My first encounter with Melissa D’Arabian, mother of four daughters, Food Network personality, celebrity chef, Mushroom Council spokesperson and Coronado Resident came in 2012. At the time D’Arabian was orchestrating a fundraiser for Coronado SAFE entitled ‘Kids in the Kitchen,’ which featured 62 elementary school-aged children, cooking for two and one-half hours, with 15 volunteers. She probably hasn’t slowed down a bit since then.
D’Arabian, is nationally-known for the multiple Food Network shows she has appeared on including being the winner of Season Five of “The Next Food Network Star,” seven seasons of “Ten Dollar Dinners,” and as a judge on “Guy’s (Fieri) Grocery Games,” from the inception of the show’s five-year run. She has written a new book entitled “Tasting Grace: Discovering the Power of Food to Connect Us to God, One Another and Ourselves.” Previously a New York Times best-selling author of “Ten Dollar Dinners: 140 Recipes and Tips to Elevate Simple, Fresh Meals Any Night of the Week,” D’Arabian’s new book reflects her personal philosophies relating to the interaction of food and faith, utilizing examples from her personal life.
Born in Anaheim, raised in Tucson until the age of 10 with her sister Stacy by a single mother, the family faced tough financial times, which D’Arabian discussed. “I realized I was poor in my elementary school cafeteria. It’s amazing how what you eat, what packaging it comes in and where you sit in the cafeteria can speak volumes about where you are in the social and economic pecking order. I thought everybody’s life was like mine, the universal experience. I was somebody who didn’t always have a hefty lunch and I am thankful for the people who reached out to me, shared life through food and found the compassion to put me in a school lunch program. When I am fed, I think a lot better in the classroom. I am completely convinced of that. Feeding kids helps feed their hearts, minds and souls. Food at the core, basic level saved me and gave me a future. And it gave me the possibility for a new ending.”
D’Arabian’s mother Cassie Wesselius, who was putting herself through college after a divorce with designs on attending medical school, eventually became Lt. Commander Wesselius, MD. She rose to become the head of Psychiatry at Bethesda Naval Hospital. D’Arabian was 20 years old and majoring in political science and economics at the University of Vermont when her mother committed suicide.
D’Arabian described her decision to attend Georgetown University to pursue her MBA. “I was in my junior year of college when Mom passed away and she is buried in Rockville, Maryland. I wanted to be near her and still establish my own identity. At Georgetown I could be close to Mom. At the same time, I wanted to be in international business, be an acquisition attorney, and Georgetown has a good law school which teaches global thinking and Washington is an international city. I was 21 when I graduated from college and 22 when I went to business school. I just wanted to be near her. Of course that’s the 50-year-old me looking back at me when I was 20.”
It turns out D’Arabian had a definite plan in mind when she auditioned for Season 5 of ‘The Next Food Network Star.’ She said, “It was not at all a ‘throw spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks’ plan for me. I was a stay-at-home Mom at the time, somebody who was on a budget and who is good at budgeting. I was somebody who worked in the world of finance for over a decade. It was in my skill set to share how to cook accessible food on a budget. That is a valid choice in food. When I did ‘Food Network Star,’ that was what I wanted to share. I showed up, did my best and let the chips fall where they may. I treated the show as an extended job interview and that was my approach. We filmed for seven weeks and the show ran over a 12-week period. I left home Jan. 10 and came back March 1. The contestants were housed together in the same room on bunk beds, with no phone. Once a week we got 10 minutes on the phone, but it was on a speaker phone and it was filmed. That was during the beginning of reality television. In that crazy world, there were no books, the recipes were all your own, there were no phones and no (computer) screens. That was during the first inauguration of Barack Obama and there was no television to watch that. We weren’t filming that day and we were stuck in a house in New York City. That’s how removed from society we were.”
But D’Arabian stuck with her plan and discovered that for her, God was in the ingredients. “There was a gift to that, and I knew I would be okay. There was a lot of craziness with the bright lights and that realization was a big gift. The change was how much I honored those ingredients and how it connected me to that world. When I did ‘Food Network Star’ there was no advanced notice, no time extensions, and what you saw is what we did. It was pretty stressful.”
When asked how she made the connection of faith and food, D’Arabian explained, “As somebody who has worked in the food world for the past 10 years, I think about food a lot. Things that came up over the past 10 years had me thinking. How do I feel about this idea that I won’t eat a tomato or too much sugar, but I will drink a bright blue sports drink for my health? I didn’t know how to reconcile all of that. I wondered what God intended. How to reconcile a culture that is very obsessed with food and celebrity chefs, while our culture is furthest away from our food than we have ever been. There are fewer farmers in Western culture, and we have technology and advancements in raising food, so there is something to reconcile here. We need to have a conversation about working off calories from Thanksgiving Dinner by going to the gym. Why ruin a piece of pumpkin pie eaten with the family and then pay the price to eat it, on the treadmill.
