Spotlight Series: Kelsey Nixon
Kelsey Nixon is the host of The Food Network show Kelsey’s Essentials. She grew up in North Ogden, Utah and had her big TV debut on the reality show The Next Food Network Star. Kelsey now lives in New York City with her husband Robby and son Oliver. She loves her family, she loves food, and she loves being a part of the strong community of the Mormon church.
RG: What made you want to be a professional chef? When did you start thinking about that as a career?
KN: Well, I grew up in a family where everyone loved food. Food seemed to be at the center of every celebration. My mom was a fabulous cook, but I never really thought about it until college. I wanted to go to BYU because wanted to study Broadcast Journalism and I also grew up dancing and knew that they had the Cougarettes. So I went to BYU and did Cougarettes for two years and did the Broadcast Journalism program. I realized I wasn’t crazy about news television but I loved television in general and I was really interested in lifestyle TV.
So I literally went to CareerBuilders.com and looked for internships. I applied for one at Martha Stewart Living in NYC, and got it, which is crazy because I don’t think anything ever actually happens on CareerBuilder.com! Haha so I went to NY and was assigned to a show called Everyday Food, and it was that experience that really solidified that I wanted to be in food television, whether I was in front of the camera or behind it.
So when I went back to BYU, I approached a professor and said, “Hey I want to do a cooking show, is there any chance you could support me in this?” And he just said, “Film a pilot and we’ll take a look at it.” No funds, no nothing, just, “film a pilot.” He now tells me today that he was just telling me that to get rid of me. Haha, but I actually did film a pilot! And I have to say, it was pretty darn good…relatively speaking, I mean.
RG: Film a pilot?! How did you know how to do that?
KN: Well, being on the set for the summer with Martha and seeing how sets were organized, it was invaluable experience. I don’t know that I would’ve known had I not had that experience. Even though I was an intern, I became very familiar with the process.
RG: So you filmed a Pilot, and what happened with it?
KN: So they threw it on this thing called iProvo, do you remember iProvo? They had a partnership with BYU. They ended up giving us a studio to use, and then we ended up filming an episode a week for the rest of the time I was at BYU. So it was about 100 episodes by the time I left BYU.
RG: And what was the name of your show?
KN: “Kelsey’s Kitchen—Fast, fun, and affordable meals for college students.”
RG: Haha I could have really used that in college! So it was just for fun?
KN: Well yes. But I went straight to culinary school after BYU, and then I auditioned for Food Network Star. And I think “Kelsey’s Kitchen” really helped me get cast since I actually had tape of me, cooking on camera.
RG: Interesting. So let’s talk about Food Network Star. That was kind of the big break, right?
KN: Yes, definitely.
RG: Can you tell me about it?
KN: Yeah! So, I always refer to it as the million-dollar experience I would never pay a dollar to do again. It was maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Mentally, it’s definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done because literally you leave for six weeks, you have no contact with friends or family, no TV, no internet, no books, no nothing.
We had one 15-minute call a week and it was taped. We had no privacy. You literally start to go nuts. No wonder all these people cry on reality tv, it’s like a mental experiment! And the trickiest thing is that after you’ve been there a while you start to want the prize even more, and you feel like these judges really are determining your self-worth. So if they don’t like something you did, you beat yourself up on a whole new level because it’s the only thing that’s important in your life. That sounds crazy, but it really was so tough. You find yourself trying to change yourself, and it just messes with people.
So I totally get why people look silly on reality TV shows. It’s all part of the game plan. I’m thrilled that I came out fairly unscathed. I mean, I was labeled my own sort of character. But even though I didn’t win — I came in fourth — they kept me on the circuit for a couple of years. I kept in great contact with my mentors there like Bobby Flay and Bruce Seidel.
