Damaris Phillips Explains Her Approach To Judging Summer Baking Championship - Exclusive Interview

When we first met Damaris Phillips she was a culinary instructor turned contestant on Season 9 of "Food Network Star." The Kentucky native ultimately won the competition, as she impressed viewers with her cooking skills and shimmy-loving, down-to-earth personality. Bobby Flay famously told Phillips after watching her film her premiere pitch tape that he enjoyed her goofiness.

Since taking home the ultimate prize in 2013, Phillips has been busy writing a cookbook, hosting shows, and more recently being a judge on Food Network's "Summer Baking Championship." The new season premiered on May 13 and features skilled bakers from around the country competing in travel-themed challenges, creating everything from decadent berry pies to beautifully presented alcohol-infused desserts. Host Jesse Palmer and judges Duff Goldman and Carla Hall will choose who ultimately takes home the grand prize of $25,000.

We spoke to Phillips in an exclusive interview about what it's like giving out critiques instead of being the one to receive them and why she believes it's important to be direct. The celebrity chef also told us what fans can expect to see this season, what it's like working with her fellow judges behind the scenes, her best baking hacks, and how her first cookie recipe was inspired by love.

What challenges bakers faced this season

What can fans expect to see on this season of "Summer Baking Championship?"

I think they're going to see a lot of big flavors. The bakers have huge personalities and a ton of skills. There are a lot of new baking techniques that you're going to see that I hadn't seen before in competition shows. There are some really fun challenges that kind of push them and really test their skills. There's going to be a lot of delicious desserts. Plus, you can expect tons of dad jokes from Jesse Palmer now that he's a dad. I mean, we do all the dad jokes. He really came hard.

I enjoy a good dad joke. This year the challenges are based on road trips across the U.S. Which was your favorite and why?

The one coming up this week is pretty good. It's a lake challenge and I came up on lakes. I'm in Kentucky and in that part of the country, you really spend a lot of time on rivers and lakes and there's just something so calming and kind of nostalgic about a lake vacation, so I really love that one. I also love the Southwest one because it is so different. The flavor profiles and the aesthetic are so different than say, the lake challenge. I really loved being able to see and celebrate all the different spots in all the different regions of the United States. For example, I'm used to having strawberry shortcake on Memorial Day because strawberries are in season in Kentucky in May, but that looks very different across the United States and I think that's really fun to think about and explore.

Yeah, that's true. What was the most difficult competition bakers had to tackle this season?

I think last week they had some gelatin. I think gelatin is always very difficult. They have to make "lagoons" using gelatin and I think that combining it in a way that tastes delicious and looks delicious is always difficult because it's kind of a throwback. You don't see often gelatin desserts coming up on menus anymore, in bakeries, or at potlucks. I think Jell-O and gelatin had their heyday 40 years ago, so I think that was pretty challenging.

And then the finale is always challenging. It's always challenging to make something that usually takes days and days for people to create and then cram it into a long bake. That's difficult. It's difficult to make large baked goods quickly.

Yeah, I felt so bad for the contestant who got eliminated in the first episode because she didn't allow enough time for it to cool down. I am sure they are used to having much more time.

Yeah, it's not the same as chefs, when you're on a line and you're used to that super high-paced energy. A lot of times bakers are used to baking on a schedule. You know how long it takes and you allow yourself the amount of time that it takes to make your creations and then you do something else during it. You might bake your cake layers and then put those away, then you might make your pie crust, then you might make your buttercream for the week, and then you come back to those cakes hours later. I think that time management in every single one of the challenges is always something that the bakers have to be very, very aware of.

What games the cast played behind the scenes and why she's direct as a judge

Both Carla Hall and Duff Goldman are incredibly talented just like you. What's it like working with them behind the scenes?

It is a delight, it really is. We have an incredible time together. I think day one always when we come in, we sit down at the table and it's like no time has passed. It's been like two days and we all just want to chit-chat with each other. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves like, "oh, we have a job to do." Really, we just want to talk. We just want to hang out. We want to all sit around and talk about what we ate for dinner last night or what we're going to eat for dinner tonight and then good board games.

Carla Hall's also an avid board game player. Duff brings his guitar to set often and plays music. When we have downtime, we are often playing a game and Duff's making music for us. Jesse reads a lot and so he's always trying to read and we're always, always, always interrupting him, getting him to play or talk. He always reads the classics. So he's really trying to expand his mind and we're just playing Five Keys or Yahtzee. Carla's a big Yahtzee player, she's very good.

Sounds like you guys have a lot of fun. As someone who knows what it's like to be a contestant on "Food Network Star," do you think that influences the way you give feedback as a judge?

I do. I think sometimes viewers see me as very direct in my judging and it is because these people are trying to win and it does not help them if I'm not honest and clear about how they can improve. In an art competition improving is very, very important. Week after week, if you can get better, you can win. Even if you didn't come in your strongest, that's the beauty of only one person going home each week, you have the time to develop your skills.

It's a very important role and part of my job as a judge is to make sure that I give them feedback that will help them get better. And you want to help them get better in competition baking, which is very, very different than baking at home or baking in a pastry shop or baking for a restaurant.

Yeah, constructive criticism helps you get better and helps improve your skills.

100%, because you don't have to be the best person coming into the competition. You have to be the best person leaving the competition. Watching bakers' ability to adapt and be flexible and creative within the challenges is very important.

Her do's and don'ts for how to incorporate the right texture and alcohol into baked goods

The series started with contestants having to make a cake that looked like an ice cream bar. What's the biggest mistake people make when it comes to creating the texture of their baked goods?