“As a Mom who feeds her kids, I wondered what does God want with all of this? That was the start of the journey with my book ‘Tasting Grace,’ which was what does God want with food. The book isn’t a set of admonitions and I’m not wagging a finger. The really good news is God is using food in so many wonderful ways. The message isn’t don’t drink weird blue drinks, but that tomatoes are awesome. And what if patience makes our lives a little bit better? I think it does. I think there are invitations that food offers. I hope people read the book and love food more richly, deeply and find a connection from the earth to God, if that is who they believe in. ‘Tasting Grace’ is about the invitations to loving our food more deeply, accepting the delights of delicious food he created for us, and leaning into the posture of receiving the food instead of taking food from our earth. The book is about the good news of all of those invitations.”
Writing “Tasting Grace” didn’t come quickly or easily to D’Arabian. “Well, it took me two years to know what I wanted to write. It was a self-discovery and you write about what you need to learn. Then the book took a year to write. It was the book no one was asking me to write. This is a three-dimensional topic and I had to figure out how to approach it. My soul asked me to write it and a lot of my soul is in it.”
Typically, D’Arabian starts her day at 5:30 a.m. and finds her way to her computer to write. “I don’t set an alarm. It’s just the quiet time. I have a cup of coffee, go downstairs, or go to the computer upstairs, sit down and write. That’s my clearest time. The entire book was written before 7 a.m. I’m usually writing for an hour and a half before everybody wakes up. Then I get the kids off to school, do a workout, check E-mails and then get back to writing mid-morning until lunch time. I don’t write that many hours in a day, usually three and then I switch to other stuff. I have to develop recipes in collaboration with the Mushroom Council and there’s other stuff. I’m speaking (last Sunday) to the Hour of Power in Los Angeles, at all three of their services, which pushes out to television. Then I go to Dallas for three days. But my best time is in the morning, the sweet time of connection and peace. That is the period of time when I am most optimistic, connected to earth, God and my abilities. It is when I do my most authentic and important work.”
The D’Arabian Family includes husband Philippe and their four daughters. Valentine is in ninth grade and is home-schooled. She participates in a day-time ballet program. Charlotte is in eighth grade and twins Margaux and Oceane are 12 years old. All three of the younger daughters attend Coronado Middle School.
Not surprisingly, D’Arabian’s culinary tutelage extends to her own children. “They spend time with me in the kitchen in very different ways,” Melissa said of her daughters. “Oceane loves cooking breakfast food and French toast. Valentine is our dancer and she is a vegetarian, is gluten free, eats lots of vegetables and Kale salad. She loves that. Charlotte was a participant in the “Kids Baking Championship,” and she bakes with me. Margaux loves to spend time with me in the kitchen and she recently perfected the two-egg, single-handed crack, which she had been working on.”
Another current project is D’Arabian’s cooking show on Facebook, entitled “It’s Tuesday Night Somewhere.” The shows are either taped or live and originate from her home kitchen. According to D’Arabian, the show started at a pretty basic level. “I propped my phone up against a water bottle and recorded myself cooking dinner. When I cook on the Food Network, I have a whole culinary staff, doing the setups and washing dishes. Plus there is an hour and a half of makeup and someone who clothes me. You don’t have that at home. ‘Tuesday Night’ morphed into something where people could cook along with me. If the show is live, I sometimes will take questions. I’ve done it for the past three years and sometimes (like this week) it’s recorded in advance. In any case, in each new episode I will show you a dish that I will serve to my family. It’s how people cook at home. I like to say, ‘It’s cooking without the false eyelashes,’ and that is how we really cook. Now there is professional equipment and lighting and all of the recipes are on my website.”
Original shows air Tuesdays at 11 a.m. Pacific Time. If taped, the shows run between eight and 15 minutes. If the shows are live, they run between 30 to 40 minutes from start to finish.
As we concluded our interview, D’Arabian highlighted the personal nature of her book. “I wrote ‘Tasting Grace’ from the perspective of my own food stories that illustrate 16 invitations. They include patience and hospitality. I talk about topics that matter to me, like living in France, what it’s like living in Paris and marrying into this family from the South of France. There is a chapter about losing my Mom to suicide and how food was very instrumental in drawing me out of the emotional and spiritual winter that lasted for probably a decade after she died. And I talk about how people around me used food to connect to me, sitting around the table with people who let me know in grief and tough times we aren’t alone. There is a conversation about gathering around people in the community, which we do so well in Coronado and why I love it so much here. I’m glad to be able to talk about that, suicide prevention, my life in France and my home. The book is meant to do a lot of things.”