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Writing and the Next Food Network Star
Chefs and writers have more in common than you think

I love Food Network, but until 2009, I'd never watched a moment of The Next Food Network Star. However, about halfway through the season, I stumbled across the program while channel-surfing and stopped to watch. I was quickly hooked. Sure, I love food. And I don't mind the occasional behind-the-scenes drama, although that's my least favorite part of the show. But what really grabbed my interest, and held it until the end of the season, was my realization that almost all the lessons I was learning from The Next Food Network Star could apply to a writer's life as well.

Let's take the top three 2009 finalists: Melissa D'Arabian, Debbie Lee and Jeffrey Saad. Each of them had distinct talents and distinct challenges, just as we writers do. And those talents and challenges had a bearing on how they performed from episode to episode.

For Melissa, the stay-at-home mom with little to no restaurant experience, her "amateur" status was an obstacle for her from day one. Watching Melissa, I learned a lot about how to get past being "inexperienced" and instead letting your passion and your talent help you gain the experience you need. But I also saw how fear of failure can threaten your dreams and make you hold back when you should be putting everything you have to offer on the line.

Melissa D'Arabian's lessons for success:

1) Know yourself. Know what you're passionate about. Work around the obstacles and challenges in your life to live your dream.

2) Don't fear a lack of professional experience. Instead, use the experience you do have to find your niche and become the very best you can be within that niche. If you concentrate too much on what you can't do, you'll forget to show people what you can do. Excellence in a small area of concentration often opens doors to new opportunities on a broader stage.

3) Listen to good advice from experts and use it to improve yourself. You're never so experienced or talented that you can't benefit from the experience and talent of others.

4) Don't go into a challenge expecting to fail. Instead, expect success, and put in the effort and creativity necessary to make it happen. You may still fail, but it won't be because you sabotaged yourself.

For Debbie Lee, one of her strongest suits was her natural ability to converse and connect with others. A Korean-American raised in the South, she had a strong, specific viewpoint as a cook, and her concept as a chef was a fusion of Korean and traditional Southern cuisine. She had a strong brand from the get-go, and she was a talented, personable cook. But sometimes, even a strong brand can create its own set of problems, as she learned when she became repetitive and hide-bound in her choice of recipes and her presentations in the challenges.

Debbie Lee's lessons for success:

1) Take advantage of your unique assets, whether it's where you were raised, where you live or your heritage and traditions. What's ordinary to you may seem intriguing and exciting to other people.

2) Have a clear idea of what you have to offer and what you want to achieve, then work on that plan with determination and grit.

3) While it's good to know who you are and where you come from, you also need to broaden your experiences and your expertise. What seemed novel and cool the first time around gets to be boring and rote if you do the same things over and over again.

4) Don't make excuses for failure. Don't duck your own responsibility for what went wrong. We want people to see us as good and successful, but people respect you more when you're tough enough to take your licks when things don't quite work out how you planned.

Finally, Jeffrey Saad brought what seemed like the whole package—experience as a restaurateur and chef, an intriguing food concept (his passion for traveling the world seeking out new ingredients and then bringing them home to the States to use in his own recipes), and a charming, engaging personal style. He had a loving wife and two adorable children supporting his dream every step of the way. He's like that amazing writer you've read and loved, who seems to hit a home run with every book—and has that hunky husband at home who loves her writing and gives her daily foot rubs. But guess what? All that he had going for him didn't make Jeffrey immune to some pretty big mistakes, like overreaching on a risotto recipe that was a spectacular disaster at a critical time.

Jeffrey Saad's lessons for success:

1) Seek out new experiences and new opportunities to learn.

2) When you come across a new experience or new information that moves you or delights you, take time to figure out how to weave what you've learned and experienced into your normal routine, infusing an otherwise ordinary situation with the rare or exotic.

3) Invite the people you love to share in your journey toward your dream. Give them the chance to invest in your passion and share in your successes.

4) Don't get over confident. When you think you're on top of your game, you can start to feel invincible. People who feel invincible take foolish risks and think they can get away with shortcuts. You're never so successful that you're immune to failure. Winners are people who make smart choices about the gambles they take and who know that excellence requires your full time, attention and effort.

Like these chefs competing to live their dream of sharing their talents with a television audience, most writers dream of publication, our chance to share our thoughts, our dreams and our wishes with the readers who pick up our books and give them a chance. I think the life lessons learned by Melissa, Debbie and Jeffrey are lessons we can take to heart ourselves.

Maybe you're not a writer but you have a dream you're working toward attaining. The same points that worked for these wonderful chefs, and that work for writers as well, probably work in your chosen field as well.

Copyright 2009 by Paula Graves