May 23, 2018

West Windsor Resident Competes On “Food Network Star”

WILL SHE MAKE THE CUT? Jessica Tom, shown second from left with fellow contestants on “Food Network Star,” says succeeding on the show is as much about composure as culinary skills. Tom lives with her husband in West Windsor and is the author of the book “Food Whore: A Novel of Dining and Deceit.”

By Anne Levin

Jessica Tom isn’t allowed to disclose the results of the upcoming season of Food Network Star, in which she was a finalist. But the West Windsor resident, who has been watching food TV since she was a child, is happy to talk about her experience competing in front of celebrity chefs Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay. The new season debuts Sunday, June 10, at 9 p.m. on Food Network.

“It was really intimidating and also exhilarating,” said Tom. “I’ve been watching the show since the beginning, and it is a thrill to live it and be there and be the person competing. It was surreal and overwhelming, but I loved it.”

Tom’s name might be familiar from her book Food Whore: A Novel of Dining And Deceit, published by William Morrow/HarperCollins. Food Network fans will recognize her from her 2016 appearances on Cooks vs. Cons.

Growing up in Westchester County, New York, the 34-year-old Tom comes from “a food obsessed family,” she said. “My mom is from Madagascar and my dad is from China. His father was a chef for the United States Army, so he has a very eclectic cooking background. My mom has family in France and all over, so there were a lot of international influences when it came to food.”

Tom watched a lot of cooking shows with her father, “a real DIY-er (do it yourself),” she said. “We tinkered in the kitchen with everything. Whether he’s smoking meat, making macarons, or whatever, he goes all in. I sort of became like that too.”

At Yale University, she majored in English with a creative writing concentration. After graduating, she decided to combine the two things she loved most: fiction and food. “Everyone says when you write a book you have to be obsessed with the idea so you can’t get sick of it,” she said. “I knew if it was food, I’d be fine.”

Originally, Food Whore had a tamer title. “But the editors really wanted a title that stuck out, that would make a splash and capture attention,” Tom said. The book was optioned by the film company Dreamworks, but the option expired. Currently Creative Artists Agency (CAA) is representing the film rights, so a film adaptation is possible.

Meanwhile, Tom has been busy with television. Her first encounter with the contestants and judges on Food Network Star was on a beach in Orlando. With the other nine finalists, she was greeted by De Laurentiis and Flay at Universal Orlando’s Resort’s Volcano Bay resort. Each competitor had to create a portable version of their signature dish, and then try to entice park visitors to try them.

“It was crazy. The producers were running around, and we were kind of thrown into this thing where we had to cook for Bobby and Giada, in a kitchen we were not familiar with,” Tom said. “But it’s a lot of fun. This is my moment, the once-in-a-lifetime thing I’ve been dreaming about for so long.”

While cooking skills are key, other abilities factor into who gets eliminated and who survives the competition. “It’s half about your cooking and half about your on-camera skills and personality,” said Tom. “I knew coming into this that there would be professional chefs, which I’m not, and that I would be out-cooked. And I didn’t have the experience that others did. But the on-camera presentations are an important challenge, too. It’s not that easy, smiling and being engaging while you’re cooking, and your nerves are on edge. That was something that didn’t really hit me until the first challenge.”

Tom and her husband moved to West Windsor after 10 years in Brooklyn. “We wanted more space and fresh air,” she said. “I really love it here. We’re closer to farms and nature, but we’re also really close to culture.”

On her website, Tom shares recipes from a host of categories. As for her idea of a perfect meal, she says, “I’m really not that picky. A lot of it has to do with the people who are there, and the environment — the vibe. So it could be anywhere. In someone’s back yard, in front of a fire with grilled fish, meat, fresh vegetables lightly dressed, lots of wine, fireflies, and sticky fingers, just relaxing with simple, well-prepared, fresh food. Those are the most memorable meals for me — the ones that revolve around food and togetherness.”