Catching Up With Penny Davidi

Penny DavidiWhen Food Network Star season 7 premiered last year finalist Penny Davidi quickly made herself the villain.  A few snide remarks about other cast members in the opening interviews of episode one had established Penny as the cast member you love to hate.

It was a role that the smart, single mother understood could make her name hard to forget.  In this age of reality celebrity-ism that is important for surviving the worst economy in the last 70 years.  Like the old adage says, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  But being the bad guy is not a role for sissies.

Having gotten to know a number of last year’s cast fairly well I can tell you that they do not feel the same way about the Middle Eastern Mama as much of the viewing public.  Just last month I talked with Vic “Vegas” Moea and he had this to say about her, “Penny – she’s good people, man.  She really is a good person.  She just played the heel.  That’s OK because at the end of the day when she goes home with her family she’s a loving mother, she’s a caring friend.”

Folks, you cannot ask more from a person than that.  It’s easy to pick out Penny or Debbie Lee or Brianna Jenkins or any other FNS villains and say they are a bad person but they’re not really, not in the grand scheme of things.  Osama bin Laden was a bad person.  Adolph Hilter, Harvey Updyke, David Berkowitz, Andrew Jackson, Elizabeth Bathory – all bad people.  Penny is just a woman who went on a reality cooking show and made a name for herself.  Lighten up, people.

Is she competitive?  Yes.  Is she focused?  You bet.  Is she evil?  Hardly.

As I watched the Chopped All Stars finale the other night I kept an eye on the #Chopped hashtag on Twitter.  Tweets were flying faster than I could process and I couldn’t help but notice all of the “Anyone but Penny” comments.  Folks, do you realize they were playing for charity?  Had Penny won, $50,000 would have gone to help women and children who are homeless, victims of abuse and neglect.  How can you root against that and have the audacity to say someone else is a bad person?

Think about this.  In two hours of television Penny did more for Gramercy Housing Group than most of us will do for any charity in our entire lives.  So I ask you, who again is the villain?

On the heels of her appearance on Chopped All Stars I chatted with Penny about the changes and challenges in her life since her Food Network debut last spring.

You’ve been a busy lady of late.  What are you working on?

I’m opening up a restaurant in LA called the Spice Bar and Market.  It’s going to be about bringing ethnic doable food mainstream.  I’m rolling out with a 70,000 square foot food destination in which I’m collaborating with some major chefs and big companies to make that happen.  At the same time I’m working on a line of products to go on QVC.  I’m also working on my line of seasonings, sauces and spices.

I should have a book and a book tour in July of 2013.  I’m really excited about how it looks and how it’s coming together.  It’s fun; it’s edgy, my sarcasm, my sense of humor.  It’s Penny in a book.

When I last spoke with Vic, he mentioned that after shooting FNS for 12 weeks that the four of you showed up on the Chopped set feeling no pressure.  Was the finale as stress-free?

Oh my God.  The pressure was intense.  I knew that I would never get past Marcus Samuelsson.  I almost wish I had gone home round one because I hate that people are like you know if Michael Symon had gotten the okra on the plate you’d have been the first to go home.  And I just said What makes you think Jeffrey Saad’s noodle dish would have passed me?  It doesn’t matter.

And on Twitter. . . some woman yesterday was like, “You suck you F’n B!”  She went crazy right?  What a potty mouth.  Then I look at her profile and she’s a photographer nearby in Monterrey.  I looked at her company web site and I thought this looks kind of interesting.

I called her, Stuart.  I called her on the phone; she nearly had a coronary.  Later she Tweeted Here I am bad mouthing Penny and she calls me to ask me if I would consider doing the photography at her wedding.  She’s actually really nice.

A thousand people commented on the (Food Network) blog and 900 of them were saying “down with Penny.”  That’s valuable to them, Stuart.  People want to watch and people want to watch other people take me down.

Bobby Flay told my agent, “You can’t not sign Penny.  In fact, I want to handle Penny.  Food Network needs to maximize her potential and don’t you dare stick her in a studio.  Let’s stick her out in the field.  She’s an Anthony Bourdain.  Use that.”

Anthony can go off on any chef he wants and people love him for it.  He chewed Paula Deen’s . . .  People loved him.  He’s the man.  He’s powerful.

I could see myself judging.  Like Iron Chef or something.  Be the Simon Cowell of Food Network.  I could also see something like Throwdown with Penny.  That’s something my agent was talking to Bobby about.  He suggested Bobby hang up his hat on that because Penny is now the most hated person on Food Network.

I think if I did Throwdown with Penny people would love it.  They’d watch to see me lose.  All my haters would tune in.

