Katie Cavuto thought her competitive days were over when an injury during college curtailed her ambitions as a gymnast. She turned instead to a culinary career, becoming a registered dietitian, personal chef, entrepreneur and regional television personality.
But now Cavuto, N04, is dusting off her competitive skills for an entirely different type of agility contest: She’s vying to become "The Next Food Network Star."
On the Food Network reality show of the same name, Cavuto and nine other cooks will face off this summer for a chance to host a show on the cable network that made Emeril, Alton and Giada household names–at least in those households that include a Microplane grater.
"This is an opportunity I never thought I would have," says Cavuto, the owner of Healthy Bites, a combination cooking and nutrition service based in Philadelphia’s center city.
Cavuto is a well-known face on local Philly TV stations, where she does snappy, practical segments on topics like "Cooking on a Budget" and "The Fattiest Foods of Summer." With her background in clinical nutrition and training from one of the country’s top culinary institutions, she’s ideally suited to address the subject of healthy food preparation–and television is an ideal medium for spreading that message, she says.
"I have so much really important information that I want to share with people, and I wanted to find the best way to relay this information to the largest audience possible," she says. "I have fun being on camera–it’s a real blast to me. I love cooking. I love talking about nutrition. I love being able to reach that many people."
The Next Food Network Star is basically a cross between the kitchen wizardry of Iron Chef and the populist one-upmanship of American Idol. Ten finalists–winnowed from the thousands who send in audition tapes–live together in New York City and take part in high-pressure cooking challenges designed not just to show off their kitchen skills, but to prove they have a personality that millions of foodies could love. Each week, another finalist loses his or her place at the stove.
And the challenges go far beyond getting dinner for four on the table after work. This season, for example, the finalists will be asked to cater a party for a roomful of Food Network stars; cook for returning soldiers aboard the aircraft carrier of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City; and compete in a beachside grill-off, among other tasks. While the judges may not include the acerbic Simon Cowell, neither are they inclined to be particularly merciful.
But Cavuto is not one to be deterred. While a student at Penn State, where she was majoring in kinesiology, she suffered an injury that left her unable to continue in competitive gymnastics. "I decided the best thing was to move on, but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do," she recalls. "Being a gymnast was so much a part of my identity that when it was ripped away from me prematurely, it was a pivotal moment in my life."
It wasn’t long, however, before a trip to Europe led her to turn her considerable energies toward cooking. "The relationship with food in Europe is so different than what it is here," she says. "It’s almost like a spiritual experience." On her return to the United States she enrolled at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, which had just started a culinary nutrition program.
"Going to culinary school was probably one of the greatest things I’ve ever done because I learned to appreciate food on a level I never had before," she says. "It was a great program–we got in the kitchen and had classes like spa cuisine, vegetarian cuisine and sports nutrition."
After receiving an associate’s degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s in culinary nutrition from Johnson & Wales, Cavuto came to Tufts for the combined dietetic internship and master’s degree program at the Frances Stern Nutrition Center. She fell in love with clinical nutrition. "Cooking fell to the back burner," she says.
While working at Graduate Hospital in her native Philadelphia, she was asked by the public relations office if she would represent the medical center on TV; a CNN Headline News program called Newsmakers was looking for someone to do a segment on healthy grilling for the Fourth of July. With her bubbly manner and extensive knowledge, Cavuto seems a natural for TV news—and thus, another piece of her career fell into place. She was soon doing spots on Philadelphia’s NBC, CBS and Fox affiliates.
Last year she left clinical practice to open Healthy Bites. The concept behind the endeavor is helping clients develop nutritionally sound habits, whether that means counseling them on healthy eating, giving cooking lessons, preparing food in their homes, delivering complete dinners or catering parties and other events. Some clients are driven by the convenience, others by a desire to lose weight or manage a medical condition. Still others "just want to get healthier foods into the house," Cavuto says.
"What I do focuses on long-term lifestyle changes," she says. "I’m coming into their homes and giving them all the tools they need to live a healthy lifestyle."
Cavuto highlighted her Healthy Bites philosophy in her audition video for The Next Food Network Star, which was filmed in one take by her husband, Andy Boyle, using their digital camera. "On the audition tape, I made a dish with whole-wheat pasta, chicken sausage, broccolini, cherry tomatoes and ricotta cheese," she said. "I talk with so many clients who can’t believe that a half-cup of pasta is a serving of carbohydrate, so I built the dish around the protein and the vegetables, and I added the pasta at the end to show how you can recreate and rethink a traditional meal to make it healthier and more figure-friendly."
The trip from that homemade video to the studios of the Food Network still surprises Cavuto. "I’m still pinching myself," she says. "I keep telling myself, I’m only 10 people away from having my own show on the Food Network."