Washingtonians have a local name to cheer on in the seventh season of “Food Network Star,” the show whose most famous graduate is the spiky-haired, omnipresent Guy Fieri. After a difficult first episode (Bobby Flay chastised her, “Mediocre is not going to make the grade”), Cleveland Park lawyer-turned-writer/teacher Mary Beth Albright , 38, staged an episode-two comeback that had the judges praising her wit, poise and cooking ability. All that as the snakes circled, in true reality-TV style.
As episode three looms (at 9 p.m. Sunday), I talked to Albright about the unique medium of competitive television, her “culinary point of view” and the strategies of her competitors. Edited excerpts follow:
Joe Yonan: You’ve been working primarily in print media, with radio and TV appearances. Why were you interested in being on “Food Network Star”?
Mary Beth Albright: Sometimes I feel like a writer without a pen these days. I’m a home cook, I haven’t been professionally trained, and I feel like there are so many passionate home cooks, particularly in D.C., who are weekend warriors and pour their passions in the kitchen. I really relate to that. And I feel like I have that message to bring to people, that there are great, creative things to do every single night in the kitchen whether you’re working in food or not. And there’s no platform like Food Network to deliver a message.
JY: How is the medium of television proving different from your previous work?
MBA: The medium of the television competition show particularly is really interesting. I’m coming to it as a writer, and some of the writing I do is criticism. Those evaluations before the judges, you need to be really confident about yourself and what you’re representing, but at the same time you need to be really open to their comments and criticism. It’s so interesting to have to be both confident and open, and then afterwards figure out what the hell to do differently to improve. The first episode, I wasn’t fully being myself, and they called me out on it. It’s really a process of opening myself up, which is a hard thing to do in Washington. A lot of people here like to control their own personas.
JY: It looks positively terrifying to me.
MBA: The terrifying part is not cooking something in 30 minutes — whatever, no problem. Being creative and talking about what you’re doing and incorporating some random ingredient that they might throw at you — that’s different. It’s very tough to be creative under that kind of pressure. Fast and creative? Very difficult. Partly because I’ve never cooked in a restaurant before.
This next week’s episode is a dessert challenge, which strikes terror in the hearts of many already, but this is cooking for 150 people, and cooking for Duff Goldman and Robert Irvine.
JY: How do you think you’re coming across on the show, compared to the other contestants?
MBA: I’ll be really honest. I think I have not fully opened up my personality on the show at this point, which is a really difficult thing for me to both say and see, because I am somebody who left my legal career, which was a great career, to follow this passion for connecting people through food. You have this opportunity to have this huge platform, and if I’m not bringing myself to the table I’m not going to bring anybody else to the table, either.
JY: How have your thoughts about what kind of Food Network show you envision for yourself evolved since you started this process?
MBA: I’ve watched all past six seasons of the show. It’s not a shock that you get there, and they call for your culinary point of view. But it’s still difficult, because it has to come from something deep inside of you. The first episode, I thought, writing is an interesting perch, so I’ll talk about that. But it didn’t feel quite right. It’s definitely a process of searching for the right thing. I can’t talk about future shows, but everything I do comes down to connecting people through food.
JY: If you don’t get a show as a result, do you think —
MBA: I don’t accept the premise of your question.
JY: It’s true that the first thing they teach you in media training is that if you don’t like the question, answer a different question! But do you think it will have been worth it if it doesn’t work out?
MBA: Unequivocally, yes. I don’t know how it’s going to end up playing out, but I can tell you that from a personal perspective it’s given me a whole new appreciation for criticism generally, because I really took the criticism that the judges gave me and used it to make myself better. I am now a better cook than when I started the show, and I am a better teacher. I’m 38 years old, I had an opportunity at this point in my life after changing a career so recently. Or evolving a career, I should say, since I was writing before I quit the legal job. I think you can’t leave this experience unchanged. I changed for the better, as a cook and as somebody who believes in following a passion regardless of where it takes you.
