Think fast. You're standing in front of a dangerously watery mushroom sauce, and you've got exactly 90 seconds to save it. To make matters worse, you're on TV, and food legend Alton Brown is standing just across the kitchen counter.
Are you terrified? Well, Aryen Moore-Alston isn't. When she was faced with that exact situation two weeks ago, she didn't bat an eye. "All right," says Moore-Alston, "I wanna use the onions that Reuben put some flour on, and we're gonna put them in the pan with the mushrooms."
Boom. The sauce thickens, and the day is saved. Even Brown is impressed. "Wow," he says, smiling, "how extraordinarily clever of you."
Moore-Alston is a finalist on the 10th season of Food Network Star, a reality show in which 12 chefs compete to get their own series on Food Network. Although she doesn't have the same pedigree as some of the other contestants — Moore-Alston is self-taught and has never cooked in a restaurant — she has shown herself to be a capable chef and a wily competitor.
When she's not on TV, Moore-Alston lives with her boyfriend and young daughter in East Memphis, where she owns a catering company. The Flyer recently caught up with Moore-Alston to talk about growing up in Italy, working with Giada De Laurentiis, and making dessert from aloe vera gel.
Flyer: So you grew up in Naples. What was that like? Moore-Alston: Oh my gosh! It was amazing. My father was a musician for the Navy, and my mother was an actress and a recording artist. She ended up having some TV shows on Italian public access TV. I went to an Italian school at the age of two, but then I couldn't really speak English very well, so they switched me to an American school.
How did you get to Memphis?
After my father died, my mother was looking for a place for us to live, and she had met my father here. After he passed away, I think she was looking for that connection with him, and Memphis is where she found it.
How did you start cooking?
My dad is the one who taught me. When he was cooking, I'd sit on a stool and ask him questions. That's when I got daddy-daughter time. After he passed away, when I stepped into the kitchen, I felt like I was stepping into his shoes. I wanted to understand who my father was, and by cooking, I got to see the love that he gave us.
Let's say you win this thing and get your own show. What's it gonna be like?
I love international cuisine, and I want to show people how easy it is to make it at home. Like, you can go to your neighborhood Vietnamese store or Indian market, pick up a cactus leaf, and do something amazing with it! Or buy aloe vera gel and use it to make a delicious dessert.
Which of the Food Network mentors do you most enjoy working with?
Well, obviously, Giada is a woman, and I think there are certain things about this industry that she's trying to prepare us for, the women. She's like, "Look, it's gonna be hard, but you have to look great, you have to speak well. If you're gonna come on this network, you have to match me." And I really respond to that. It makes me want to work hard, until one day I'm an equal with Giada.
What areas do you need to work on?
Because I'm self-taught, there are some things that I just don't know. Things that you would learn in culinary school, I just don't have that. So that's what I need to do, is go back and learn some of the basics. It's like learning how to read, you first need to know the alphabet. I sort of skipped that!
In episodes one and two, the mentors said your food was a little bland. How do you respond to that?
It's interesting, because usually, my food is not bland! I don't think I would have gotten on the show if my food were bland. Maybe at first I was holding back; I think I was afraid of bringing too much to the table. But now that's all I'm bringing — flavor.
If you were trying to give the mentors a taste of Memphis, what would you cook them?
Oh! That's a good one. I think I might make a pulled pork barbecue slider with a pickled onion cole slaw and a fried green tomato. Then I'd serve it on an onion bun. That way I'd be giving them something different, but it'd still be very Memphis.