Manipulative, conniving, sneaky, underhanded, deceptive, cutthroat – all necessary traits for aspiring reality TV stars, right?
Not necessarily. Take Amy Finley ’96.
As she battled her way to win Who Will Be the Next Food Network Star?, Finley remained a genuine, friendly, charming, helpful, attractive and even wholesome contestant. Just the kind of person who’d make a perfect neighbor, which is fortunate since her new show, The Gourmet Next Door, which premieres Sunday, Oct. 14, is built around the notion that Finley is someone you’d like to have over for coffee and a chat.
“I wanted people to really grasp the idea that, OK this is gourmet-inflected food but don’t be intimidated by it,” Finley says of her new show. “This is as easy as if you had this neighbor who was a good cook. You could just feel totally comfortable walking into their kitchen and asking ‘Do you have an interesting idea to do with chicken? How do I cook this piece of meat?’ and you walk away with a great recipe or some great inspiration without feeling nervous about what you didn’t know or had never done before.”
While her show will break down gourmet food for easy preparation – more Food 102 than Food 101, she specifies – Finley’s own recipe for finding Food Network stardom was anything but simple. She started at UCLA as pre-med, then switched to political science. In her senior year, Finley took a class in children’s literature that changed her outlook and, eventually, the course of her life.
“Mitzi Meyers taught the class,” says Finley, “and she was probably the first person who really encouraged me as a writer and got me thinking that you needed to follow your passions in life. She was so passionate about her content. Some people were like ‘This is such an easy class’ and I thought, ‘This isn’t an easy class. This is an important class!’”
Finley had landed jobs in governmental relations at UCLA and UC San Diego, but realized it wasn’t her passion. So she decided to try something different.
“I moved off to Paris without really much of a game plan,” she says, laughing. “I had a job for the summer teaching English, and that’s something I’d always wanted to do – teach.”
While in Paris, she met a man – the man who eventually she would marry. Though they’d only known each other for two months, as the time approached for her to come back to the States, they both began thinking of ways for her to stay in Paris.
“He threw out the question ‘If you could do anything to stay here, what would you do?’ It came to me without even thinking – I’d always wanted to go to cooking school. And that was kind of that.” She enrolled in Gregoire Ferrandi's Ecole Superieure de Cuisine Française.
While she learned to follow her passions from her UCLA professor, she had discovered her passion for food long before that, spending time in the kitchen with her grandmother, whom she describes as a “classic Southern cook from Louisiana.”
“We’d just cook together,” she says. “I think it was that combination of learning to cook with someone you love so much, and that she was very passionate about it. It was a natural transference of her enthusiasm for cooking to me.
“My grandma would let me make these soups. Lord knows I probably put peaches and potatoes and lamb, everything all into one big pot, cook it on the stove and call it soup, and then my grandpa would eat it and tell me it was fabulous, wonderful, and he loved it!”
It inspired a lifelong passion for her.
“I love to feed people, she says. “It’s fun, and they like it. It was a very sort of organic process and for me cooking for people became a way to express how much I care about them.”
After cooking school, she and her husband Greg, a UC San Diego alumnus, moved back to San Diego. She worked as a writer on freelance jobs and published a travel book on the Italian Riviera while raising her two young children, using her Parisian cooking education to delight her family.
“I was writing, but I was trying to figure out exactly what I was going to do next,” she says. “I was watching season two of Who Wants to Be the Next Food Network Star? and I thought, ‘I could do that.’ I had a pretty good idea of what my show would be. They wanted to see that you really had a clear concept of who you were as a cook and what you wanted to teach people and I’ve always felt very strongly that what I really love is that I’m a big believer in cooking because you eat so much better when you’re preparing your own food.”
Though she had some shaky moments during the three-weeks of filming, in the end Finley convinced the judges that she had the concept and the personality to join fellow UCLA classmate and personal favorite Giada De Laurentiis ’96 as a Food Network personality. (While Finley has met De Laurentiis, she’s still waiting for the moment when they can swap stories of campus.) In the end, Finley says she holds true to her original premise for the show, that anyone and any meal that is lovingly prepared can earn the title of gourmet. To illustrate, she describes a particular meal she prepared during her UCLA days.
“I had taken my very last final at UCLA,” she says. “They had just opened the fountain on Royce Quad. I made plans to meet my at-the-time boyfriend there for lunch. The night before, I marinated chicken breasts in bottled Italian dressing. I put more of the dressing on the chicken breasts in some aluminum foil and I roasted it. I sliced the chicken really thin, put it on a baguette, added some beautiful tomatoes, slices of fresh mozzarella and some red onion, wrapped them all up in the tinfoil, carried them in my backpack with these beautiful peaches and a bottle of champagne. That was my ‘I just finished my very last final at UCLA’ lunch and we sat right next to the fountain and ate. It was great.”
She stops, then adds, “You’re a gourmet if you think you are. It’s just about loving food.”