Jessica Tom, Food Network Star winner, shares her food story


Jessica Tom, a Season 14 Food Network Star winner, found ultimate redemption and reward on the Food Network show, but what’s next for her.

In Food Network Star Season 14, two winners were crowned. Jessica Tom, Food Network Star winner, fought her way back to the title through this season’s Star Salvation. The food novelist definitely has a way of crafting her culinary descriptions. Now, with the title in her hands, what is next for the vivacious Tom?

Recently, Jess chatted with me about her experiences on Food Network Star, her thoughts on food trends and how the home cook can be more adventurous in the kitchen. Throughout this season, the competition was quite tumultuous. I asked Jess, who she thought would be her biggest threat or biggest competition. Jess said “Everyone? They all had such big personalities, different and interesting POVs, and brought a lot of experience — in the kitchen and on-camera — to the table.”

While the co-winner announcement was a huge surprise, Jess successfully came back to the competition through Star Salvation. That second chance proved to be a huge opportunity for the food novelist. For her, the additional competition kept her dream alive.

Contestant Jess Tom, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 14. photo provided by Food Network

Cristine Struble (CS): Having won Star Salvation, do you feel that experience and mentorship gave you an advantage in the final challenges?

Jessica Tom (JT): Yes and no. It gave me an advantage in that I had extra fire in my belly. Also, Alex Guarnaschelli offered a different take on my strengths and weaknesses, and that fresh perspective opened my eyes to other ways I could improve. But I was also at a disadvantage because I missed challenges that broadened the finalists’ skillsets, like producing Anne Burrell, or hosting Ree Drummond for a 10-minute demo. Plus, Bobby and Giada had more time to see the other finalists evolve and improve, while much of my growth was out of their view.

All the finalists in Food Network Star had unique points of view. From professional chefs to a firefighter, each individual brought their perspective to the competition. While Jess has a unique culinary background, the show focused on her career as a food novelist.

CS: Throughout Food Network Star, you were referred to as a food novelist. How much of your novel, Food Whore: A Novel of Dining & Deceit is based on real life experiences?

JT: Just for some background info, the book is about a young woman who secretly writes the New York Times restaurant review because the real critic has lost his sense of taste. She leads a double life — eating at glamorous restaurants and also living the life of a regular young woman. Eventually the lies catch up to her, and, well… I won’t spoil the rest! My life isn’t quite as dramatic, but the book touches on a lot of universals that I — and many others — have experienced. Entering adulthood with all its freedoms and pitfalls, finding your true voice, losing your first love, and making mistakes that make you so much stronger and wiser.

While the finale was just last week, the exact direction of her show and her appearances on Food Network haven’t been finalized yet. As more and more food fans want to explore the food world, it will be interesting to see what Jess and the Food Network take with her appearances. Jess said “I’m open to everything! Food Network and I still have a lot of conversations about what’s next.

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Guy's Big Project should replace Food Network Star as primary talent search competition
Guy's Big Project should replace Food Network Star as primary talent search competition /

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  • For foodies and fans of the Food Network, many people watch these shows to learn about food trends, cooking techniques and how to become a better cook. As a self-taught cook, Jess offers an approachability to her cooking. Those lessons learned in the kitchen are vital. Her best advice to home cooks is, “Just keep trying. Food is fun. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”

    As home cooks gain confidence in their cooking abilities, they are more willing to explore flavors and ingredients. Throughout this season of Food Network Star, Jess incorporated several less common ingredients into her recipes. While foodies might be familiar with these items, some viewers might be more apprehensive about using this bolder flavors.

    CS: Some of your recipes focus on Asian inspired flavors and ingredients, how would you entice the home cook to be more adventurous or experimental in the kitchen?

    JT: Start small and know that all ingredients are never truly foreign. They may look different, but they often function just like more familiar ingredients. Fish sauce adds saltiness and meatiness, like Parmesan or anchovies. Gochujang is sweet and spicy, like a barbecue sauce. Coconut milk adds richness and body, like cream or a roux.

    While cooking techniques are always important for the home cook to enhance their abilities, food trends are important, too. Although foods like sriracha and gochujang might be familiar now, these condiments were once less common to the home cook. Jess, and her cooking, embraces many food trends.

    CS: What current food trend should the home cook embrace?

    JT: Lately I’ve been obsessed with dukkah, a nut, spice, and herb blend from Egypt. It typically contains ingredients like hazelnuts, fennel seeds, coriander, mint, and sesame seeds, but you can have a lot of fun with substitutions. Swap in peanuts, cumin, coarsely ground pepper — the sky’s the limit. I use dukkah and dukkah-like blends everywhere. You can add it to olive oil and dip bread in it. Sprinkle it on salads. Mix it with your popcorn. Sometimes I just eat it straight.

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    Even though I might consider myself a foodie, I will honestly say that I have never had dukkah. With Jess’s recommendation, I am definitely looking to try this ingredient in my cooking. My cooking creativity is sparked, which is what I want from Food Network personalities. I look to these chefs and personalities to keep me in the kitchen, inspire me to explore flavor and create those food memories.

    Congratulations to Jessica Tom on her Food Network Star title and thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Now, I’m off to find some dukkah and explore some new recipes.