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Zoe Valladares, 24, never intended to be on All-Star Academy.

This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came to Valladares after she originally sent in an audition form for another show on the Food Network, but was redirected by the same production company to compete on All-Star Academy.

“I have always wanted to go to culinary school, and I think this is the ultimate culinary school. I read up on it, and I applied, and after a couple of rounds of interviews I finally got it,” Valladares said.

Valladares’ passion for cooking came at a young age, as she often watched her mother, aunts and grandmother cook in the kitchen with her by their side.

Her father was also a sous chef at an Italian restaurant growing up. With these resources, Valladares crafted the perfect combination of cooking from the heart while also cooking with precision.

“I always say, my dad taught me the technique and my mom taught me the soul,” Valladares said.

She believes every little experience in her life has led to the chance to compete on All-Star Academy.

Valladares came to the United States from Venezuela when she was 7 years old not being able to speak a word of English.

Growing up, she watched the Food Network to connect her to this new environment.

She remembers from a young age telling her mother that she would be on the network, on shows such asCelebrity Chef or Emril, setting her mind on her cooking goals early in life. Throughout her life, she was also the self-proclaimed “food authority” among her friends, always cooking for others and rarely feeling like she was being challenged.

But this time, it’s different. All-Star Academy has challenged her cooking in ways not previously done. This time, she is surrounded by equally skilled home-cooks and knowledgeable mentors determined to push her further and further out of her comfort zone.

From being on this show, Valladares hopes to gain a better understanding of food, and from that understanding use her passion to start her own catering company or simply cook for private events.

She views cooking as a spiritual experience and wants to share that experience with a broad audience post All-Star Academy. This spirit and passion is driven by the desire to make others happy. Valladares’ main goal in life is to connect others with her cooking.

“Food is all about connecting people, and I think it’s a great medium to do that. And that’s my passion, that’s what drives me, making people happy and making people come together.”

Her cooking hasn’t only improved her own life: It’s improved the lives of her friends as well. Alyssa Rodriguez, another UCF alumna and a close friend of Valladares, expressed the impact Valladares’ cooking has had on her.

“Ever since we were roommates in college, we’ve enjoyed being in the kitchen together. I’ve seen her passion grow over the years. We went from cooking together in a student apartment to her being on the Food Network,” Rodriguez said.

Despite her recent success with All-Star Academy, Valladares believes that the experience has humbled her while also drawing a new audience to her cooking.

“People are now paying attention to me … I’ve gotten amazing support from people I’ve never even met and people reaching out to me on Facebook or different social media just to congratulate me is almost overwhelming at times, but it’s great,” Valladares said.

As for right now, Valladares is focused on utilizing her social media to her advantage. She hopes to team up with different blogs to document her experience on the Food Network and is in the process of setting up a YouTube channel where her recipes can be accessible to a larger audience.

Watch the show:

Valladares will be on All-Star Academy, Feb. 14 at 10 p.m. You can visit her website zoekelly.com for her favorite recipes and updated blog.

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Samantha Bequer is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.

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