- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Emilia Cirker’s lifelong hunger for competition has paid off. The former head pastry chef for the Washington Redskins will appear on “Food Network Star: Comeback Kitchen,” premiering Sunday.

“I was excited about [joining] the culinary world. I wanted to test my gusto,” Ms. Cirker told The Washington Times.

“Comeback Kitchen” marks her second time on the show and her fourth appearance on Food Network. She previously appeared on “Food Network Star” in 2015 and on Alton Brown’s “Cutthroat Kitchen,” which she won in 2016.

This time around, it’s different for both Ms. Cirker and “Comeback Kitchen.” Unlike previous versions of the show, this season comprises all former contestants of “Food Network Star.”

“I went in naive,” Ms. Cirker said of her first time on the competition. “I was focused on food and cooking and forgot that it was a competition.”

Ms. Cirker’s cooking style is influenced not only by her French culinary training but also her upbringing in a family of cooks. (Her grandfather even owned a restaurant.) The Cirkers moved frequently, she said, enjoying the cuisine of each successive new town.

“I didn’t realize all of this until I started to feed myself,” Ms. Cirker said and laughed.

When she’s not cooking for other people, the chef enjoys preparing fish, often with flavors of her northern Italian heritage like olives, oranges and fennel.

Before taking up the chef’s apron full-time, Ms. Cirker was a beauty pageant contestant and, later, a software executive. But “the passion was in my blood all along,” she said of her career shift to the kitchen. “I found my way in the culinary world [and] my breed of people.”

Despite Ms. Cirker’s competitive streak, she says she has an organic approach to achieving her own culinary goals. “I just wanted to do my best,” she said.

Part of being her best involves appreciating that food is more than sustenance: Food is art you can eat, she said.

Unfortunately, during her first time on “Food Network Star” in 2015, Ms. Cirker said her food presentation was lacking. “I knew my food was good, but the presentation was pitiful,” she said.

It was Ms. Cirker’s first experience on TV, and her nerves got the better of her in another way too.

“Being in front of camera is really raw,” she said. “I never realized what a challenge actors’ jobs are. Being consistent, portraying exactly what you’re trying to portray when you’re essentially interacting with a wall is really challenging.

“I was terrified of the camera,” she said. “It scared the bejeezus out of me.”

Her fear translated on TV screens as coldness and diffidence. Some critics even labeled her an “ice princess.”

But mentor and judge Giada De Laurentiis was quick to talk up the TV newbie up, telling Ms. Cirker, “You’re acting like you think they want you to be.”

“I wasn’t being myself,” Ms. Cirker said, adding that Ms. De Laurentiis told her, “I don’t think you know what people really love about you.”

“Giada is super intuitive,” Ms. Cirker said of the Italian personality, who returns as a judge alongside Bobby Flay this season. (Tyler Florence and Valerie Bertinelli co-host the series.)

After her first experience on a Food Network show, Ms. Cirker, who grew up in Reston, Virginia, said she engaged in some serious soul-searching to discover how to come across as warmer on television.

However, she says there’s a major difference between coming off as strong versus “tough.”

“Tough doesn’t come off as a good thing — a tough day, a tough week,” she said.

“Strong,” however, has less of a negative connotation.

For “Comeback Kitchen,” she said her mission was to combine her naturally strong tendencies with her softer side, which includes a love of babies, puppies and flowers.

“I’m so relieved I got to be my quirky-as-hell self this time,” she said.

Ms. Cirker said her experiences on Food Network have been overwhelmingly positive.

“I shed some fear, grew as a person and engage more meaningfully with people” now, she said. “It was the coolest and … very public therapy session.”

But did she redeem herself? The chef believes so.

“The best redemption was on the first challenge,” Ms. Cirker said. “I didn’t feel nervous, and I went in strong.”

“Foot Network Star: Comeback Kitchen” premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Food Network.



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