Opinion

May 29, 2013

Misty Watson: Southern cooking with a hippie twist

I watch cooking competition shows like some people watch football.

“No! What are you doing?!” “Come on! You can do it!” “What was she thinking?” “No! Don’t put cheese on a fish dish!” (Well, maybe you don’t hear the last one in football. And yeah, I do watch football that way, too.)

I am a complete Food Network junkie. I love “Chopped,” “Iron Chef America,” “Barefoot Contessa,” “Restaurant Impossible,” well, pretty much anything that comes on that channel.

One of my favorite competition shows to watch each year is “The Next Food Network Star,” where the winner receives a cooking show on the network. (This is the series that launched “Guy’s Big Bite” and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” host Guy Fieri’s career in television.)

I DVR “Star” and watch it when I get home from work on Sunday nights as I scroll through my Twitter feed to see what people are saying.

So imagine my giddy “I-just-met-a-superstar-someone-slap-some-sense-back-into-me” reaction when I bumped into Damaris Phillips, one of the contestants on this year’s show, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. Thankfully, she didn’t act annoyed by me and agreed to talk some more about her experience.

Damaris, who calls her hometown Louisville, Ky., was in Dalton to see her grandfather remembered during a ceremony presented by the Dalton Police Department last month. Her grandfather, Maurice Phillips Sr., was an officer who was accidentally shot by a trainee in 1956. Her grandmother Maria recently moved from Dalton to Atlanta, but many of Damaris’ family remain in the area. Damaris lived in Georgia only a few years as a young child, but she spent every holiday here.

I don’t even remember how it came up that she was going to be a contestant on this year’s show, but I’m glad it did. I’m already rooting for her. I’ve already followed her on Twitter. And I promise I’m not a stalker.

“My point of view is modern Southern,” Damaris said during a phone interview last week. “I think the South has been horribly underrated ... fried foods and lots of meat. I try to focus on traditional Southern cooking and techniques, but really focus on regional and seasonal foods. I love fried chicken, but my father passed away — and he had a heart attack — I find ways to fix foods I grew up loving, but having a way to eat them on a regular basis.

“I was raised by a father (Maurice Phillips Jr.) from Dalton and my mother (Mary Phillips) was from West Virginia,” she said. “My mom, growing up when she did, has a hippie flair — lots of vegetarian foods, lots of whole grains. We ate hippie food before it was trendy.”

Damaris blends both of those into a style of her own. Her Southern cooking takes a “hippie twist.” (Another point for Damaris! I am definitely a Southern hippie. See how we could be such great friends? If she wins, she could invite me on her show to do a Southern vegan cooking segment with her.)

She believes wholeheartedly in Southern comfort foods’ ability to make you feel better.

“I remember my grandmother giving me a cookie and everything in the world was better,” Damaris recalled. “I love sweets, comfort food, food that makes you feel connected to people, and food that makes people feel good. I try to use food to connect with people, to share a memory, to have a moment with a person. The whole South, everything about the South, is about that, and it’s not hard for me to push that way or cook that way every day.”

Damaris, 32, had been working as a manager at various restaurants and found herself in Seattle.

“I’m a self-taught baker,” she said. “I got to a point where it was either continue at the front of the house or take a chance and go to culinary school. What I really wanted to do was be on the Food Network. I was watching ‘The Next Food Network Star.’ I was thinking, ‘I could do that for my whole life.’ I thought of a plan.”

Damaris made the decision to leave Seattle and return home to Louisville. She attended Jefferson Community and Technical College, where she is now a culinary instructor.

This was the third time Damaris tried out for “Food Network Star.” The first two times she didn’t make it through the first round of tryouts, but she was determined to be on the show.

About a month after her final round of auditions this time around, Damaris was in her car outside a post office when a call to her cellphone told her she was going to be on the show.

“I started squealing so loud that the people on the street looked at me,” she said. “For me, really it was teaching that has helped me so much, and teaching has made me a better chef. It has made me more confident in my style. It’s humbling and you want to give up when you don’t get called back. You think you don’t think you can do this, but each time I wanted to try again. I think I have something to say about food. I think my vision of modern Southern is something people would like.

“It was a wonderful experience,” Damaris said. “I went into it horribly under-prepared for how intense it was going to be. It was definitely hard, but the other 11 contestants are really remarkable people. ... I remember standing there at one point thinking, ‘Oh my gosh! I made a huge mistake. How did I get here?’ You are standing in front of people that have molded you into the chef you are.”

Damaris says she idolizes Alton Brown, one of the show’s three hosts and mentors to contestants. The other two are Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis.

“I felt really special and wonderful having him give me feedback,” Damaris said of Brown. “I was hoping we were all going to be the best of friends, but that didn’t happen.”

Damaris can’t give away anything that happens on the show, but I’m excited to watch and find out how well she does. Even without knowing anything about the other contestants I know she’s going to be my favorite.

Murray County native Misty Watson is a staff writer and photographer for The Daily Citizen. You can share your love of the Food Network with her by emailing her at mistywatson@daltoncitizen.com; friending her on Facebook at facebook.com/MistyWatsonDCN; or following her on Twitter, @mistydwatson.

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