‘Food Network Star’ Finalist Isn’t Slowing Down
By Donna Cornelius
Journal Features Writer
Season 8 of “Food Network Star” didn’t end the way Martie Duncan’s fans hoped.
While the Birmingham native was one of four contestants who made it to the show’s July 22 finale, she lost her bid to win the title and her own show on the Food Network.
But for Martie, the party’s definitely not over.
One of the main reasons she auditioned for the reality series was to increase the visibility of “Martie Knows Parties,” her website that offers creative, stress-free tips for entertaining.
“The show was a big commitment of time,” she said, “but I’m so thankful I did it. It was an amazing gift to be selected out of thousands of people.”
On each episode, contestants had to tackle a different challenge, from entertaining a bus full of New York tourists to cooking for Paula Deen in Miami.
Viewers who saw Martie earn praise from Food Network judges Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson might be surprised to learn that she considers herself just a “home cook.”
“I’ve never cooked or catered professionally,” she said, “and there I was competing against people like Ippy (Aiona) and Eric (Lee), who were great chefs and went to prestigious culinary schools.”
So how did Martie, a Web content designer and self-proclaimed “sports girl” as a Banks High School student, become a finalist of the show that is to foodies what the World Series is to baseball fans?
“When I was high school, I wanted to have parties,” she said. “My mom said I could – but that I had to clean up before and after and handle all the food.
“I’d get chips and dip, Mountain Dew and M&M’s,” she said. “I made mini-hamburgers long before sliders became popular because they were cheaper.”
Since then, she said, “I’ve always loved helping people with parties and entertaining.”
Martie said she “didn’t have a good vision” of her career goals when she was in college.
“I was doing an internship with the City of Birmingham and learned that if you became a police officer, they’d pay for your education,” she said. “I felt like a millionaire! I didn’t think about the ‘getting shot at’ part.”
She changed career gears about the time she got married. (She’s now single.)
“Some people I met while I was shopping for wedding dresses asked me to come and work for them,” she said. “I’ve been involved with the wedding industry ever since.”
Her career as a wedding and party guru took off. She’s appeared on TV shows in Chicago, St. Louis, Birmingham and other large cities to talk about party planning and wedding trends and has been interviewed by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Brides and other newspapers and magazines.
It was while she was doing a live show with Paula Deen that she met Guy Fieri, the 2006 Food Network Star winner.
“That’s where the seed was planted” to audition for the show, she said. “I had to work on my cooking chops and started making cooking a focus on my website.”
Martie first auditioned for the show in Chicago, where she’d lived for 11 years, and sailed through the first few rounds. Next came phone interviews and more auditions. Finally, former “Good Eats” host Alton Brown, one of three team leaders for the show, asked her and about 30 hopefuls to meet with him at his Atlanta studio.
That’s where she met eventual winner Justin Warner for the first time.
“He was so quirky, I knew he would be cast,” she said.” I got to New York, and there he was.”
The very first episode threw Martie a curveball. Each team had to create its own pop-up restaurant with limited budgets and time.
“Because I’m not a restaurant chef, that one was the hardest,” she said, “and I hadn’t practiced timed cooking.
“I looked at the clock, and we had 28 minutes left. I thought I’d bitten off more than I could chew.”
Justin helped calm her nerves – and also pitched in to help her cook, she said.
The show played up the very real friendship between Martie, a striking Southern charmer who in her Food Network bio admits to being “slightly over 40,” and unconventional Justin, who’s 27 and the owner of a Brooklyn, N.Y. restaurant.
On the night the network revealed the names of the three finalists, Martie and the other contestants expected only one person to be chosen from each team. That meant either she or Justin would be going home.
When Justin’s name was announced, Martie was ready with a hug and a congratulatory note she’d tucked into her pocket. Then Susie Fogelson dropped a bombshell: Martie was a finalist, too, prompting what Martie calls her “Tim Tebow moment.”
“I knelt down and was thanking God, and my (late) mom, too,” she said.
Martie said she was “amazed” at the support she got from fans, particularly in her home state. The winner was chosen from the final four through an online fan vote conducted in just a few days.
“People came out of the woodwork to help me,” she said. “The local media pulled out all the stops.”
Friends from Banks High School helped get the word out. Some famous Alabamians pitched in, too. “Courteney Cox, Taylor Hicks and Octavia Spencer all tweeted about me,” Martie said.
In her immediate future is a project for Alabama Restaurant Week Aug. 17-26, part of the state tourism department’s Year of Alabama Food activities. She’ll be visiting some great Alabama restaurants to interview chefs and make videos.
She’s also working on a book deal and has been contacted by several producers about making a TV show.
“I want to help promote the food industry in Alabama,” she said.
She’d also love to participate in a charity event with a format like one of Food Network’s most popular shows, “Chopped.”
On the night that the show announcing the finalists aired, some 200 turned out for a party at the Sonnet House in Leeds. When the finale was broadcast, supporters gathered at Rogue Tavern to cheer Martie on.
Although they – and Martie – hoped for a different outcome to the show, Martie thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“It was an awesome opportunity,” she said.