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 Caodan Tran.
Caodan, 29, didn’t learn to cook until it became a life necessity as an adult. Raised in an ultra-competitive family, Caodan realized that cooking was the best way to learn about a culture without traveling. Caodan currently owns a personal chef service, doing everything from pop-up dinners to private dinner parties. Known for her fresh, clean and simple approach to modern Vietnamese cuisine, Caodan considers herself hyper-ambitious and strong headed in a good way.
Describe your culinary POV in one sentence.
Caodan Tran: It's Vietnamese-inspired with kind of flavors and touches from California and Texas.
What would you most like to learn from Bobby and Giada, be it something in the kitchen or on camera?
CT: I’m really open to learning everything. I’ve been cooking and food is a part of my life, but I’ve never thought that I’ve learned all that I could, so I’m really excited to see their critique of food and who I am, because there’s always room for improvement on both ends.
What do you think is the most-valuable thing you could teach a Food Network viewer?
CT: My love for food and making it so that it’s this special, intimate thing for everyone. And it’s different for everyone. You know, one food language is not someone else’s food language. So, to be able to teach them to hone in on that and to really love cooking.
How did you prepare for this competition?
CT: I honestly think that I’ve been preparing my whole life. My whole life has always been this uphill battle. There were always a lot of obstacles, a lot of challenges; nothing was ever handed to me. It was trial and error and figuring things out as you go and learning from all of your mistakes and all of these challenges. And so if that’s not for competition, then I don’t know what is.
Which part of this contest — the cooking or the camera work — intimidates you the most? Please explain.
CT: I find both intimidating. I find that you always second-guess yourself, and I’m personally very critical of myself and overly analytical, and it gets in the way of success. I feel like both [of them] and then coming together is a challenge in and of itself.
Win or lose, what do you want to take away from this experience?
CT: I really want to take away — this has always been my goal in life anyways — a truer sense of myself and what I need to do to get where I need to be.
What does the term "Food Network Star" represent to you?
CT: It means that I finally have a stage to be able to reach a broader audience and to really connect with others on a more like intimate level and through food. Food is kind of like the biggest thing in my life and what I love to do, and so I feel like I finally get to have my stage so that I can share it with others and they can share it with me.
What's your greatest strength in the kitchen?
CT: I think my greatest strength is that I am very well-rounded. I know a little about a lot of things. And so there is no cuisine that I’ve never had. I’m pretty familiar with it, I’m very open minded, and I don’t mind taking risks. I always try to one-up myself on being creative or doing something different and just seeing if it works or not.
What is the strangest thing we'd find in your refrigerator right now?
CT: I think the only thing that I always have is fish sauce. I keep that in my fridge actually; I don’t keep it out. That would probably be it. Everything else, I cook as needed. I don’t keep a lot of things in there.
Let's say it's a regular Tuesday night and you're at home. What are you having for dinner?
CT: I’m pretty health-minded, and so the easiest thing — and also to get my husband to eat it — is a taco bowl. But I use cauliflower rice rather than regular rice and then a ground meat. Sometimes I eliminate the ground meat. And then you get to add your avocado and your pico and basically all of the food groups within one, so it’s like a really well-rounded meal.
What do you consider to be your signature dish?
CT: Probably spring rolls. I don’t know if it’s because we grew up making them and it was always a really fun, interactive thing — because it would always be a build-your-own spring roll thing. And that was one of my first experiences with food, tangibly, because I didn’t cook growing up. I loved food and I ate it, but cooking is still fairly new to me. And so that was one of my first memories of being able to create something that was edible, cause other times I would just mix thing together and call it food.
What dish or ingredient will you simply not eat?
CT: I hate baby corn. And that’s it. I have yet to meet a food I don’t like up until this point in my life except for baby corn. Can’t do it.
What's your favorite guilty pleasure food?
CT: Cheeseburger. I’m known as the cheeseburger person. It’s really kind of crazy. I mean, I ate a Big Mac every day for a year when I was 7. ... My mom always kept taking me. And at one point I could eat two Big Macs in one sitting.
What's one dish you have to have at your last supper?
What do you want to say about yourself to fans watching at home?
CT: I’ve always been a dreamer, and I always put myself out there and go for it. And that it’s not easy. It’s actually like all these things that happened in my life happened because I forced [them] to happen in a way, and I hope that I can inspire the people to — I feel like I’ve really created my own path and created my own position in life, even just little odd jobs here and there. These are things that I created because of who I am, and not necessarily because there was something there or ready. ... My biggest passion is to represent the misrepresented, whether it being a female, being Asian, and kind of just being an outsider in this field sometimes and outsider in general.
What's your greatest piece of technical advice for aspiring cooks?
CT: Don't be afraid to fail, honestly. Just try it. If you have an idea, trust your instincts and just go for it. That’s not technical in the sense of like, "OK, this is how you slice an onion." But to even get to that point you have to take that first step of just [going] for it. There’s no right or wrong way at firs. You will learn eventually when you start cutting yourself and burning yourself.
What's the first dish aspiring cooks should master?
CT: I think people need to learn to cook vegetables. ... Everything comes after. If you have a good foundation of vegetables and spices that go well with them, then you can always add the meat, you can always add the grains and add everything else. So I think you really need to learn how to cook vegetables in a way that you actually enjoy [them] and not just boiling [them] to death. Learning which ones to roast and which ones to saute, or the different options that you have with them.
Mark your calendar for the premiere of Food Network Star on Sunday, June 4 at 9|8c.