Southern by the grace of food

Damaris Phillips pairs food and love, Louisville-style, for a national audience

Nov 20, 2013 at 6:00 am
Southern by the grace of food

At 10:30 on a Sunday morning in an Irish pub, there’s nowhere left to sit. Most of Molly Malone’s capacity crowd is there for a viewing party to cheer on Damaris Phillips, whose Food Network cooking program is moments away from premiering across the country. As her TV lead-in, the polarizing but undeniably popular Guy Fieri, winds down, her friends, family and fans chatter loudly to one another in the spirit of communal togetherness Phillips often promotes. But the bar’s TVs have been muted, and as Phillips’ show, “Southern at Heart,” begins, her message is being lost on the very people who went out of their way to see it in her presence. Being one part TV-star-in-training and two parts natural ham, Phillips saves her moment by drawing the crowd’s attention toward her and narrating her show live. “So, here I am,” she begins, raising her voice above the din, “sayin’ somethin’ real clever …” A suddenly focused bartender lunges for the remote and turns the volume up so TV Damaris can be heard, and the real-life, somewhat tired chef relaxes again, as the crowd applauds.

“Southern at Heart” is the result of a pilot Phillips presented during her time competing on “Food Network Star,” a series designed not only to entertain but also, and more importantly to the bottom line, to find the cable channel’s next breakout star — like Fieri, winner of season two. But nine seasons have aired now, and he remains the only true star to emerge from the competition. Phillips stumbled early in her 11-episode season. Going in, she “didn’t do a lot of preparing — which is pretty evident in episodes one, two, three and four,” she says now.

The show she wanted to make, if she were to win “FNS,” was originally called “Eat, Date, Love.” It would show Phillips teaching men “who are not real competent in the kitchen,” as she calls it, how to “win a woman’s heart” with food. What the show became is similar, but now expanded to “not just guys that are dating, but for guys who have been married ... Or, maybe their wife is getting ready to have a baby. So it’s different stages, and different places in relationships, but still trying to connect with their partner and show their partner how much they mean to them, to make their life better, using food.”

It’s not meant just for guys. “Hopefully, I can coach everybody,” Phillips says. “Women, I can coach them in the same way. They can see these recipes and say, ‘Oh, I can cook that for my gentleman!’ Or ‘my partner,’ or whoever they love — ‘I can cook that for my mom.’”

She’s an old-fashioned gal, and especially loves hearing men talk about the women in their lives and why those men are in love with them. Nothing made her happier during “Southern at Heart”’s first season than hearing the love story of a couple who have been together for more than 30 years. “That one — whoopf! That one gets you.”

But at the same time, she’s a very modern woman. Note how, above, she mentions “my partner” after “my gentleman” — she packs a building because everyone’s invited to her party.

Her arrival on the Food Network scene, it has been noted, was well-timed. Fellow Southern TV chef Paula Deen’s reputation was famously tarnished in mid-June after a lawsuit made her look like the kind of ignorant racist many good Southerners have been ashamed of for many years; while Phillips’ run on “Food Network Star” had been mostly filmed by then, only three episodes had aired, and her warm, open-hearted approach to cooking Southern food — “the food of love,” she proclaims — became increasingly appealing. By the time fans voted for their favorite contestant to get their own show in early August, Deen’s problems were still fresh in viewers’ minds.

“I don’t know Miss Deen personally, so I don’t really have much to say about her journey,” Phillips said last month, offering a cautious and seemingly planned answer that nonetheless tried to be as kind as possible. “I hope that regardless of anybody’s success or lack of success, I am my own person and I have a place on the network regardless of anyone else. And so I look forward to showing people who I am, and hope they like the style of food I’m cooking. I hope I bring something fresh to the network, and to people’s lives.”

At the “FNS” finale, Phillips and runner-up Rodney Henry of Baltimore stood waiting for their fate. Phillips became terrified, realizing she had no idea what her life might become. When she was named the winner, “I just blanked. I had nothing to say — and, clearly, I have plenty to say!”

At the Louisville viewing party, most of the people who had supported her along her surprising journey got to vicariously share the moment. “I don’t know how, in your life, you can have a better moment than hundreds of people you love cheering for you. I cannot imagine how it can get better than that moment, for me,” Phillips says. “And I have that! Everything else is just gravy … Sometimes I’ll re-watch it — it makes me get choked up, just seein’ how excited everybody was.”

Go back a year — there’s hardly a single foodie in Louisville who could have told you who Damaris Phillips was, as a chef. So how did she become the one dancing around the question of whether she’s next in line to be your favorite food TV personality?

Home Style
As a true Southern lady, Phillips might not want you knowing her precise age, but she’s got another birthday coming up on Dec. 8. In tribute to her lack of pretension — and because she gleefully notes that someone has created a skimpy Wikipedia page for her, uncertain of basic facts like year of birth (“1980/1981 {age 32–33},” it suggests), surely she won’t mind a clarification that she was born in 1980. Her father, Maury, was a funeral home director. Her mother, Mary, ran a career-counseling agency for people with disabilities. Maury and Mary had five children, with Damaris in the middle.

