- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A chef’s kitchen may be far removed from a TV soundstage, but for contestants on “Food Network Star,” combining cooking with entertaining is what they’ve always wished to do. They vie to have their own show on the network, and get a shot at celebrity and culinary greatness.

Two D.C.-area chefs — Emilia Cirker and Alex McCoy — will represent the nation’s capital as contestants for the 11th season of the show, which premieres Sunday.

A beauty pageant veteran with a French culinary degree, Ms. Cirker teaches courses in the kitchen trades, and fired up the galley at FedEx Field as the former head pastry chef for the Washington Redskins.

“I have been kind of an obsessive Food Network fan since I remember being 6 years old watching Jacques Pepin and all those chefs [and] innovators on the TV,” Ms. Cirker told The Washington Times.

She knew she would be a perfect candidate for “Food Network Star,” one of her favorite shows.

“I have always had a really gregarious personality; I love to be the life of the party,” she said. “I’m very extroverted, and I’ve always gotten the comment that I should be followed around with a video camera because I say pretty ridiculous stuff.”

During her initial audition, producers told her that, while she had the verve for prime time, her lack of a culinary degree excluded her from competing against professional chefs. Not one to be told no, Ms. Cirker, 36, went to culinary school and graduated top of her class among a cohort of 18- and 19-year-olds.

“Half of them were hungover every day, and I just had to whine about waking up with a 3-month-old at 2 in the morning,” she said. “Culinary school was amazing and awesome, and that’s when I realized that this is the industry I will remain in for the rest of my life.”

Ms. Cirker said she faced age discrimination in culinary school, with professors telling her flat out she was too old to start out in her chosen profession.

But overcoming adversity, combined with her professional experience, has prepped her for the pressure and instilled the discipline for working under the spotlights — particularly her time on the Washington gridiron speaking truth to the power of the growling stomachs of Redskins.

“What we were brought in to do was to make sure we were mindful of treating their bodies like machines,” she said. “Are they getting proper nutrition? Some of these boys get fined $500 a week for every pound they’re overweight. So they would want a whole pizza, and we would be like, ‘Look … I would maybe recommend just one slice of pizza and then this beautiful plate of vegetables.’”

Mr. McCoy, 31, grew up just outside of Bethesda, the son of a politician father and a chef mother, under whose tutelage he learned the ins and outs of the restaurant biz.

“It’s just something I’ve always loved,” he said.

He became a head chef by the time he was 19 and a chef partner a few years later. Mr. McCoy had the grandiose notion of having his own restaurant before closing out his third decade. Through hard work, saving money and a little bit of luck, he opened Duke’s in Dupont Circle just before his 30th birthday.

“I found myself really loving the industry, not just one facet, but [also] the cooking side,” Mr. McCoy said, adding that his thoughts then turned to being a TV chef. “I always thought that was very interesting, that public side of it.

“When I was in college, I used to do extra work to make extra money. And so I really kind of fell in love with that kind of atmosphere, that kind of rush of the ‘action,’ ‘cut,’ ‘scene’ kind of thing. I started trying to figure out how I could work my way into that.”

Mr. McCoy got his first taste of TV gastronomy by gracing the NBC show “The Chopping Block” in 2008. Friends and colleagues suggested he try out for “Food Network Star,” which he said he never expected to land, but for which he promises his best when the new season begins Sunday. Ms. Cirker maintains that her lack of fear in front of a television camera may give her a leg up in the competition.

“It is a very, very different thing talking to a camera than it is talking to a human,” she said.

She also posits herself as uniquely able to embody feminist values on a national stage.

“I want to see women succeed in all areas, and I get along with the women on this show extraordinarily well,” she said, “so I think you’ll get to see some really cool power-to-the-women kind of thing, in a fun way. I think people expect, in these reality types of shows, for there to just be this crazy amount of drama. Not this season.”

Mr. McCoy said viewers can expect a lot of “hard cooking” from him on the show.

“I wanted to really challenge myself — and the other competitors — with the dishes that I prepared; I didn’t want to take the easy route,” he said. “And I also kind of wanted to showcase the different styles of cuisine that I could cook.”

He said that watching a TV cooking competition and actually competing in one are two, vastly different dishes — as he discovered himself. He found the show’s challenges more stressful than expected while trying to keep cool under pressure on a national stage.

“I think for someone who’s a chef or someone who’s worked in the industry before, to see some of those challenges, [you can] be like, ‘Oh, I can do that; that’ll be easy’ until you put yourself in their shoes. These are very difficult [and] really take you out of your comfort zone for sure. They don’t make it easy for you.”

Ms. Cirker said that, as a single mother, she realized how hard it was to finish culinary school and work full-time in a kitchen. She hopes to use “Food Network Star” to raise awareness and funds to help other single mothers get through similar training and become professional cooks.

“Imagine what a common skill-set it is for a single mom to be able to cook,” she said. “And if they need to provide incomes for their families, how amazing would it be for them to transition into a career where they’re using a skill set they’ve used at home — cooking?”

Though she is competing directly against Mr. McCoy, Ms. Cirker maintains the two friendly rivals bonded over their love of calling the District home.

“He and I became such incredible buddies, and I think this is the first time D.C. has really been so proudly represented on a show like this at the same time,” she said. “I want people in our town to be really excited this year, because we represent [D.C.] well.

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