I think they forget all of the textures. We talk in savory foods so often about all the different textures you want to have with every dish, but when it comes to desserts, I think a lot of times people forget that you also want those varying textures. You want creamy and soft, you want firm and then you also want crunch and you want something that's hearty and dense. I think that people struggle just to make sure that all of those textures are represented.

I didn't think about it that way, that's very true. I was also impressed thinking about the way that you guys could hold the cake on a stick without it falling apart.

Oh, absolutely. I don't know that it was as clear as it could have been that to make an ice cream sandwich, an ice cream bar, the magic that's happening is the chemistry that happens in the liquid chocolate dip when it gets very, very cold. It very smoothly and cleanly coats the shape of the ice cream bar. Having to then shell out and paint the inside of those ice cream molds with a thin layer of chocolate that is not going to be set up because of the temperature, it's very hard to do. The construction of that challenge was very difficult and they did an exceptionally good job.

They really did. One of the other elimination challenges featured participants' interpretation of a cocktail made into a tart. What tips do you have for home bakers when it comes to incorporating alcohol into their baking?

I'm going to say this without sounding like I love booze a lot, but you should be doing that. You should be incorporating alcohol into your desserts is what I would say. It works so well. So many cocktails have so much emphasis on fruits and sweets, it's just such a natural evolution to be inspired by alcohol and it adds savor, it can add spice, it can add smoke in a very easy and attainable way that we don't always get with desserts. It is a way to get creative with desserts that is very simple.

Is there any type of alcohol you wouldn't include in desserts or baking?

I mean, vodka. Vodka's not to eat. It doesn't really have a ton of flavor. It's not going to add a lot to a dessert. So if I were using alcohol, I would be using those alcohols that have very, very distinct flavors and distinct profile notes. So gin is spectacular because of the botanicals. Bourbon is outrageous because of all of the vanilla you get in there and all of the char flavor you get.

Tequilas have such distinct kind of base notes and then you think of mezcal with the smoke. And rum, all the spiced rums, come on, all of it. Like spiced rum with banana? Hello summer, right? There are so many, even some of the licorice-y alcohols work really well in desserts. They're sometimes not everyone's go-to at the bar, but you can throw anise-y flavored liquor into your dessert and it really works well.

How being in love inspired her first cookie recipe

I read that the first recipe you perfected was chocolate chip cherry cookies with oatmeal. If someone is new to baking, what do you think is a good recipe to start with?

I'd say that one because it's the first recipe I developed. That was the first recipe I wrote on my own and it came from a core memory kind of place. It came from being attached to something that was very important to me. I think that when you want to create your own recipe, it's best to start with a recipe that you're going to have a story about. You're going to have a memory of how it should taste and how it should make you feel even more than the tasting.

So that's what I try to do with baking is knowing that so much of baking is about how it tastes, but even more than that, it's about how that dessert or how that baked good makes you feel. It's about the experience of how you're going to eat it and what you're going to come away remembering from it.

When I think of chocolate chip cherry cookies, it's about breaking it open. It's about where my fingers are holding it and how when my finger is placed on one of those little chocolate chips, it's going to get a little melty, and then I am going to lick my fingers. That is part of the experience. It's like an ice cream sandwich from childhood for me.

Was that a recipe your family made?

No, I was 19 years old, and the first guy I ever loved made me chocolate chip cherry cookies as a way to woo me. I worked in a coffee shop and he brought them in. He made them for me and it was what making that recipe was about. I still wanted to have chocolate chip cherry cookie recipes that made me feel celebrated as a human, but I wanted to be able to make them for myself. I didn't want to have to wait for somebody to make them for me.

Her best baking hacks and what fans can expect to see her in next

On Instagram, you have a great hack on how to easily get the dough off your hands. Do you have any other hacks that are helpful when it comes to baking?

I think that it's always good to use the pan spray. You can flour and butter your pan but just use pan spray. Honestly, it's very, very helpful. Lemon gets off garlic, and I hate the smell of garlic. I always hate smelling garlic on my hands. Use convenience items from the grocery store. Find those great convenience items and do kind of a half-homemade approach. There are so many ways to get old-fashioned flavor with new-fashioned techniques. You don't have to make your caramel. There are delicious caramels out in the grocery stores that you can buy.

Especially for people who are baking with their busy schedules and trying to do it all, I think some convenience items are very, very helpful. I also love that you can cook a lot of things in the microwave. Pastry creams and lemon curds cooked in the microwave are a real, real tip and trick. It takes a while to make pastry cream, but if you realize you can get scratch flavor by cooking it in your microwave, why not?

Yeah, there's so many. I think a lot of people think you have to make everything by hand, but there's a lot of food that will taste just as delicious.

And you can make it from scratch, but we don't have to use the old cooking techniques. So yes, pastry cream, when we first started making pastry cream, we cooked it in a double boiler on a stove top because that's the mechanism that we had for heating food. And then lo and behold the '80s came along and what's up microwave? People don't think about using the microwave as a controlled way of baking and it's actually very, very cool. Ganache in the microwave is way simpler than ganache on a double boiler. You just have to watch it.

That's very true. Do you have any other food-related projects coming up in the future?

We're going to be filming "Outrageous Pumpkins" for the fall, which I absolutely love. So after we get through the summer, I'm excited to just jump back into a real celebration of the fall with crazy, insane, enormous pumpkin carving.

"Summer Baking Championship" airs on the Food Network on Mondays at 8 p.m. ET/PT.