The nature of the Food Network Star beast is such that no matter how much mentors Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis have to teach the finalists, their time is limited, which means they're forced to make quick decisions about who has the greatest potential for success. Week after week finalists will fall in a series of eliminations, and following each gut-wrenching exit, we here at Star Talk will bring you insider interviews with the fallen hopefuls. If you haven't watched the latest episode, don't read any further until you do, because we're about to break down the show and talk to the person sent home.
There haven’t been many other Food Network Star finalists quite like Matthew Grunwald — and perhaps that's because we haven't seen other Star hopefuls as often as we've seen Matthew. After his early-season loss two years ago, he returned to Comeback Kitchen not once but twice, finally earning the win and a ticket back into the Food Network Star competition this year. He instantly wowed the mentors with his growth on camera, and most of his dishes were well-constructed. However, more than once in the last 10 weeks Bobby and Giada have stressed the importance of connecting with his food through his presentation, and tonight, when he needed to demonstrate that ability more than ever, he failed to deliver the story they needed to hear. Ultimately, his fellow finalists, Cory, Jason and Rusty, did that job better than he did, and they claimed the three pilot spots, leaving Matthew eliminated just short of the finish line.
We caught up with Matthew on set to talk about his final presentation, his emotional loss and his thoughts on what was an unprecedented Star journey. Read on below for his exclusive exit interview.
How’re you feeling? What three words are going through your mind?
Matthew Grunwald: Heartbroken. Grateful. Well-pleased.
Talk me through what this journey has been like for you.
MG: It’s been a lot of hard work, just like anything, and I don’t want to be one of those people who's like, "It’s been so much work,” because anything that’s well worth it has a price. Someone’s not making me do this. I’m choosing to do this, and so to keep having these opportunities is really awesome. To get to do Comeback twice, that has never happened — it doesn’t happen. It’s awesome. I’m sad that I didn’t get to make a pilot, because I really felt in my heart that I was going to this time around. But that’s okay, because moving forward I’m not going to stop. So, just keep moving forward, take the critiques to heart, because there obviously are some. It’s like when an actor goes on audition after audition after audition, but they’re an artist, and they don’t stop, because they love it. All it takes is one yes. I’m just excited to be back here, and wish I could have been able to make a pilot.
Do you still love this work even in the face of this defeat?
MG: Oh, yeah. It’s still a reality to me. It’s not going to happen when I see it. It’s already happened in my heart. It’s already happened inside of me, and I feel like I’m bringing that out into existence. It’s almost like there’s this good sense of dissatisfaction of wanting to be where you see yourself in your imagination. I can’t see myself doing anything else, because it doesn’t satisfy. I just have to keep going until I get there.
You’re on stage, you hear Jason gets a pilot. Cory gets a pilot. What’s going through your mind as you and Rusty are the last ones waiting for one final spot?
MG: It’s not the best place you want to be. I thought they were going to call my name based on their critiques. I don’t know if there was any more I could have done. I feel like I gave it my all, 100 percent, but to not hear your name, it’s like the boat’s leaving, we’re calling people’s names, we only have one ticket left, and if they don’t call you, you’re stuck on shore.
So, you felt like you deserved a pilot — that the third spot should have been yours?
MG: I feel like I did. Truthfully, I did.
What do you think the judges missed in your video? What do you think they didn't understand about what you did?
MG: A story. They wanted me to connect myself to my dish, and I think there is a disconnect there, which I would agree with. That’s what they wanted for this challenge, so they weren’t looking for enthusiasm or entertainment value; they were looking for the criteria of the challenge. I don’t think I gave them that.
When we talked at the beginning of the season, you said you’d been working daily on videos and presentations, and of course you’re still cooking seven days a week at restaurants. What does it mean to have devoted so much time to this and to not get the outcome that you’ve been expecting?