Have there been any talks with Food Network about your own show?

They keep wanting to use me for their ratings but not give me a proper show.  They wanted to use me for another docu-series covering my life, like I’m the Cruella de Vil of Food Network.

I said no, give me a cooking show.

I have big things happening but I can’t talk about it right now.  I so want to talk about it but I can’t.  It’s ridiculous how big it is.  Bravo loves Penny; that’s all I’m going to say to you.

Even though you didn’t win Chopped All Stars did the attention help Gramercy Housing Group?

Absolutely.  Especially after the first episode.  It’s for charity.  That’s what’s important.  That’s why I continue to do things in the charity realm.  I sit on the board for Gramercy and do all kinds of events for them.  I’m happy for them and that we brought some attention to the charity.

I have a platform that I want to use and it’s in culinary; it’s in lifestyle.  That’s the direction I want to go.  You know I am the mother of five kids now and my biggest joy is in the kitchen preparing meals for them.  That’s where my joy lies now.

Food Network Star Exit Interview: Justin Davis

The first order of business – Happy Fourth of July!  Because of the holiday Food Network delayed the exit interview until Tuesday.  I hope that hasn’t sent anyone into DTs.

Other than the occasional guest spot on Iron Chef America or Best Thing I Ever Ate the Food Network had earned a reputation for snubbing new media foodies.  A serious amount of disrespect considering that there are foodie web sites that are actually older than the Food Network.  Most people, given the opportunity, would rather watch Average Betty than Barefoot Contessa.  We’d rather see Chef Unleashed than the abomination that is Extreme Chef.

But that changed a little on August 2, 2008 when Ask Aida premiered.

The Aida in question was Aida Mollenkamp who had previously been the editor of the mega food site  Last year another food blogger, Aarti Sequeira (, competed and won Food Network Star 6.  It isn’t much, but it’s a start.

Justin DavisEnter Justin Davis, one part of the husband-wife food blogging team behind  Justin was poised to be the next new media foodie to find stardom on the latest installment of Star.

Justin hardly received any face-time the first two weeks, dominated the screen in week three, became a promising competitor in week four.  But in week five Justin’s run was over.  His elimination was puzzling since Chris had a much worse performance than anyone else on the show, for the second time this season.  But at the same time Justin never really put in a great performance.

Alicia Sanchez voiced displeasure with her experience on the show in a blog post that has since disappeared.  In it she suggested that contestants were not eliminated because of performance but according to script.  She has also voiced her suspicions about whether Chris and Penny were actors who were planted to spice things up.  As it turns out, Penny was an actressLast week Justin Balmes seemed less than joyful over his Star experience as well.

This week I get the feeling that Justin Davis was just relieved to be off the show based on this from his elimination post at Gastronomic Duo, “If Food Network wants Penny’s, Chris’s and Jyll’s, they can have them. I was called the opposite of authentic, I would say the same for the show. ”

Justin mentioned some of the close friends he made on the show even mentioning that when Justin B. was eliminated he actually teared up.  At the same time he clearly was not enamored with all of his fellow contestants saying, “A lot of the other finalists, I felt, were like little children standing in a room yelling Hey, look at me!  Look at me!”  He said inwardly he felt, “I don’t know that I want to play this game.”   “I put myself out there to be judged and to be critiqued.  I can’t be upset about how it turned out,” he admitted clearly upset.

It was obvious both watching the show and talking to him that Justin was not happy being part of Food Network Star.  His performance on the show was easily that of someone who was disengaged.  I think Bobby Flay nailed it when he said, “He dropped out of high school and I feel like now he is dropping out gain.”  Justin himself said, “I learned something about myself; I learned I’m not cut out for reality TV.”  An honest assessment.

Justin was also nice enough to share some of the warmer behind-the-scenes happenings.  He was especially impressed with the approachability of season two winner Guy Fieri saying, “He took the extra time to kind of step away from everything that was happening, which is the competition, and took a minute to talk to everyone as a person not as Guy Fieri.  It was really interesting to see that side of him.  He concluded, “I found him to be a humble and welcoming person.”

How has traffic to Gastronomic Duo been effected by your appearance on Star?

It definitely has seen an upswing.  I feel like we’re a little bit more on the radar.  Especially locally, my local appearances, we’ve seen a lot of really good traffic.  I’d still like to see a lot more obviously.

We’ve been running it for two years and I think the first year and a half was trying to figure out what it was going to be.  We’ve finally got it to the point that it looks good; it feels good. Now we just have to get the video in play.

To date Aida and Aarti are the only two Food Network celebs to get their start on the Internet.  Do you think that the network is missing out by not tapping new media sources for on-air talent?

