Natasha Clement graduated with honors from Food Network’s “All-Star Academy” Sunday.
Forget the diploma. The 37-year-old LaPlace mom walked away with a $50,000 check and bragging rights after winning the cooking competition series’ second season.
“There were many times when I doubted myself, but I just kept going,” Clement said Tuesday.
The dish taking her over the top in the finale was a Louisiana favorite — shrimp and grits. With the guidance of mentor and celebrity chef Robert Irvine, Clement’s version added crispy-skinned seared red snapper, a red pepper coulee and pesto sauce to the plate.
“This is her plate, her heritage, her life, her style. I need to make sure that she slows down and she thinks methodically,” Irvine said as the last 45-minute challenge commenced on the show.
Over eight weeks, nine home cooks were pared down to two, with Santa Barbara, California, single father Lee Abbott the final cook standing between Clement and the top prize. Judge for the finale was celebrity chef Curtis Stone, a mentor earlier in the season until all three cooks on his team were eliminated.
“There were moments where the amount of stress that you’re under and having to elevate your dish more and more every week became a challenge, but Robert Irvine was probably the best choice for me with that particular issue because he didn’t put up with the ‘well I don’t know if I can do it’ attitude, he just told me to do it,” she said.
Clement, a server/bartender at La Petite Grocery in New Orleans, said she learned much from Irvine, who as host of Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible” visited Baton Rouge in 2014 to shoot an episode at the former Mama Della’s N.Y. City Pizzeria.
“To focus and to have a plan, and just execute the plan and not worry about what everybody else is going to think, just believe that what you’re putting on the plate is something that you’re 100 percent proud of,” she said.
Clement has worked in the food industry for 20-plus years and “been around food all my life,” she said.
“It definitely had an impact on how I handled things on the show because it is almost all I know,” she said. “It was very personal for me.”
Several times on “Academy,” Clement said if she won, the money would go to 12-year-old son Ethan Marks’ education. That’s still on her agenda, as is advancing her culinary career.
“The plan for me is to develop a business for myself with food and private catering, private dining,” she said, adding, “but gotta get these kids out of high school first.”
Clement’s family also includes husband, Chesson, and step-twins Corrine and Brady, 10.
“To have a business where I can personally cook and develop dishes and customize menus for people would be ideal. I hope something with the Food Network pops up as well,” she said. “I would love to be back on the Food Network in any capacity, so I’m pretty open. As long as it revolves around a culinary world, I’m there.”