This season on “Food Network Star,” 15 contestants (including North Attleborough pastry chef Linkie Marais) were hand-picked to work in teams of five with one of three mentors, Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, and new addition Alton Brown. Flay spoke with us yesterday about the show, the new era of television chefs, and where he likes to eat around Boston. “Food Network Star” returns with a two-hour premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. on Food Network. There is also a casting special Saturday at 9 p.m.
Q. What kind of training did you undergo to transform from restaurant chef to television chef?
A. I didn’t. I didn’t know to. Now, things have changed. People have media trainers, they’re incredibly savvy, they’re students of the Food Network, they practice in their kitchen with an iPhone and can put it up on YouTube. All that is so new. When I did it, when Food Network first started, I was just cooking in my kitchens in my restaurants and they were like, “We need people to be on the network,” and I was like, “All right, I’ll come by.” I mean, it was as simple as that. I was terrible at it. So I had a chance over a period of years to sort of hone my skills as somebody in front of the camera while the Food Network was sort of getting underway. The people on “Food Star” have a matter of days or weeks to prove themselves, so it’s a very, very different thing at this point.
Q. Why the drastic format shift this season on “Food Network Star”?
A. The format has changed in a big way in terms of how it’s working this year. Giada and I have left the judging table and now we’re mentors. We each have five people and Alton Brown has his five. It’s really the three of us competing against each other with our own teams of finalists. And Bob Tuschman and Suzie Fogelson remain the judges, and they get rid of somebody every week. We’re constantly just mentoring people and just trying to make them better and trying to get them to find their inner self as a “Food Star.” I loved the process. I loved it so much more than judging. I feel like I don’t want to judge anything anymore. I’d much rather mentor people.
Q. As a mentor, what were you looking for when selecting your team?
A. The first thing I look for when I picked the people I wanted to audition – I picked about 25 people out of all the audition tapes – I was looking for the best cooks. I knew that as long as I had people that could really cook, I feel like I’m halfway there, and then I can teach them how to do television because they’d be confident about what they’d be doing. Giada feels like she can take somebody with a really good personality and teach them how to cook on TV. I just think it’s harder to teach somebody how to cook something than it is to teach them how to do television.
Q. Did you get competitive with your fellow mentors on behalf of your team?
A. Absolutely, 100 percent. The other thing is we get to produce [a Food Network show for] the person that wins if our person wins, so there’s something at stake for us as well, not just bragging rights.
Q. I’m sure you were giving out a lot of advice as a mentor. But what kind of advice do you have for both home cooks and aspiring chefs?
A. Well, that’s two very separate things. I always tell people when you’re cooking at home, cook simply and cook within yourself. The meals I make at home are really, really simple. People are always really surprised I’m not breaking out the caviar and the foie gras. I want to make a really simple pasta dish or a really simple fish dish, great steak. That’s how chefs eat at home. We execute it as well as we can, but we keep it very, very simple. In terms of people wanting to go into the restaurant business or wanting to go into the world as a chef, I always tell people before they start and spend the money to go to culinary school, go work in a restaurant, even for like a month, even if it’s for free, and just see if they like the environment. It’s a very different environment than cooking at home.
Q. When you come to this area, where do you eat?
A. I love the flavors of New England. I’m a huge fan of shellfish, lobsters, and mollusks, most oysters and clams and steamers. I’m not going to say [where I eat] because every time I say, I get in trouble with somebody else. But I like Michael Schlow’s restaurants a lot. I also like to go to Flour Bakery for a sticky bun. That stuff is ridiculous.
Q. What do you have planned after this season of “Food Network Star”?
A. I have a limited series, only six weeks, coming out this summer called “Three Days to Open” where I find six places [with] people who have never opened a restaurant or food business before and I go in and help them get open. I’m also working on opening a Bobby’s Burger Palace in Burlington. We’re just signing the lease now, so it won’t [open] for a little while.
Interview was condensed and edited.
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ContributorsSheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.
Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.
Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.