I think that there’s a huge food blogging community out there and I have found them to be, for the most part, really supportive.  People want to start this online discussion about food and I think that food bloggers have a lot to say.  Do I think that they are totally missing out?  I don’t know.  I wouldn’t deter any food blogger from trying to go on the show.

On your blog post yesterday you alluded to “big things” on the horizon.  Can you give us a hint as to what you have in the works?

I’m lining up doing a small online series; it’s just going to be a quick four episodes.  Get it up and get it out there and try to market myself.  I think we’ll find some really fun special guests.  I think it’ll be an interesting thing.  I want it to be an expansion of my blog.  It’s my half of the blog.

I’m all about seducing women with food.  I think that if I can teach men to cook a lady something that they’re going to love I feel like they’re going to have a much better chance at getting a second date.  I’m going to do a little video series on that and see what the response is.

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Be sure to stop by each Monday for my exclusive mourning after exit interviews with each exiled foodie (HERE). This year I have also added the WTVC (WannabeTVchef) Food Network Star Polls – six categories for contestants who best embody the spirit of former Food Network Star competitors. Be sure to check them out HERE. Click HERE to get all the news, gossip and snark on Food Network Star season 7.

Food Network Star Exit Interview: Justin Balmes

Four weeks in and we have seen some very talented cooks fall to the way side.  Unfortunately some mediocre cooks are still on the show.  It was a shame to Food Network Star Justin Balmeswatch Justin Balmes leave.  He was one of best pure cooks on the series.  Not just this year but all time.  It’s too bad the camera was not his friend because he had a lot to offer the Food Network audience.

After some fireworks in last week’s exit interview with Alicia Sanchez and her suggestion that poor performances were scripted I couldn’t wait to hear what Justin had to say about his time on Food Network Star.  Incidentally, Alicia has since removed her blog post about her experiences on the show and she was a no show for the live Tweeting where she had promised she would be “tweeting no holes barred for the rest of the competition.”  I guess the legal department gave her a call.

Justin did not make any of the suggestions of scripted outcomes that Alicia did but he was resolute about the food that got him eliminated.  He stated emphatically that he believed his food to be superior to other contestants who were retained, “send me home for my personality or my static camera work fine.  But as far as the food being critiqued that day for that to be my ultimate final straw I personally found to be ridiculous.  Somebody was turning out burnt mac and cheese or bubblegum lamb?  That’s borderline insulting.”  He also stated that other members of the cast and even the production crew were just as stunned as he was that it was him and not someone else going home at show’s end.

Not exactly fireworks but certainly good copy.  He also named his favorites to win it as Whitney “technically speaking” and Jeff “as far as passion and POV and staying true.”  Justin has more to say about all of this on his Facebook page.  It’s a good read.

You’re from Atlanta which is also the home town of Herb Mesa and Brianna Jenkins from last year’s cast.  Did you seek them out before going on the show?

No.  Actually I teach part-time down at Viking, down at the cooking school in Atlanta mid town and I think Brianna had done some work with them back in the day.  I gathered bits and pieces but as far as making any sort of real contact, no I didn’t.

Earlier this month you told the Atlanta Journal Constitution (HERE) that you, “wanted the home cook to really get to know their food.”  Can you explain what you mean?

Of course.  With my original show concept on Food Network Star I wanted to have episodes of my show based solely around single ingredients.  One episode would be just about beef.  It would show different cuts of beef, different cooking techniques, applications, pairings, etc.  Then do another show on different types of fish.  Do another show on vegetables or fruits that are in season.

I basically wanted the home viewer to connect with their food and not necessarily recite recipes and not cook-by-numbers but create their own.  They’re gaining this knowledge and understanding through getting to know their ingredients.

I further developed the concept as the show went on, sadly they did not show that, of sort of turning it into a kind of a micro Dirty Jobs where I would go to a ranch or a farm and work for the day.  You know, centered around whatever specific ingredient was special to that place.  And then from there kind of like a Follow That Food where I would go from there to like a local market and where that food arrived, that sense of community and people getting excited about it.  And then from there bringing it into a kitchen in front of a small studio audience.  Preparing it and really going into the back-story, explaining the hows and whys and what’s special about it.

I feel like with as many shows about “extreme foods” and cakes and sweets and this and that and the other well let’s get people in touch with real food and be socially responsible.  I feel like this show would be very much in line with that philosophy.

I thought you were one of the the best pure cooks on the show this year; is their a cookbook in your future?

Absolutely.  I’ve certainly got some ideas now; I’ve got a plethora of recipes that I could work with.  That’s definitely something that I’m very interested in doing.  Cooking is paramount for me and I also really enjoy writing.  I think that would be a natural combination there and ultimately a win.

