Alhambra resident Kristina Kuzmic-Crocco was ecstatic: for the first time since she got the news in August, this week she could talk about how she was selected from thousands of contestants for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host a cooking show on Oprah’s new network.
“I had to keep this big secret,” the 31-year-old waitress and mother of two said. “I literally could not tell anyone in my life what I was doing. When I went to film the show, I could not tell anyone why I disappeared.”
Kuzmic-Crocco, who left her native war-torn Croatia when she was 15 and now calls Alhambra home, will compete starting Friday against nine other finalists in Oprah’s “Your Own Show” for the chance to host her own talk show. Her show would be a sassy, funny, and down-to-earth approach to cooking from the perspective of a busy mom. On Tuesday she spoke with the Source’s Nathan Solis about how her life took this unexpected turn, and the culinary inspiration she finds in Alhambra’s diversity.
How did you become a finalist for Oprah’s show?
Last April I started this website, Stickycook.com, as sort of a birthday present to myself. I was waiting tables and I thought this would be a fun hobby since I love cooking and sharing recipes. Then a few weeks later, a random lady e-mailed me, “Hey, Oprah has this contest.” So, I sent in my little audition video and a week later I got my first phone call, which started a long interview process. Things like this just do not happen to me, at all. Nothing like this has ever happened to me. I never thought, “this is going to go big this website.” I literally still cannot believe this.
Los Angeles is such a big melting pot, as well is Alhambra. How does that influence your take on cooking?
I’ve been cooking since I was a kid, but when I moved to the States, I still only really cooked Croatian food. I think it wasn’t really until I came to California that I started to cook differently — now, one of my favorite groups to cook is different Asian cuisines, which I never did back in Croatia. I love feeling like I’m able to cook different cultural meals. I’ve also tried to introduce my kids, through the food, to the different cultures. So we’ll have a Japanese night and we’ll talk about Japan — different neat ways to incorporate food with the rest of the world.
That’s a neat way to do it – especially since the best way to a person’s brain is through the stomach.
I agree, to the brain and the heart.
Where is your favorite place to eat in the Alhambra area?
There’s this place, my husband just went there the other day, and they have the most amazing Pho soup, Pho 79. My husband always goes and gets food there. It’s those authentic spots, those are the places that make me want to run home and figure out what they did. That’s one of the good things about Alhambra is that there are so many good Asian restaurants, and I’ll bring my food home and I’ll pick at them to figure out what’s in them – I can spend hours evaluating a dish. I’m one of those obnoxious people at a restaurant. I’ll ask, “Can you tell me all the spices that are in this?” I actually was in a restaurant once – not in Alhambra – and I was enjoying my appetizer so much I walked into the kitchen to ask the chef what was in it. They freaked out. They thought I had an allergy, because I was so excited about it, and they kept asking me if I was OK.
You were born in Croatia. Was there a culture shock when you moved to Southern California from Croatia?
Well, actually I moved to the Boston area first. So there were two shocks. Boston, honestly is a culture shock, in general from Croatia, but there are some similarities with the people. The East Coast is maybe a bit more like Europe. After I got over that shock, and I moved over to the West Coast, then there was a whole other shock. But I absolutely love it here. I love how laid back everything is and I feel that everyone here is really optimistic and positive – you know the Eastern European cultures tend to be on the pessimistic side, so, here there was a shock, but I think I’ve adjusted well. I still mess up some American sayings. Well, oh, I’ll say “brain wash” instead of “brain storming,” and I’ll catch myself. One time in college, I was scrubbing a big stain out of a rug and my roommate said, “Put some elbow grease into it,” and I’m scrubbing this thing, I didn’t know the saying, and I thought, well I know that the skin has natural oils in it. And I literally started to scrub the carpet with my elbows.
How did you start waitressing?
I went through a divorce four years ago. I had waited tables in college and stuff, but then I was a stay-at-home mom. After the divorce I had to support myself. So I waited tables on the weekends so I that I could always be at home with my kids during the week and I was definitely struggling and I gave up on any sort of dreams or hopes I had. I just hit bottom. Again, which makes this whole thing more amazing for me, I really had sort of just got into this mode of, “I just need to take care of my children, I just need to get through the bills every month, I just need to figure out how we’re going to pay for everything.” So, to receive this, it’s just this amazing gift to focus on my dreams. It’s just incredible.
What is your down time like? Do you have down time?
Yes, I do have downtime and that’s spent completely with my kids. I have a 7-year-old boy, and a 5-year-old girl, and though I think being a parent is the hardest job in the world, at the same time I don’t just think of it as a job, but also my down time. Hanging out with them, playing Legos, and My Little Pony, that’s definitely part of every day.
And so now you’re remarried?
Yeah, I got remarried a little over a year ago. What’s neat about that is that he’s the first person who fully believes in me. When I got the email about the competition and I wondered if I should go for it and he looked at me, straight on, “Babe, you have to audition, you’re going to get it, you’re going to be one of the 10.” He was just so confident, this is still while thousands of people are auditioning and he just has so much faith in me – it’s so refreshing to have that in my life.
Where do you do your shopping?
Just the regular grocery stores in Alhambra – Ralphs. And there this little – I’m so bad with names – but there’s this little place on Main Street with so many good things for Mexican dishes.
Yeah, they have so many good spices, authentic salsas, I like that place for whenever I make Mexican food.
What do you think the rest of the world can learn from Alhambra, in terms of the culinary melting pot that it is?
Again, I think that a lot of people, when they go out to eat, they’re looking for the fancy thing, and those places are great, but they’re all doing the same thing. But I think the best way to learn how to cook is to learn from the people who are doing it authentically, to learn from the cultures where it originated from, and then later you can put your own spin on it. If you learn the basics, you know, of that cultural cuisine, which is a really good foundation to build upon. I would tell people to check out the small places – people get turned off if they see a menu that’s in a different language, or if the servers don’t speak English. Who cares? Go over there and learn some new words – it’ll be exciting. Figure out a way to communicate with them and try out those places. That’s where you’ll get something new and different, and I think that as a cook that will be something that will inspire you.
Watch Kuzmic-Crocco's audition video!