’m sure there’s going to be contestants here who cook on a daily basis to pay their bills. For me, I have been to culinary school, but I don’t work in a kitchen all day. So coming into it, that is my thought process.
Win or lose, what do you want to take away from this experience?
BB: I just want to learn as much as I can about being on camera, cause at the end of the day, being on camera and being a culinary personality is really what I want to do. So whether I win this or I don’t win, no matter what happens, I just want to learn as much as I can to better myself. Because even if don't win this, I still want to be on Food Network at some point. I want this to be a growing experience.
What does the term "Food Network Star" represent to you?
BB: It’s like the epitome of the culinary media world. I did go to culinary school to gain that credibility because I think being on Food Network you have to have that credibility. Being in corporate America, I really wanted to set myself apart from home cooks. So I think being on Food Network would bring validity to the fact that I can cook and that healthy cooking does stand up to other types of food.
What's your greatest strength in the kitchen?
BB: I feel like I have a good, total package going on. I do have the experience being on camera and I do have the culinary expertise. So I think that I can bring it full circle for the judges and show them I can not only work in a kitchen, but I can also talk and present and explain to people why this dish might be healthier than the other version of the dish.
What is the strangest thing we'd find in your refrigerator right now?
BB: Most people would say that would be yucca, which is not very common. But I use it a lot in my cooking. It’s another root; it’s also called cassava. It’s a root vegetable and you can do so much with it. I use it to make yucca french fries, cause it crisps up really well if you cook it properly. I also made my pizza crust out of it. So it’s very versatile, and I don’t think that many people use it. And if you were to open a refrigerator or a pantry and see yucca in there, and you didn’t know what it was, you’d be like, "What in the world is that?" cause it’s really weird looking.
Let's say it's a regular Tuesday night and you're at home. What are you having for dinner?
BB: So when I cook for myself it’s a lot less beautiful than it is when I cook for other people. For me on a Tuesday night, it could be that I’m getting back late from the gym and I throw something together, like chicken and cauliflower rice. It’s very easy, simple. I can cook it in five seconds on the grill. I also like to make a dish called salmon en papillote, which is just like a fancy term for "in paper." You cook it in a pouch of parchment, and what’s great about that is it takes 20 minutes and you can throw any different ingredient in there. You can do it a thousand different ways, so you never get sick of it, which is generally what happens with chicken. So you can throw the salmon in there with any type of ingredient that you want. You throw it in the oven, 350 degrees F, for 20 minutes, and it comes out like perfectly cooked. And the other good thing about that is if you want to make that for someone else, you can put it on a dish and have them open it up, and it’s a really nice presentation with the steam and the aromatics coming out of it. So it works good for yourself and for other people.
What do you consider to be your signature dish?
BB: My signature dish is probably jalapeno lime shrimp. It’s something that I started cooking when I was very young. It’s a recipe that I altered from something I saw on TV, and I converted it into a clean version so there’s no processed ingredients in it. I use bamboo sticks as the skewers for it, and it’s grilled. I’ve been cooking it for so long, and it’s all my friends' and family’s favorite thing.
What dish or ingredient will you simply not eat?
BB: I try with all of my heart not to eat refined sugar or flour. It’s very hard because it’s snuck into every food and every ingredient. But for me, the health aspect of things — whether it’s losing weight or increasing performance for athletes or [wanting] to lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, whatever it is — there’s a thousand different reasons for eating healthy. I don’t want to just be like the "weight loss guy." Cause that’s not all that healthy is. So, for me, those are two things that I really try to stay away from. I know it’s very difficult, and I have progressed from a really bad diet to where I am now. So I understand it’s not [that] one day you’re eating everything and then the next day you’re just cutting it out. It’s taken like a slow process to slowly cut things out and use different ingredients and figure out what’s going to taste good without using those ingredients.
What's your favorite guilty pleasure food?
BB: Pizza kills me. It's so bad because, especially from the East Coast, in Jersey — I grew up in Jersey. It’s where I’m from. I’ve worked in New York City for the past five and a half years, so pizza was always part of my life. Growing up, my parents never fed me that much junk food, but pizza was always something that was there. And just the smell of that — the gluten and the wheat and the cheese and the tomato sauce. My God, I love it. But I don’t feel well after I eat it. But, it’s totally worth it.
What do you want to say about yourself to fans watching at home?
BB: Give healthy food a chance. I think that there’s a really bad stigma around healthy food. Even just saying it, whether it’s the network or other main media channels, they try to shy away from going super health-conscious, which is totally understandable. ... I think people think healthy food and they think [of] bland chicken and brown rice ... But that’s not it at all. I grew up going to the Jersey shore all the time, so I always was using seafood and lots of citrus and fresh herbs. It’s the garden state, so fresh vegetables are everywhere. There’s fresh fruit everywhere, and it’s so easy to make a delicious meal that isn’t bad for you. And you can still like feel good and enjoy your day afterwards, and you’re not feeling super bloated.
What's the first dish aspiring cooks should master?
BB: I would say find one really good recipe. Take whatever your favorite food it — whether you really like chicken, you really like a certain type of fish or shrimp, scallop, whatever it is. Find a recipe that you really, really enjoy, and master that one recipe, because it will be really hard to get super tired of that and there’s always little variations you can do to it.
Mark your calendar for the premiere of Food Network Star on Sunday, June 4 at 9|8c.