I was a hyper child. I am a hyper adult. I was raised by the most amazing woman I have ever met — my grandmother, Stella. When I was 10, she devised a plan to curb my adrenaline-stoked mischief: She enrolled me in dance lessons and asked me to assist her in the kitchen.
She was a master baker. I’d witnessed the assembly of many a cake before, but until then I’d never been invited to don an apron and play a part in the process. She knew I liked being the center of attention and that giving me an opportunity to shine would stop my shenanigans.
At first I was in charge of reading recipes — a quarter cup of this, a pinch of that, half a dozen eggs. Yawn. It wasn’t really my idea of a leading role, but every up-and-comer knows that you have to take the small roles before you can carry the show. She was meticulous in her kitchen, and like most great chefs, things were to be done her way, without exception.
I surveyed her every move: the scooping and leveling off of the flour; countless teaspoons, tablespoons; the purposeful, one-handed cracking of the eggs. Her flood of culinary knowledge inundated my young apprentice brain. I quickly became her chief egg cracker. (OK, so I was her only egg cracker, her sous chef d’oeuf, so to speak.)
I separated, pooled and whipped more eggs into meringues in my childhood than I can even remember. I went through many phases of frustration, a few triumphs, and then it started to click. For once in my life, I was intensely focused and calm. The kitchen was my sanctuary.
I built up enough trust that my grandmother felt confident giving me solo projects. I had officially gone from apprentice to partner. I set my preteen sights on kitchen domination.
Cooking and performing have always been the parallel throughlines of my life. Every moment I wasn’t rehearsing for a competition, I was tinkering in the kitchen or hosting elaborate dinners for my young friends.
I grew up and moved away, but my passion for food was constant. I traced the globe on tour with LeAnn (my ex-wife, singer LeAnn Rimes), and I always loved to venture out to the local farmers markets so I could prepare all our meals. I became a master of improvisation and could even whip up a meal from a truck stop or obscure mom-and-pop shop. No space, limited gear and sparse supplies: Cooking on a tour bus was Cutthroat Kitchen long before it existed.
I lost count of the years… but when the tours stopped and the music finally ended, I realized I’d also left a lot of myself by the side of the road. Elaborate dinners quickly became single-serving meals, and I needed a new plan. When I first moved to New York, I had a 3 x 5 card pinned to the top of my dream board. “Do your job,” it said. Below that: “Everything else will take care of itself.”
I never chased the “celebrity chef” moniker, and frankly, I hate that it exists. When I went to culinary school, all I wanted was to be the best damn cook I could be and share what I’d learned with the next generation of young chefs.
As a budding professional chef, my kitchen obsession was reignited. I put my nose down, shut the world out and focused on achieving greatness. I worked doubles for free; I assisted any chef who would have me. I fully immersed myself in my new life.
The self-investment paid off, and I graduated at the top of my class from the French Culinary Institute. My first job out of school was in the kitchen of famed Nobu, then on to the three-Michelin-starred Jean Georges.
It was a far cry from the crowds and lights of a life on tour, but this life was finally mine. After many years and detours, kitchen domination was now sharply in my adult sights. Even during the darkest days of my divorce, I never imagined that those intimate childhood moments spent learning from my grandmother would shape my life forever. She knew the skills she instilled long ago would one day save me.
The parallel lines have finally intersected, and I’ve merged my life of performing with my passion for delicious and healthful food. Whether I’m extolling the virtues of kale to a class full of kindergarten students or making silly videos about easy-to-try recipes, food is the foundation of my life.
As Hot Body, Hot Kitchen, my series of videos I’ve made with SheKnows, rolls out, be sure to keep in touch with me and let me know what you like and what you want to see more of. I hate the word “diet,” and you should too. Try to focus on eating the best, most nutrient-dense foods you can afford, and stay conscious. When you really step back and think about what you are putting in your body, you’ll make better choices and be much happier with yourself in the end.