- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Long before Valerie Bertinelli was known the world over for her modeling and acting career — to say nothing of being the former spouse of guitar god Eddie Van Halen — she learned how to cook under the tutelage of her Italian “Noni,” or grandmother.

“I would watch her roll out cappelletti and gnocchi. She [and my aunt] would make fresh bread and not look at recipe cards,” Miss Bertinelli told The Washington Times of her formative years in the family kitchen. “At 56, I’m still learning new dishes and new things and new techniques, and that’s what I love about food and cooking and baking — there’s always something to learn.”

Little wonder that Miss Bertinelli has ventured into food-based entertainment, including the reality shows “Valerie’s Home Cooking,” “Kids Baking Championship” and “Food Network Star: Comeback Kitchen,” the competition show that has its finale Sunday on Food Network.

The actress said that, as a longtime fan of the Food Network, she was “in awe” the first time she stepped into the kitchen set.

“I’ve been a big fan of the show for many, many, many years,” she said. “I took a picture and Instagrammed it immediately [with a tag] of ‘Oh, where am I?’”

Miss Bertinelli enjoys not only sampling the wares of the competing chefs but also working with co-host Tyler Florence.

“He is a ridiculously amazingly, talented chef and … it was just a really fun, surreal thing for me to do. I mean, I just sound like a gushing fan, it’s kind of embarrassing,” she said with a good-natured laugh.

For the Sunday finale, the five finalists will conduct their own web stream, putting their culinary skills not only on TV but on the Internet. In a twist, the remaining four will then have to work together to put on a 20-minute live show in front of the studio audience.

“It’s that same high-intensity race to see who is going to win and how they can cook the dish that’s going to get them through,” the hostess said of the finale.

The evening’s winner — chosen by Miss Bertinelli and Mr. Florence — will then move on to compete against other previous show winners on “Food Network Star,” which will also premiere Sunday evening.

“We all know about food more than we give ourselves credit for, especially all of us home cooks who are trying to put meals together for our family,” Miss Bertinelli said. “It’s the one thing we all have in common: We have to eat.”

While, yes, everyone needs victuals, only a select few, like Miss Bertinelli, get to be on TV as regularly as she has — since being a preteen.

“I thought, well, I’m going to take my expertise of home cooking along with my expertise of having been on television since I was 11, 12 years old, and I will give them as much help as I can in that area,” Miss Bertinelli said of marrying her passions for media and food.

In her recent acting career, from 2010 to 2015 Miss Bertinelli co-starred on the show “Hot in Cleveland” with legendary nonagenarian Betty White.

“She is an amazing woman. She is so full of gratitude about this business, and she doesn’t walk around like, ‘Hey, I’m Betty White,’ you know ‘bow down,’” Miss Bertinelli said of the comedy legend who is still working and making audiences laugh at the spry age of 94. “And she’s grateful. Not for being alive, she’s grateful because she lives a life that she loves to live. She loves her animals, she loves her work at the zoo. The woman never stops.”

Getting to know the people behind the “Food Network Star” contestants, Miss Bertinelli said, has been one of the most satisfying parts of her assignment.

“It’s what you do under pressure and how you behave under pressure, and sometimes you don’t realize that camera actually is moving while you say something you regret,” she said. “I just realized how human they were, and I have a soft spot for every single one of them.”

After such a lengthy and successful career, when asked what Miss Bertinelli would still like to do, she laughs and responds simply: “Sleep.”

“Just sleep for eight hours for one night, just one. Give me that,” she said with a laugh. “No, I’m a pretty lucky girl, so I can’t complain, because no one would listen to me anyway.”

The finale of “Food Network Star: Comeback Kitchen” airs Sunday on Food Network. “Food Network Star” premieres Sunday as well.

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