Those people were the ones who, when Cooking Channel was announced, I sent them an email to ask how I could get involved. So it was kind of a combination of a lot of hard work and a lot of good luck. I was told I was on the short list for the new channel, and then Bobby (Flay) had always expressed interest in producing a show for me, so we came up with a concept, the network liked it, and we moved forward with Kelsey’s Essentials. To date, there have been more original episodes produced of Kelsey’s Essentials than any other show on the network. So it’s been one of their most successful pieces of programming. It’s one of the only shows where we actually teach people how to cook, which I’m thrilled about.
RG: So you recently published a cookbook, which I just received in the mail! Is your cookbook representative of your approach to cooking? What are you passionate about specifically in your show and your cookbook?
KN: I always describe my show as a fresh approach to basics in the kitchen. And, Kitchen Confidence is a companion book to Kelsey’s Essentials, so it’s very much the same messaging. Because people are always going to need basics, but I feel like on every cooking show, people are teaching you how to crush garlic and chop basil, and it’s the same things over and over on every show!
On Kelsey’s Essentials we try to provide the 2.0 version of the basics. We get that you like food, you can read a recipe and probably execute it. But we go one step further, beyond the essential techniques. We say, let’s make the ingredients a little more interesting. Let’s do something that’s more like a modern day version of the basics.
RG: Well I will definitely try out some of the recipes, although my cooking skills are basically limited to quesadillas.
KN: That’s the thing though –when it comes to cooking and food, I’m just the same as everyone else. I don’t expect people to cook seven days a week. If you’re cooking four days a week I’m impressed!
All it really is, is following directions, and I don’t care who you are—making something with your hands…it’s delicious. And to serve it to people you love, it’s a very rewarding process. And if you have positive experiences with it, you’re going to want to do it more. I hope that’s what my book and my show can do. Whether it’s Julia Child preaching it 30 years ago or some silly girl like me preaching it today, anyone is capable of cooking. And if you have a desire to do it, you are completely capable of loving it, and I so believe that.
RG: Awesome. I can see you are passionate about this topic. So let’s switch gears. How has being Mormon affected your career? How have people responded to your religion?
KN: It’s definitely come up. I was much more nervous about it when I was younger than I am now. I think when I was going on Food Network Star, I was just worried about misconceptions. The biggest thing I was concerned about was that people would generalize and think that all Mormons feel the same about all subjects, and kind of label me of having a certain opinion about a subject without asking me my opinion on that subject.
But you know, that hasn’t happened that often. If anything the fact that I’ve been Mormon has been wonderful. Mormons support their own, they cheer them on, it’s pretty unbelievable. It’s a fantastic community and I’m supported by so many people as a result of that, for which I’m incredibly grateful. I attribute a lot of my success to that community support.
Now, if we start to get technical, obviously I don’t drink and when you work in food there’s a lot of wine. I have no issue cooking with wine, I never have, I think the biggest thing that might prevent a Mormon from cooking with wine is just not having it accessible in the home. And I totally understand Mormons who don’t feel comfortable having it in the home.
RG: That definitely makes sense. I tried to buy wine for a recipe once and I felt so confused in the alcohol aisle that I gave up. Anything else?
KN: The alcohol thing has come up, but it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t bother me at cocktail parties or at industry events. I remember one time I judged on Iron Chef America, which was amazing – like bucket list amazing– and Morimoto was the Iron Chef and he provided a couple of different types of sake and things like that and I remember being embarrassed to have to turn that down in that setting. I remember getting sweaty palms and thinking “ugh, do they know I don’t drink? How Embarrassing!” But now, I don’t think I’d be embarrassed. That was earlier on and I’ve just become a little more comfortable in my shoes, and I think that comes with age. But it’s fine, if anything I’ve been thrilled to have the support of my Mormon community and I’ve never really had an issue with it.
RG: Awesome. So how has your faith as a Mormon influenced your career?