JY: Justin D. is also a blogger who’s coming into his own. Who’s your biggest competition on the show? Is he up there?
MBA: He is. The first thing I have to say is I was very much focused on my own cutting board, the whole time. There are times when I would look up and have no idea what anybody else had made. Zero idea. My biggest competition, always always always, is myself.
The way I think about it is, whose show would I watch? You know what I mean? I have to say they are all extraordinarily talented. There wasn’t one person who was a complete train wreck.
MBA: (laughs) Well, keep in mind I was living with these people 24 hours a day. These were my comrades in arms.
JY: But were you surprised that some people came onto the show with such weak camera skills? How did you know that you’d be better than that, or did you?
MBA: There’s a big difference between doing the audition stuff, which you can see online, and standing in a room with a camera and trying to bring something alive, for the camera. On the one hand, it’s like, really, you’re so shocked that you are on camera? It’s a show about getting a television show! But there’s something so do or die about the moment. It’s that Olympic moment: Can you knock out the double axel? And that’s after you’ve been cooking for such a long time, and you’re watching everybody else’s demo. For me, because I wasn’t paying attention to what people were cooking, it was easier to concentrate on my own performance.
JY: So what is your culinary style? The culinary point of view the judges always talk about?
MBA: My culinary style is very much home cooked, things that can involve other people and that focus on the community aspect of cooking, whether it’s bringing in the gardening element like I did when teaching the kids of Congressional workers, or a special occasion kind of thing. It’s not so much entertaining, because that’s such a loaded word for so many people — they get hives at the idea — it’s just that it’s an opportunity three times a day, or six if you’re like me, to connect with other people around a meal, or even just with yourself.
It’s something we’ve grown away from, as I saw from working with those kids. These are parents who work on the Hill, not parents who live in a food desert. They have access to fresh food, and it’s still difficult for them to put fresh meals on the table, and I totally get that. I try to make it about the community aspect so the burden is not so much on one person.
JY: Congrats on the recent episode. That was gutsy to move to the front station so the firing line would see you up close and be able to ask questions. It was like on — I’m blanking on the name of that 1970s drama with John Houseman as the law professor? You should know this one, as a former lawyer.
MBA: “The Paper Chase”! Yes, I thought about that, too. Honestly, when I walked into the kitchen and saw all those chefs waiting to quiz us as we cooked, I couldn’t have been more excited, because that’s what I do: I cook in my kitchen, and people sit there and ask me questions. To me, that felt like the most natural thing I could do in that moment. Ask me anything, I don’t care. I had my whole schedule written out, and so it was just the bee’s knees. I loved it.
JY: Bob Tuschman says you “aced” the challenge, Anne Burrell says she enjoyed watching you cook. Giada said you blossomed. How were you feeling coming off that and going into episode three airing this weekend?
MBA: I say this: Life is like hair. No matter how good a hair day you have, you gotta do it all over again the next day.
JY: OK, so we have to talk about Penny.
JY: Yes, we do.
MBA: On the record, or off the record?
JY: Well, how about both? What do you think of Penny’s move to knock out Orchid and of picking you and the other women for her team based on the assumption she would beat you? Is she brilliant or a snake or both?
MBA: I’m fine with people being competitive. My problem is with people not being straight. To me, it’s sort of like, “How you do one thing in life is how you do everything in life.” If you’re someone who says one thing to one person and one thing to another…just be willing to say it to my face. That’s how I feel about that. I have no problem with competitive, having strategy, knocking people out. That’s not how I play the game. I was just trying to do my best, every single week. I hear Richard Hatch is in L.A. somewhere. Maybe they can sit down and have a drink together.
JY: That would be perfect. So voting is still open for fan favorite, right?
MBA: Yes, that goes for awhile. I think, actually, until the end of the show. So that is still up. I would love to have your support and the support of everyone within earshot.