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'Food Network Star': Will Damaris Phillips be the new Paula Deen?

August 12, 2013|By Rene Lynch
  • Damaris Phillips celebrates her "Food Network Star" Season 9 victory.
Damaris Phillips celebrates her "Food Network Star" Season… (Food Network )

Damaris Phillips is Food Network's newest star and its newest Southern star and perhaps the star who can help fill the gap left in Paula Deen's wake.

Damaris, a culinary instructor from Louisville, Ky., said Monday morning that winning was overwhelming, and audiences saw her struggling to process the reality of how her life was about to change. "I was really in shock... I was trying not to cry and trying not to lose it. I think I was a little like a possum there."

The exact scope of her new show is still being worked out, Damaris told The Times on Monday morning, but this much is clear: "You’ll see me cooking modern Southern food." And there's a good chance that food with have a healthier bent to it.

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"It's always good to update your food, it's always exciting to learn and update new flavor profiles," she said. Damaris added that she wants to help broaden the definition of Southern cooking -- it's not all chicken fried steak and gravy -- to include, say, all the abundant vegetables and produce found in the South.

"Where we can, I'd like to cut out sugars," she said. "I don't want to make food that is unhealthy."

A yummy upside: "Modernizing the food sometimes means we can have it every day."

Damaris' victory in Season 9 of "Food Network Star" goes into the history books as a come-from-behind win, a win gritted out by a woman who took the criticism that was handed her -- and boy, was it ever -- and rolled with it.

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Nearly ever competitor at some point on the show gets a backhand from the judges. But much of the feed directed at Damaris took aim at her insistence on playing the shimmying, eyelash-batting coquette. It's a role that -- putting it nicely -- passed up Damaris some time ago. And every time she pulled one of those stunts, like when she was either half drunk or playing half drunk and flirtatiously handing judge Alton Brown his cocktail during the 4th of July Live challenge... it left viewers cringing.

But here's the thing about "Food Network Star." Perhaps more than any other reality TV show, "Food Network Star" forces competitors to break down all their emotional barriers on air -- and, if there's time, rebuild a more vulnerable personality. Because audiences like vulnerability.

And no one was more vulnerable this season than Damaris. The judges' criticism brought her to hot tears on numerous occasions. But like any good Southern belle, Damaris determined to find a way around, over, under and then finally smashing through her preconceived notions about what a woman needs to do on TV to get the camera's favorable attention.

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"I was embarrassed a lot," Damaris said quietly. But she said her mom taught her that embarrassment offers a valuable opportunity to look at yourself and see if what people are saying holds some truth. "They definitely afforded me the opportunity to look at myself, and see who I really am, and who I wanted people to be able to see."

In the end, it was her genuinely sweet and sweetly zany personality that helped Damaris beat out the Pie Guy and Never-Met-a-Sin-I-Didn't-Like Russell, based on viewer votes. In doing so, Damaris and her modern take on Southern food will deliver a much-needed demographic to Food Network.

That is not to say she can replace Paula Deen. There is no replacing Paula Deen. And at this point, that "hey y'all" and "deep fry anything that moves" take on Southern cooking might not need to be replaced. (After all, there are Paula Deen reruns and recipes for those who want them.)

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But Southern cooking is a national treasure, and Damaris' culinary background can help viewers explore it in new and exciting ways. Minus the shimmy.

What do you think? Did the right person win Season 9 of "Food Network Star"? Will you watch Damaris' new show? And, perhaps most important: Does Damaris have what it takes to create her own brand on Food Network? Save Guy Fieri, no other winner of this show has created mega success for the network. Can Damaris smash that barrier, too?


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