Original Photo via: FoodNetwork

Hey Persian foodies! The food (network) gods have heard your prayers…Your wish is coming true! You (and the rest of America) are finally about to see a Persian chef on TV!

For the first time ever, the upcoming season of the Foodnetwork’s super-popular show, Next Foodnetwork Star, is getting a little taste of Persia, and more broadly the Middle East, via Persian Jewish chef, businesswoman, cookbook author, and mom to two beautiful teenage girls, Penny Davidi.

The show features 15 finalists who compete towards the ultimate dream job: his or her own Food Network show. The finalists must first prove they have the charisma and culinary prowess to host/judge Bobby Flay, the judges’ newest addition Giada de Laurentiis and the Food Network executives on the star-making selection committee.

Previously a COO at a management development firm, Davidi who sold her successful business, Pizza Rustica, in 2008, wanted more out of her life and is competing on the show, not only because it’s her “passion”, but because she wants to “create an empire”.

Should things move forward according to her plan, you’ll soon be able to purchase the hot, LA-based, Persian khanoom‘s (Persian: lady)  line of spices and sauces too! (Yum.)

Don’t count her out of the restaurant business yet though, as she tell us in our exclusive interview, “there are definitely talks about future restaurant possibilities, I have a couple of things up my sleeve…but I always have a couple of things up my sleeve.”

Davidi explains her cooking style as: “International cuisine but put a spin for American palettes. I’ve got so much energy so much life, I’ve got a whole different culinary view that [the Food Network hasn’t] even touched yet,” she says.

“I make for good television.”

And, from what we can tell…this incredibly relatable, sassy fireball who was told by Bobby Flay that she’s a “bull in a china shop,” (a “good thing” in his book), has got all the right ingredients to win this cook off.

Watch Penny Davidi on The Next Foodnetwork Star this summer, starting June 5th at 9PM ET/PT.

Enjoy our interview with the stiletto-wearing Next Foodnetwork Star hopeful, below:

PEM: On where she learned to cook…
PD: I was trained exactly the same most ethnic and Middle Eastern women are…in the kitchen with my grandmother–anyone that came over for friday night dinner, we’d start cooking at 8 o’clock in the morning. tradition: Chai, shirini (Persian: sweets), sitting around, and talking and stories and cooking and eating. You know I remember when my grandmother and her sisters, when they wanted to make Friday night Shabbat dinner, they would go shopping on Thursday and Friday morning we would lay out the sabzi (Persian: greens) on top of her dining room table on top of a sheet, after we had washed it. That’s how I remember it, you know there was no food processor to chop vegetables everything was done by hand, and they would stand there and sauté the greens for hours and then put it in little bags and write on it what it was for; this was for kookoo sabzi, this one’s for ghormeh sabzi, and then they would divide amongst the entire family–those things are what I was raised on. And that’s really the only place I got my culinary experience, and it wasn’t until after my divorce my time was limited with my children and I felt like, the only way I know to connect in through food. That’s how I knew family and what a mother’s love is like; “I’m going to feed you, I’m going to cook for you, you’re going to eat and you’ll feel great.”

On what drove her towards the food industry…
I couldn’t afford to take my daughters to all these great places and so instead I spent a lot of time getting creative. It became theatrical for them. They would sit there and watch me for hours: watch me prepare, watch me cook and at a young age they cultivated their palette through this. They were open to trying new things–it was a learning process with both of them. My 14 year old has an impeccable palette, she knows spices and is extremely creative, I can definitely see her have a future in culinary world–my 11 year old is the business mind–I remember when I opened my pizzeria, my older daughter would come to the restaurant after school and her first thing was, she would go in the kitchen and she would start cooking something creative…she just wanted to try different things. My 11 year old who was 7 or 8 at the time, she would come in go right to the register, log the numbers for the day, the numbers for the week and she would count which items were selling the most.

On her daughters’ advice…
Children definitely humble you, but they are beyond proud. They’ve been posting things on their Facebook and sending out emails–I have a huge following of all these 14, 10, and 11 year olds. At the gym I was sitting on the machine recently and these two Persian women came up to me and said “my daughter votes for you everyday, she makes it a point to vote for you everyday,”–and I think that’s amazing. It’s wonderful that it has gone as far as children. They love it but they also have a good sense of humbling me.

On her love of the show and the Foodnetwork channel…
I huge huge fan! I’m a Foodnetwork channel addict. It’s a family thing for us–it’s on in the house all the time. And I like to watch because I’ll take something I see and put my own spin on it, or I’ll make it with more of an ethnic taste and flavor. I’ve watched many seasons of the show.