“I do not think I could have been raised by two better people,” she says. “They did a really good job of preparing us to be adults. Every time I look at my siblings, I think they are the most remarkable people. They’re funny and they’re kind and they’re able to figure stuff out. I think it’s because my parents were so good at raising (us to be) adults, not just kids.”

All alpha types, they do bicker, because “Everybody’s so bossy. All of us.”

“My dad was a really loud, really funny, very strange man. I know, you can’t see the connection,” she laughs. “And my mother, she is an alpha woman. She is a brilliant woman — smart and hard-working and tough, and really reasonable.”

When it comes to cooking, Phillips’ favorite holiday is tied to both flavors and memories. “My mom made cinnamon rolls for Christmas when I was growin’ up — like, her whole week: healthy, delicious ... tons of raisins and dates cinnamon rolls. I always think of that and quiche. It always felt so fancy.”

Father Maury passed away a few years ago, having suffered from a heart condition. His life has informed his daughter’s approach to cooking.

“I try to keep fit, I try to eat healthful — you see that in my cooking,” she says. “You can see the influence that my dad having a heart condition had on my cooking. I don’t cook ‘healthy food’ — I cook delicious food ... that sometimes happens to be healthy. I never want to go at it from that (“healthy food”) angle, but it is an influence in what I eat. I never want food to be harmful to people.”

She stresses moderation, noting there are many ways to add flavor and elevate food to make it “less bad” for you, like adding spices. “Not fat, heavy cream, not butter. I mean, I use butter, but it’s not …” she pauses, perhaps thinking about how much butter has become associated with Paula Deen in recent years. “I don’t think food has to be bad for you.”

Her show promotes modern Southern cooking techniques, highlighting healthier approaches without dwelling on health as a subject of discussion. “I’m always gonna be using whole wheat flour. I’m always gonna use lots of vegetables. You’re gonna see lots of seasoning ... I don’t fry a lot of stuff. I put oil on it and roast it in the oven. It can be argued that it’s not the most healthful food ever, but it is food you can eat for your whole life.”

Her healthy-living plan includes working out three times a week — at least on paper. “To be perfectly honest, I haven’t been in about six weeks,” she laughed during an October interview. “I used to be super-chubby. I used to not use my muscles. I used to not be able to run.

“Somebody told me one time to ‘be gentle with yourself.’ Be gentle when you’re trying to do something different or to change your habits … We’re always so encouraging with other people: ‘You’re doing so great, I’m so proud of you!’” she adds. “We don’t often take the time to be, like, ‘You got up this morning and walked those five miles; I’m proud of you.’ That helps.”

“Now, I can run! It feels good.”

The only thing more important to Phillips than doing something good for herself is doing something good for someone else. It’s a philosophy that informs her TV show, and it can be traced back to Christmas at home. “Everybody in my family is always more excited about giving presents to each other than opening presents ourselves. Half the time, you’re so excited that you got the perfect gift for somebody, and you’re so excited to give it to them the next day — hooo, I love that!”

Making her own TV show, she has been given her a unique opportunity to film in her hometown. Adding to her comfort is that she’s not the first of her siblings to break into TV. Brother Donald has worked on the production teams of “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” and had also worked previously with the company producing “Southern at Heart”; he was hired to film supplemental shots around town.

“When you see it,” sister Damaris boasts, “you can tell that the person who filmed it loves this place.”

It worked out really well for her, once again — she’s the most comfortable at home, surrounded by family and friends, in the city she loves.

The Food Network executives approved this plan in part because Phillips still works as a culinary instructor in Louisville on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but probably also because they learned how best to use her during her “FNS” challenges. “I was worried early on that I was trying to show my personality more than my skill,” she says. Intimidated about standing out against 11 other somewhat qualified chefs, her goofy side took over briefly. “I felt like a little child — ‘Oh, I just look like I’m trying to get attention.’”

“It was a tough road. We hit some bumps.” As she stopped trying so hard to be different and focused on her cooking, “It became much easier for me. I also became something I was more proud of.

“The second I started to let people see who I am — not just a caricature, but myself — people have been in. They like it. They’re encouraging. I’m a little quirky. I’m a slightly strange woman. But nobody’s trying to mess with that (at Food Network).”

Only two minutes into her first “Southern” episode, Phillips is explaining sorghum to her national viewers. By the end of three episodes, she’s also spread the word about beer cheese and chow-chow. The show mixes her Southern pride and skills in both cooking and teaching with her own unique mixture of heartfelt sentiment, bossiness and occasionally vulgar, wacky humor. The show, and her long-term success, depends on her personality. Other “FNS” vets, like Jeff “Sandwich King” Mauro, whose show now follows “Southern at Heart,” are blandly likable and unlikely to become any more beloved than they already are. Phillips, however, is currently living on the border of anonymity and possible Rachael Ray-level fame. It depends on, among other things, if you think descriptions like the following are funny or not:

“This is called chow-chow, which you don’t think is gonna be impressive — but then you taste it, and you’re, like, ‘Wow-wow, chow-chow!’” Now add a surprisingly flirtatious and knowing edge to the delivery, and watch what happens.