KN: You know, I think more so the culture of my faith has influenced my career than faith itself. I was raised like many Mormons to be very hardworking, determined, committed to something. And I think it’s those qualities that have served me best in my career specifically. Even things like valuing family — when I talk about food I get to talk about family. And that’s something that was ingrained in me from a very young age, and is extremely important to me as a result of my faith, and that pairs very well with food. And that resonates with people all across the country, no matter your religion or where you come from. So I think it’s almost more so the culture of Mormonism that has had a direct influence on the success of my career than the faith and principles themselves.
RG: Makes sense. So, you occupy an interesting place as a Mormon woman, as you are both a working mother and a professional homemaker. How do you balance your home life and your work life?
KN: Well…I’m not very good at it Rebbie. Everyone likes to use the word balance, but I think a better word is “juggle.” Because I always feel like I’m doing one thing better than the other. I think if I’m killing it in my career, then my family life is probably suffering a bit. Or if I’m totally devoting time to my family, then I’m not working as much. I think the hardest thing is just being okay with that and not beating yourself up about it. And not saying, “I’m a terrible mother because I went on a book tour for this cook book that took me two years to write.” And that’s hard, trust me. I told myself I was a terrible mother plenty of times during the eleven days I was gone.
But, as Mormon women who choose to work, and have the opportunity to work, I think it’s important to be kind to yourself, that if you don’t fit the “mold” that has existed for so long, it’s okay. You’re still capable of being a wonderful Mormon woman and a wonderful Mormon housewife. And there are actually some benefits that you can offer your family that you might not be able to offer otherwise. Just like there would be benefits you’d offer your family if you didn’t work. I really think it’s just give and take.
So, I have no specific answer on how to juggle it all. While my career is fabulous and amazing, and in many ways my dream situation, it’s also incredibly challenging. While I’d like to consider myself a strong, progressive Mormon woman, at my core, I still want a lot of those traditional things that you have in a Mormon family. I still want to be in my home, and I want to be there for my family and I want to fulfill those roles, so it’s kind of an interesting dichotomy. But I like having one foot in each arena.
RG: Has having your son Oliver changed your perspective? If so, how?
KN: It definitely has. I think the biggest change has been purpose. It’s forced me to realign priorities, which I think is a very healthy and grown up thing to do. It’s been wonderful. As hard as it has been, I’m so glad that it happened, and that it happened when it did. I had my first baby at 28, which I guess is a little later than the Mormon mom? Is it? Maybe it’s changing. Anyway, for me, in my timeline, I felt great about it.
So it forces me to work smarter rather than harder. So that’s the goal for me this year, which I think is a great tip for any working mom, whether you’re Mormon or not, just to figure out the opportunities where it makes the most sense to be at work and the most sense to be at home.
RG: Is there one thing that people have commonly misunderstood about Mormonism? What’s been the thing you’ve had to explain the most?
KN: Well, I definitely don’t get, “I can’t believe you’re a woman and you work,” which is good.
I think people think Mormons are generally very friendly, very happy-go-lucky people, very optimistic. I think when I moved to New York and started on the Food Network Star that my personality was perceived as very fake and phony. But I really am just a pretty chipper girl. And I think that has a lot to do with the environment I was raised in. And when it comes to that attitude, I hope people end up being pleasantly surprised that it’s not an act, it’s just who I am. The truth is, in today’s world, that’s actually pretty refreshing.
The other thing is that people are still very surprised that I’m still a practicing Mormon. It’s like they just assume because I moved to NY that I don’t do church anymore. People can’t believe that I go every single week. They can’t believe that I go three hours every week. Haha, not only do I go, I really go.
But I think that it’s refreshing to people, especially in a big city. You don’t meet people who go to church every week. It’s definitely uncommon. But it’s so good for balance. I think moving out of Utah opens your eyes a bit and you have more interactions with different types of people. And at the end of the day, I don’t think I will ever step away. Because the culture, the traditions, the values, of Mormonism are just too important to me and to my family. In a way I feel like I would be disrespecting my family if I stepped away from it.
You can buy Kelsey’s Cookbook “Kitchen Confidence” here.
Photos taken by the amazing Kylie Nixon Whiting. You can see more of her photography here.