MG: Well, I wouldn’t have made it this far had I not done that, so I never look at things like I wasted all that time, because nothing’s wasted. Losing here is not wasted. I feel like every time I do one of these, I walk away a different person. That’s true. You walk away a different person. You walk away older. You walk away with more life experience. There’s nothing like this, and I feel like after doing this, you can — pressure wise — handle anything.
Speaking of being a different person, how do you think you’ve changed over the years? Since Comeback Kitchen this year, last year, the first time we met you, what has your evolution been like?
MG: Well, I definitely think I’ve matured a lot. I definitely think I’ve grown up with these competitions. It changes who you are in the sense that I feel like I got older. I think that was a factor — age. Not in the sense of age, but I think the maturity attached to age, and I think I’ve definitely come a long way, as I should. I think it matures you a lot.
Do you agree with the fact that maybe you just need a little more life experience before you step into the role of star?
MG: Respectfully, no. I don’t, because I think that’s unique for me to explore and experience and discover alongside with people watching, because that’s another perspective. I respectfully disagree.
What have you learned about yourself in the last three years, about the industry, about what it takes to do this or to not do it?
MG: I’ve learned that the TV hours are just as long as the restaurant hours, so any time anybody goes to complain in the restaurant, TV is just as grueling. It’s compelling. We’re not mining coal, but it’s definitely emotionally compelling. I’m not going to say it’s difficult, because there’s people that have hard, laborious jobs, but it is extremely compelling. You have to be so present and ready all the time. I don’t know if I learned anything new about myself. I feel like characteristics I had are more enhanced now, and you kind of rough out good qualities so that they can shine, so I think that I feel like my perseverance and patience and diligence have really been undergirded immensely, especially this time around. It goes to show if you keep at it, it will happen. That’s encouraging. I feel like my food continues to really sing about myself more and more, like discovering what food I should cook and what food I’d like to cook. Something I definitely was embracing was the young adult thing of being on a budget and cooking stuff I’d actually cook. So, that was definitely amplified.
What piece of feedback from this time around will you really carry with you going forward?
MG: I think what really stands out is from Tyler Florence. He said, “Food first.” That just really sticks out. That’s the first thing I think of. Food first, and then everything else will follow.
You made it nearly as far as you can in this competition. At what point did things start to click for you? Did you have an ah-ha moment?
MG: After week one on Comeback Kitchen — actually just this whole time around, with Comeback Kitchen to start things off — things just started to click, and I think definitely in Comeback Kitchen is when it was all like, "Oh, this is how you do it." I think it was good that I figured that out earlier on rather than in Food Network Star.
What was the most-rewarding moment of this whole competition for you?
MG: Just getting to come back again and do this whole thing. So exciting. You’re so in the moment, so now that I’ve been sent home, you have time to look back and be like, "Whoa."
What is that “whoa”? What are you feeling when you look back on this experience?
MG: That I get to do this. I’m 24 years old. This is my seventh time on Food Network. Never happened in the history of Food Network, ever. Or Cooking Channel. Youngest person ever to do it, and that’s pretty cool. It’s been so much work, and to share my story. I started doing TV when I was very little, but I really started aggressively, tenaciously pursuing Food Network when I was 18 at culinary school, and it was the same thing where it was like you just keep leaving voicemails, you just keep sending emails, and you’re like the intern that doesn’t go away.
What was the best piece of advice Bobby and Giada gave you this time around?
MG: Just be yourself. That’s good advice, because you get caught up sometimes with the TV, so I think just be yourself.
What were your most-favorite and least-favorite challenges?
MG: My favorite challenge was getting to watch Beat Bobby Flay. So cool. I felt like I was on Iron Chef America. Least favorite? I don’t know. I really enjoyed all of them. Not to say they weren’t challenging, but I really had a good time doing all of them.
What do you want fans to remember most about you?
MG: That my Instagram and my Twitter handle is @ChefMatthewG.
What's next for you? What are you going home to?
MG: My mom and my sister and my grandparents, and I’m going to go get spoiled by grandma for a good couple of days and get my confidence back.
Watch next week's Food Network Star finale on Sunday at 9|8c.