On how she ended up on the Next Foodnetwork Star…
I was initially sent out for a casting call for the Apprentice, and made it in the top tier of applicants. My agent was impressed by my ability to get so far, and began to discuss what type of show I would like to have as my own. When I showed interest in a casting call for the Next Foodnetwork Star, I was told I would have a better chance at being struck by lightning than getting on the show, because “it’s so incredibly difficult”.

Not one to give up, Davidi answered the casting call without telling her agent…
Finally I was sent away I had to tell my agent that I was going to be gone for a couple of months, she of course didn’t put anything together–I told her I was going to cook on a Kibbutz in Israel–and when she found out, she was blown away.

On whether she will be making any Persian dishes on the show…
Absolutely! Once the show airs, you’ll see it carries through the entire season. For example, on the first challenge, they wanted our culinary point of view on a plate, a breakfast plate, and I made a jam of fennel with cumin, and with figs, cipollini onions and made a marmalade to go with eggs. And the judges were blown away. I’ve taken Middle Eastern dishes, or ethnic dishes, because I do cook many ethnicities; Israeli, Egyptian, and Turkish dishes–I covered as much as I could but I really put a twist on it, whether it’s adding turmeric, cumin, cardamon, sumac. They had tasted Sumac but they were like “holy cow”, or even gardeh limoo (Persian: lemon powder). Bobby Flay’s reaction when I grounded up sour lemon, he was blown away. These are old flavors. In the entire history of food network they’ve never had a Middle Easterner.

On her feelings about being on the show…
I’m so excited about it. At first I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received with everything that’s going on the world, then I realized I had an opportunity to bring a level softness, and take off some of the edge from the Middle East. The director of marketing said to me, “You know, you don’t look Middle Eastern, you could be from anywhere, but the fact that you represent the Middle East makes you so dynamic, you can definitely gap this bridge.”

Her favorite Persian dish…
Tahcheen! I love it It’s my favorite dish in the world. And you can easily screw it up. You can dry it out, too much lemon juice, not enough yogurt…and the whole thing is off. Making tahcheen is a science. I’ve mastered the dish and love to get creative with it. I want to show something to America that they can make this–but guess what, in the middle besides just eggplant, you can put sun-dried tomatoes, or you can make a pesto, and just layer the pesto and chicken. I’ve taken a very traditional Middle Eastern dish and turned it into something for the American palette.

On being a Middle Eastern voice in the food world…
I didn’t know there was going to be so much of my focus on being the voice and getting people as familiar as possible with this kind of ethnic cooking–and then having my line of spices, and sauces and really introducing people to all these different herbs and spices that we have. There’s such a market for it and again, it’s something the Foodnetwork has not had yet.

Her favorite cooking stilettos…
I have a pair of gold, 6-inch, YSL stilettos and they are the most comfortable run-around shoes I own. Underneath the sole is like a tennis-shoe feel. You can run around in them, and they’ll grip you wherever you go. You’ll see, on the first episode that we did, the second we got into the kitchen and they told us to get started (and it was probably the longest shooting day of all the shooting we had) I was in a pair of 6-inch, platform, Prada heels. You’ll see. I was running around through the kitchen and there’s knives flying all over the place, and I’m running around in these heels and people were looking at me like, “you’re crazy”, but that’s who I am. There’s a lot of fun around cooking in stilettos and that element of bringing that level of sensuality into the kitchen and making women feel good about themselves while cooking. It doesn’t need to be a chore.

Her favorite judge…
Bobby Flay. I could relate a lot to Bobby. He definitely was one who understood my character and understood that I was there for the competition, and that I’m a little bit fierce.

On how easy her cooking style is…
Not only is it easy, but it’s inexpensive. If you have Saffron, that great, but I have a secret if you don’t have Saffron: You can take sweet hungarian paprika and mix it with a little bit of hot water, sugar, and rose and you’ll get the same aroma, it’ll do the same job as the saffron. It’s chemistry but I make it really simple and I think anyone can do it.

Her staple, must-have kitchen ingredients…
You always have to have Sabzi Khordan (Persian: Edible Greens) you always have to have a variety of fresh herbs, in an ice bucket, inside your refrigerator. Always. From chives, to parsley, to mint, cilantro,  basil, thyme…you always have to have fresh greens…that’s my biggest thing. Second thing that I think is a must, is a good bottle of oil. Buying cheap olive oil is a big, big no-no. And sea-salt is also very important. Butter, and cumin also. You can put cumin on anything.


Are you hungry yet?

We are!

Be sure to tune in for the premiere of the Next Foodnetwork Star, on the Foodnetwork channel, June 5th at 9PM ET/PT.

About Author

Sanaz Khalaj-Santos

Sanaz is Founder and Editor in Chief of Persianesque Magazine.