Food & Drink

Feast Q&A: Napa home cook ready for ‘All-Star’

Participant cook Sharon Damante of Napa will compete in the Food Network’s “All-Star Academy.”
Participant cook Sharon Damante of Napa will compete in the Food Network’s “All-Star Academy.” Food Network

Becoming a Food Network “All-Star” takes more than some good chops. In addition to solid kitchen skills, cooks who aspire to TV’s culinary spotlight need panache, determination and a great memory.

Napa’s Sharon Damante, 52, found that out when she was chosen for Food Network’s new “All-Star Academy,” which debuts March 1. She’s among 10 contestants who team with chef/mentors Bobby Flay, Alex Guarnaschelli, Curtis Stone and Michael Symon for a chance at a $50,000 grand prize. Ted Allen hosts.

This “All-Star” opportunity culminates a foodie dream for Damante, a former Florida advertising executive. She moved to Napa four years ago with her husband, Frank, who works at Darioush Winery. On TV, contestants have to take the heat of kitchen competition, she said. “If you’re a wilting lily, this is not for you.”

Q: How did you get involved with “All-Star Academy?”

A: I had been looking for an opportunity to get on Food Network for a while. ... Moving to California was really about exploring our dreams and achieving our goals, and that was one of mine. I do love my advertising career; it’s very creative. But my life force is food. So, I was looking for a way to get onto the Food Network and see if I had what it takes to perform at that level.

Q: So, how did you make the show?

A: Through open casting calls, I applied for a cycle of new shows. I was interviewed for “America’s Best Cook” last year and the casting director kept my information. When they were casting for “All-Star Academy,” they called me. ... and I went out of my mind wild.

Q: How does casting work for such food competition shows?

A: That casting process is long and stressful. All of them are different depending on what they (producers) want. (For “All-Star Academy”), I had to bring a dish to be judged by professional food judges while doing a taped interview. They invited me to come to (San Francisco) with my “signature dish.” I made hazelnut-crusted rack of lamb because it travels well. The judges ate the whole thing, which was a good sign.

Q: Besides good food, what else are judges looking for in contestants?

A: It takes a certain kind of personality; you’ve got to be effusive, energetic, not just a good cook. For this show, they were trying to find fresh faces, real people with interesting stories. ... You can’t hold back; be who you really are. They want real people that other people can identify with.

It’s not easy. You’ve got to enjoy competition and be more than just a good home cook. ...

Q: Could you do any advance preparation for the show?

A: When you get selected for a show like this, there’s an expectation that you are at a certain level of cooking expertise. You can bake a cake from scratch if asked. The idea of prepping is a personal thing. I know when I arrived in New York (for filming), I had some recipes memorized, including a cake. I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.

Q: Could you bring anything with you?

A: No! No tools, no spice blends, no written recipes, no favorite knife. But you’re going to work in one of the best kitchen facilities in the world. Everything you could imagine – including ingredients – was right there. I felt like a kid in a candy store with my pick of the best of the best.

Q: What was it like to film at the Food Network?

A: The whole thing is amazing. Their New York studios are in the Chelsea area (Manhattan’s Meatpacking District). ... There’s shop after shop after shop, all about food and entertaining – everything I love in life. Then you go upstairs and you’re in the Food Network studios. ... You can feel all this energy and excitement.

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075.

Sharon Damante

Cooking show contestant

This Napa home cook battles the best on Food Network’s new “All-Star Academy,” which premieres March 1.