D.C. lawyer-turned-food-writer Mary Beth Albright got thisclose to the finale of “Food Network Star,” but was knocked out of the running in the “Iron Chef America”-themed episode that aired tonight. Albright was praised (again) for her ability to commentate, criticized for her food, and handicapped by a sous-chef who seemed determined to chop onions as sloooooowly as possible. I talked to Albright, 38, after watching an advance copy of tonight’s episode, agreeing to keep the outcome secret until 11 p.m. Edited excerpts of that conversation, and an earlier one, follow.
Joe Yonan: I would ask you how you’re feeling about this, but I really should ask how you were feeling, because you’ve known about the outcome a lot longer than any of the rest of us have.
Mary Beth Albright: Of course, I’m disappointed, and, you know, the feeling doesn’t go away easily. You’re putting yourself on the line, you’re putting your dream on the line, right? You can put it in a box and put it away, or you can give it oxygen, and I chose to give it oxygen in a way that’s completely exposing myself to anyone who wants to watch Food Network. It’s a very un-Washington thing to do.
JY: I suppose the most obvious next question is the Monday morning quarterback thing: What would you have done differently?
MBA: When I met [last season’s winner] Aarti [Sequeira], she said make sure to not strangle the experience. It’s about bringing energy to a situation rather than expecting energy from it. I think it’s so important in life, and something I really learned about myself and now practice every single day. You have to bring energy to a situation, no matter how down or compressed you feel, because you can’t expect to get energy from anybody. People are there to be taught, to be entertained, to learn something new and different about food, and if you’re feeling down you have to bring energy anyway. I saw myself at times not bringing that energy.
With the “Iron Chef” challenge, I remember going into that experience and saying, “I’m going to have fun with this, I’m going to be creative with it.” My mind went in a thousand different pieces because it really was like a shattering bullet exploded in my mind. You’re trying to be creative, you’re trying to figure out what’s even there. The secret ingredient is revealed, and, boom, go! And it didn’t know anything that was in the pantry, refrigerator, equipment, and it’s a really big venue. I was thinking, “I’ve got to just get through it,” rather than really saying to myself, “Sit back, give yourself 5 or 10 minutes, consider what you’re doing.”
JY: Have you made lamb chops since then?
MBA: I returned to my Waterloo the next day. Rack of lamb was on sale at Whole Foods the week I came back. I’ve actually made all three of those dishes since then, and improved them. Making a vinaigrette, for anyone who cooks at home, it’s such a simple thing to do that can really enhance a dish, and I can’t believe I didn’t make a vinaigrette, because it’s such an easy thing to do. It just didn’t occur to me.
JY: Okay, now. How ridiculous was that with Penny [her sous-chef, randomly assigned in the challenge]? I mean, really! She was moving in slow-mo. And it seemed so deliberate.
MBA: What do you mean “seemed”? Look, I’ll be the first to say I made mistakes that were all my own. I’m not here to blame anyone, to harbor resentment against anyone, but it was pretty surprising. I’m not only on one of these competition shows, I’m an avid consumer of them, and I’ve never seen anything like this. But let me say that I don’t consider myself cheated or sabotaged. I think the three people that are in the finals are amazing. It’s like Bobby Flay said, anything can happen in Kitchen Stadium. An electrical outlet could have been out, or something. But you know, Whitney [her competitor’s sous-chef] worked the line at Per Se. She’s amazing. In any situation, I’d rather have Whitney as a sous-chef than Penny.
JY: They criticized your food, but Giada [de Laurentiis] said things like, “You’re so eloquent, I’m taking pointers from you,” and Bob [Tuschman] said you describe food in a way that makes him fall in love with it. What does that mean for what you might do next? Given the writerly aspects of your background, you seem like a good candidate for host duties, a la Adam Gertler.
MBA: I got to meet him, and I said to him, “I consider you the Jennifer Hudson of Food Network Star.” I think about it a lot. I think there’s a lot of texture to a show about Sunday suppers, and Bob Tuschman said in the very first episode that my perch as a food writer gives me a perspective that not a lot of other people have and that a lot of other people are interested in. I want to bring that to a show, whether it’s a straight cooking show, or a different genre of show, like what Adam has done. There are a lot of people who have not won who have shows. I would love to work with Food Network on that kind of a hosting show. And I think Washington is an incredible food city, so I’d love to do something involving that.
JY: I’m assuming you know who wins, so I can’t ask you whom your money’s on, but I will ask you to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the three remaining finalists. Let’s start with Jeff, the comic.
MBA: Jeff is an extraordinary performer. That episode where he did “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” and interviewed Piper the waitress was spot on, like it was the real show. He is a fantastic performer. But he wrestles with the line. Where is the line with crossing over into blue humor? He’s a dad and he’s a great cook and has a lot of soul.
Susie is just an extraordinarily gifted cook. That dish she made at the Wolfgang Puck dinner was craveable. I would pay a lot of money for that in a restaurant. And she’s got the soul of a Mexican cook, not just from herself but generations of people before her. You can’t fake that. I think she has a challenge of making that unique to herself. There are a lot of wonderful, great people who are great Mexican cooks who aren’t even from Mexico. Her challenge is to make sure she always infuses everything she does with the personal anecdotes that go along with them, because that’s what makes people want to cook the dishes.
Vic is a very good chef. I think he wrestles with where his cooking comes from inside him, the whole “Momma’s Boy” versus Vegas thing. That’s a bigger challenge than just cooking, of course. He needs to distill out who he is. I actually think you can be both. It’s just a matter of articulating that. He’s had some culinary misfires. The “lachanga” [a fried lasagna-stuffed tortilla] is not something people are going to want to make, but it does show creativity. But I’ve had some misfires too.
JY: That brings us to you. What about your own strong and weak points?
MBA: How much time have you got? I think my strengths are that I do have a wide spectrum of food knowledge and I can bring that to life with cuisines across the spectrum, five stars or food trucks. My challenge has been adapting to the forum. There were definitely times I didn’t cook well, and other times I cooked well but didn’t bring my full energy to it because I spent my energy worrying about whether I cooked well. And that’s just silly. Why even cook well if you’re not going to get up there and own whatever you made?
JY: What are your favorite things you made on the show?
MBA: I’ve gotten literally hundreds of emails about my meatloaf. I posted the recipe on my blog. There are more than 100 comments on that meatloaf right now. It’s crazy. A big part of it is that when Paula Deen says it’s going to change the way she makes meatloaf because of your meatloaf, people want the recipe. And the cupcakes. Ina Garten said she would download the cupcake recipe. I love it. There’s a half bottle of wine in the frosting. Go big or go home, Joe! The duck with the blackberry sauce, they loved. My own craziness, though, caused me to not do so well. Those are the foods that really resonated with people, and that I’m most proud of.
JY: You’ve mentioned Ina before. Is she the current Food Network star you most would like to emulate?
MBA: It’s Ina, definitely. I get verklempt just talking about her. She has this great ability to take this food lifestyle -- she lives in the Hamptons -- and make it so accessible to everyone. She also leads a very sane life that also seems very orderly. She does what she does, she stays in her lane, she does it amazingly well, and she connects with people because of that.
Last weekend I did the Food Network Food and Wine Festival in Atlantic City, and I loved having people come up to me talking about food and how they connect to their families around food, and I just want more of that.
When we met Ina, she said, “Oh my gosh, I could never go through this,” meaning the Food Network challenge genre. It got me thinking, there are a thousand diff paths to the same destination. It’s a forum that we chose, so it’s not shocking, We knew what we were getting into, but you don’t quite know what we’re getting into.