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Be sure to stop by each Monday for my exclusive mourning after exit interviews with each exiled foodie (HERE). This year I have also added the WTVC (WannabeTVchef) Food Network Star Polls – six categories for contestants who best embody the spirit of former Food Network Star competitors. Be sure to check them out HERE. Click HERE to get all the news, gossip and snark on Food Network Star season 7.

Food Network Star Exit Interview: Alicia Sanchez

Week three has come and gone and sadly so has Alicia Sanchez.  She was in the bottom again this week.  Despite the fact that her food seemed better than both Mary Beth and Susie’s I think it was her cumulative performance on the show that ultimately was her undoing.  And like Alicia said, “It’s not about other people.  My evaluation is about me.”

Another thing that derailed her was that the person who had the worst performance was on the winning team thus saving him from elimination.  Chris’ performance was the worst thing we have seen on Food Network Star since Aaron McCargo’s total meltdown in season four.  Worse than Debbie Lee, worse than “bacon steak.”

Alicia posted this on her Facebook page today, it’s about what happens when you’re booted, “I am currently working on a blog post about what you do when you get kicked off the show. Here’s a hint: you don’t go home! You are banished to someplace I’d like to call “Reality Show Purgatory” in a hotel off the side of a highway in LA with droves of other reality show contestants who have been eliminated from various shows..STAY TUNED!!! Hmm…This sounds like the makings of a really good spin off reality show!”

I really like Alicia.  She has a loveable quality about her.  She is not like the stereotypical fashion models that you see on TV or like I have met out in LA.  Perhaps that is what endeared her to me.  She was not trying to use her looks to get the show; she wanted to earn it.  She wears her heart on her sleeve and sometimes (OK more than sometimes) that means crying when things don’t go well.  When asked about her crying Alicia said, “I was definitely labeled as the crier.  Other people cried too.  I’m not the only person that cried but I am the only person that they showed.”

The scene where you were in the market with Alton was to me the best sequence in episode one, can you describe what it was like taking direction from Alton?

Alicia Sanchez of Food Network StarIt was a huge surprise that Alton Brown showed up there.  It was great taking direction from him.  He really knows what he’s talking about.  Even though I had a little mini breakdown he really calmed me down and was able to get our entire team to focus.  I can’t think of another star on the Food Network that would be better suited to help us than Alton Brown.

In what ways has being on Food Network Star changed your life?

A lot of different ways including that I’m getting recognized which is hilarious to me.  Somebody recognized in the bathroom yesterday.  I was actually in Boulder, Colorado at my little brother’s wedding and we were having brunch and I was in the bathroom washing my hands and this woman was just starring at me.  And I thought Geez, do I have some spinach in my teeth? Then she said are you the girl from Food Network Star? So then of course I have a 20 minute conversation with a complete stranger in a bathroom about being on Food Network Star.  That part has been really fun.

Who on the show are you still good friends with?

I am still good friends with Whitney Chen.  I talk often with Orchid, she’s back in South Carolina.  I love both of the Justins.  I love Juba.  He actually stayed at my apartment in New York while I was out of town.  He was coming to New York so I let him use my apartment.  And I loved Susie and Mary Beth.

Alicia also had a lot more to say about the entire behind the scenes drama of episode three in her blog, Dish with Lish, but that post has since disappeared. On it she had warned, “Tune in on Sunday and follow me on Twitter- I will be tweeting no holes barred for the rest of the competition @AliciaSanchezNY”  Who knows if that will happen now.

During our phone call she did briefly touched on her relationship with Penny, “All of what was said about me in the first episode was completely behind my back.  I was OK with Penny.  She had a problem with me from the word go.  At the time she was just kind of an annoyance to me because I thought she was kind of bossing and controlling.  I didn’t realize that she. . . It came off that she hated me.  I didn’t really feel that when I was actually on the show.  But watching it in hindsight my jaw dropped.”

[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!

Be sure to stop by each Monday for my exclusive mourning after exit interviews with each exiled foodie (HERE). This year I have also added the WTVC (WannabeTVchef) Food Network Star Polls – six categories for contestants who best embody the spirit of former Food Network Star competitors. Be sure to check them out HERE. Click HERE to get all the news, gossip and snark on Food Network Star season 7.

I am currently working on a blog post about what you do when you get kicked off the show. Here’s a hint: you don’t go home! You are banished to someplace I’d like to call “Reality Show Purgatory” in a hotel off the side of a highway in LA with droves of other reality show contestants who have been eliminated from various shows..STAY TUNED!!! Hmm…This sounds like the makings of a really good spin off reality show!

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up


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