Career Vision
Becoming a TV cooking star was not part of younger Damaris Phillips’ plans. That’s because she didn’t have a plan. She worked at Highland Coffee for a decade, leaving for Seattle with a boyfriend who was preparing to become a doctor. “I realized I could do coffee for the rest of my life,” she says. “But I wanted something that I woke up in the morning excited about, that was just mine.”

Across the country, isolated from family and friends, Phillips spent time in a library reading about food. After work, she would prepare elaborate meals, leaving Food Network on whenever she was alone, in part to keep her company. Watching “Food Network Star,” she thought, “Those people are so lucky that they get to do that.” Her then-boyfriend (or “gentleman,” in her parlance) encouraged her, suggesting she make a five-year plan to get on the show. “I kind of thought that if I got on, I could win,” she says. “I thought that if I worked hard, I could do it.”

As she struggled to work up the nerve to change her life’s course, her gentleman bought her a book for Christmas called “The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry,” about a 30-something woman who went to culinary school. Phillips began her culinary studies two weeks later, back home at Jefferson Community & Technical College (JCTC). Her gentleman had to stay behind in Seattle for his work. After briefly maintaining their relationship long-distance, “It just worked out that it wasn’t ... the right time,” she says. “I wasn’t the person I wanted to be.”

As her studies began, she knew she loved cooking but was afraid to become a chef because she knew how hard restaurant work was. She didn’t know that becoming a culinary instructor was an option — yet by the time she graduated, that had become her calling. “That was just a lucky, wonderful surprise ... that happened because I decided to go for my goal. Since then, all the things I’ve been able to do, work-wise, have been amazing. Better than you could have imagined. Having the goal of ‘Food Network Star’ before all the steps that got me there — it made me forget that that was even the goal. Because I was having so much fun!”

She’s worked at Harvest, Wiltshire Pantry and 610 Magnolia, so her concerns about restaurant work come from experience — not that many could accuse the TV host, who still teaches at JCTC, of being afraid of work.

Additionally, she needs time to spend with her boyfriend, Darrick Wood, who she met four months before her Food Network adventure began. Single for a few years, she had been dating casually, always picking the wrong men. “I think, somewhere along the line, I believed that guys didn’t fall in love the way girls did.” But at a wedding, witnessing the union of “these two people who had absolutely found a partner for life,” Phillips was struck. “I was watching it and (moans) — literally, in my head, I was, like, ‘Damaris, you’re gonna have to start picking a different type of man if you want real love.’”

The way she tells it, she turned around and saw Wood across the room. “I saw him, laughing. He had the most beautiful laugh. And he had his head tilted back and he was laughing, and I said, ‘Oh! I know him!’ Then I was like, ‘Oh, wait. No, I don’t. But I will!’”

“So I strategically placed myself so he could hear how witty I was, and we started talking.”

During her time in New York filming “FNS,” they exchanged letters, hypothetical love stories for the Seven Dwarfs (her idea). Wood used a special pen that hid secret messages in his letters — Phillips could hold them up to the light, and they would sparkle.

Their relationship has been atypical in many ways. “The place we were at from where we started dating — (that was) completely different than where we are now. For me, with so many changes going on in my life, every single day, it is nice to have met someone that I’m excited to see what our future would look like, but I’m not in a rush to make that happen today … we’re navigating this big, huge thing together as a team. That is important, if we’re going to be a team together for the long haul.”

The End of the Beginning
Everyone asks her when they can go to her restaurant — surely that’s her goal, yes? “I do not foresee myself opening a restaurant any time in the near future,” she says. At some point, she would prefer to open an event space. “I love throwin’ parties, and so I think having a space where you could be in charge of the food but then also the entire venue — I think that would be a lovely way to make a living. But right now, I haven’t figured out that space yet.”

Whatever happens, Phillips intends to continue teaching, whether in a community college class or in front of millions. “I really, really love teaching people to cook. I really like bringing that back to peoples’ lives,” she says. “I think lives are greatly improved when you can cook in the kitchen together, when you spend time eating together.”

At Molly Malone’s on premiere day, Wood is by her side as she watches herself through the eyes of her most dedicated audience. After a typically goofy on-camera joke, the real person behind the TV star is shaking her head at her own lack of self-control. “I’m an idiot,” she mutters to herself, but she doesn’t seem upset.

A couple of days earlier, Phillips had said, “Generally, I wake up pretty happy. And I think I take that for granted. I wake up usually pretty excited, and I think that’s a gift. I have been really, really fortunate to have a job that I love, and to have a family who are remarkable, and to have friends who are the most fun ever.”

A family friend approaches, crying happily. Phillips embraces her and exchanges hugs with other well-wishers, from children to seniors. She’s accomplished her goal, giving of herself and bringing people together to celebrate over food. The crowd has dispersed and she’s once again just a Louisville lady out with her gentleman and a few close friends. There’s just one more thing she wants, so she heads to the bar to get it for herself.

“All right, now let me drink.”