The "Southern spitfire" took home the cake – or the fried chicken, as the case may be.
On Sunday, Damaris Phillips, 32, a culinary instructor from Louisville, Ky., topped Russell Jackson and Rodney Henry on the ninth season of "Food Network Star." The victory comes after a 10-week season that required Phillips and 11 other chefs to compete in culinary challenges and show off their TV presentation skills. Phillips won her own show on the Food Network, which will debut this fall.
Phillips spoke to U.S. News about how she's celebrating and what we can expect to see from her in the future. Her responses have been edited.
Congratulations! How are you feeling?
Just awesome. I'm a little overwhelmed right now and so excited I can't stand it. And I'm a little shell-shocked – I just cannot believe it. You hope that everybody gets an opportunity like this in life, to have people that excited and cheering for them.
This really was my dream, and it's been such a gift to have that dream come true. Whatever happens, I'm thankful to everyone who voted and watched, and I hope that I get the opportunity to live up to whatever people are hoping to see from me.
What are you eating to celebrate?
I had some granola this morning. I'm going to make a cornmeal cake, and I made a chocolate cake with poached peaches last night for a friend of mine, so I'm eating the leftovers. And a student of mine made me banana pudding. So, a lot of sweets!
The exact scope of your new show is still being worked out, but what can you tell us about it?
There will definitely be a presence of the South, of my interpretation of "modern Southern." I hope to use food as a way to connect with people. Really, I hope I get to teach and that people can learn from my show – but also have some fun and entertainment along the way.
What do you want people to know about Southern food?
I don't think the South gets represented as well as it should. We have the largest growing season, and because of that, we have an abundance of vegetables – beautiful, beautiful vegetables. We also have a lot of real sophistication going on as far as cheese-making and charcuterie, and we've always made bacon in the South. We have a lot of really artisan meats and cheeses, products like jams and jellies, and traditional preserving techniques. I really hope to introduce people to that, so there's not just this thought that the South means fried food.
Speaking of which: What do you say when people assume Southern food is unhealthy?
I think what's not understood is the history of why Southern food is the way it is. This is the food of people who are really not super affluent. So, it's not like you had a lot of meat. Usually meats are used as seasonings; so, for example, you see a lot of beans – which are a great source of protein – and then you see meat as a flavoring agent. Vegetables are also a staple of a Southern diet. Growing up, our meals consisted primarily of vegetables, and then we had small amounts of meat. Once people understand that, I don't think anyone can argue that there's not a real healthful side to Southern food.
The pilot you pitched, "Eat, Date, Love," revolves around teaching men how to attract women with Southern cooking. Has anyone ever won you over with a meal?
You know, I have been won over by a gentleman cooking for me before. I have a special fellow now who makes me what he calls a "potato pie." He makes bread and then layers the inside of it with sweet potatoes, potatoes, hummus and sautéed spinach. He made that for my birthday party this year, and I remember looking at him and thinking, "Wow, I've got a good one." There's something about someone cooking for you that makes you feel special.
What do you like about introducing non-cooks to cooking?
Cooking is one of those things that is universal to people. And any time you can teach somebody a way to connect with all people, there's so much joy in it. And it is always going to be exciting. Almost everyone loves to eat, and when you're able to make people feel more involved in that process, it feels really good. I think it's an incredible gift to be able to give people.
[Read: Building Your Kitchen Confidence.]
What's your favorite meal to prepare?
My dad's favorite food was butter beans, so I love to prepare them because it makes me think of him. When I miss him really badly, I make them. My favorite foods are usually things that make me think about somebody. My sister's favorite is fried chicken, so there are times when I want her to know how special she is to me, so I make her fried chicken.
You were labeled a "Southern spitfire" on the show. How did you feel about that, and what other sides of yourself do you hope to show as you continue on TV?
I don't think anybody doesn't like to be called a spitfire. I think it sounds sassy and like I have a lot of moxie, and I always think of those things as pretty good. I would love for people to see that I'm goofy and have a great sense of humor, and I can have a lot of fun, but there is real seriousness to my dedication to my craft. I don't think of teaching people to cook as a joke. I take it very seriously, and I'm excited for people to get to see the teacher that I am.
What stands out as your most challenging experience during this season?
That first day, you walk in and then 10 other people walk in, and they're all remarkable. Like, they are all so successful and talented. And I was standing there thinking, "Oh, somebody made a mistake. How did I get here?" And then that's the second you realize that all the people surrounding you are remarkable, so maybe that means you might be remarkable, too. That moment, for me, was really important.
[Read: Video: Top Chefs Talk Healthy Eating.]