On Sunday, when "Food Network Star" returns with a ninth batch of baby chefs/aspiring TV personalities beginning their basic-cable crusade for culinary domination and their own series, loyal viewers will quickly realize that changes have been made to the reality show's recipe. Season 9, shot in Los Angeles, still centers on a dozen contestants' ability to produce good eats and on-camera charisma over a series of challenges while being mentored by a trio of Food Network icons (Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, and Alton Brown). But, as Flay explained in a phone interview with Yahoo! TV from New York, the show has added new elements like focus groups and a "Redemption Island"-style second-chance spot in order to spice things up. He also said that on the way to the new "Star" being born, viewers could expect plenty of cameos (the "Chopped" crew, Guy Fieri), cockiness, crying, and, of course, cravats, courtesy of Brown.
You have an insane schedule already. Why was coming back for Season 9 important?
Frankly, I like doing it because I want to be part of the process of adding somebody to the [Food Network] roster. The network is my family. I've been there for 17 years, and it is important for us to continue to get better to compete with the rest of the networks in the TV world. Besides the fact that it is a fun show to watch and film, it also has a result of somebody who could possibly be part of the future of the network. I want to be part of picking who that person is.
Watch a preview of the new season:
With competition shows, the quality of contestants usually gets better as the years go on. Is this the case with "Food Network Star"?
I always use the word "savvy." They are more savvy than ever because, let's face it, they're students of the show, and the network and the quality becomes better and better. People sit on their couch and study the shows and say, "I could do that. No problem." But I can promise you that if you were to interview any of them, they'd tell you that it is a lot harder than they thought it would be. That doesn't mean they aren't schooled and ready to put their best foot forward. When the camera goes on, things change very quickly.
We imagine the red light triggers nerves.
I still get nervous every time I go on the air. But I think it is important that still occurs. If you no longer have any butterflies, you will lose your edge. But my advice to anyone coming on the show is to use it to your benefit. It keeps you on your game.
What is different about this installment?
Last season, there were teams of five between the three of us. This season, everyone is on one team, and we're both the mentors and the judges. I believe the finalists actually get more out of it. They get three points of view from three different chefs. We're not taking sides, and there is no competitive element for us, so they are getting a full-circle mentorship at the same time as they are competing.
Tease your favorite challenges of the season.
There's a show called "The Burger Bash." They have to create a burger that represents who they are, which I love because I have my own burger place that says a lot about my travels through food in America. We love to listen to and taste what and who people think they are. There was also a "Chopped" challenge, and that was fun because we brought some of those judges in.
A focus group of fans armed with a "dial of doom" is brought in to judge them in another episode. What does that challenge prove?
Bringing in focus groups give them a sense of real-time television. When we do a pilot for a new show, it gets focus-grouped. It is put in front of people who watch the network, and they scrutinize and critique. So the finalists get a reality check about how shows get on the air and how people perceive them on TV.
And for the first time, an eliminated player gets to come back to the show.
A lot of other competition shows have done that before, but we never have, and I thought it was a great idea because it was such a surprise. None of the chefs were expecting it, and when the finalists went home, they thought that was it. They compete to get a second chance, so that adds a great new element.
Who do you think the competitors believe is the hardest chef to please, of the three of you, and does that line up with reality?
Alton. And, yeah, I do think that's reality, and that's why we like having him. Alton is obviously very smart. He suffers no fools and he doesn't mess around. He doesn't give a lot of leeway. Giada is a touch softer in that department. She has the woman's touch, between the three of us, obviously. She's a little bit softer when it comes to giving people a chance.
Is there an ingredient you wish you could ban from the "FNS" kitchen?
Truffle oil. It's so overused. It is a giant Band-Aid.
On the flip side, is there an ingredient or dish that is the key to your heart?
So many. I am a huge lobster fan. I love steaks. But just because you use it doesn't mean you will automatically win me over. You have to be able to be creative with it, as well.
Do you still get surprised by contestants' dishes or techniques?
Absolutely. It takes a lifetime to become a chef, so my eyes are always wide open for new things.
What do you look for in the winner?
They have to be able to cook. Food has to be the most important thing to them, besides their family. It has to be the thing they think about when they wake up in the morning. But just because they can cook doesn't mean they are going to be good on television. They have to be able to teach and be an authority. They have to have something that engages an audience.
So Gordon Ramsay went on record in our interview that he would be ready to accept your "Iron Chef" challenge as soon as he completed his Ironman triathlon in late summer. Are you ready to stop talking and start cooking?
Sure, love it. Bring it on. I'm ready when he is.
"Food Network Star" premieres Sunday, 6/2 at 9 PM.