It’s been more than 15 years since the man retired from the NFL, but to say that Herschel Walker has a lot on his plate these days is a gross understatement. The 2x Pro Bowl and Heisman winner has recently continued his reality television career on a celebrity cooking competition as the largest contestant on Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-off on the Food Network.
Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri returned for their third season this month to mentor and coach eight celebrities including 51-year-old Walker who landed a spot on Team Guy, along with teammates Vanilla Ice, Chris Kattan and ’80s pop-singer Tiffany. “I started out wanting to be on Rachael’s team, then I saw Guy driving that old Camaro and I love old cars, so I decided I wanted to be on Guy’s team,” Walker says.
“When I first heard about the Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off, I thought it was just going to be a cooking demonstration,” he admits, “Until I realized it was a competition and then I got excited because I love competition and I always thought I could cook.”
Walker is notorious as a man of many talents that extend far beyond football — including the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team (which he attributes to his sprinting abilities), MMA, dancing, entrepreneur and businessman, reality TV star, and now cooking. While competitive cooking may be new for Walker, cooking in general is something he’s grown up around.
“Being in the south, my mom has always told the boys to cook. I remember as a little boy we were always in the kitchen with my mom, always making apple or peach tart and she showed me how to do that. All the young kids always knew how to cook. Whenever your parents left, you had to cook for them, so I remember baking biscuits and breads for them. Going on the show I wanted to put that little Southern-style twist in, so I think that helped me out a great deal,” Herschel says of his upbringing in the kitchen, being one of seven kids.
Something else that might surprise you, based on his size and the amount of time he spent in Texas (playing for the Dallas Cowboys), Walker doesn’t eat meat. While he’s not a “full-on vegetarian,” he just doesn’t prefer it. Instead he likes things like black-eyed peas and collard greens — those Southern-style dishes he grew up on.
“It’s funny because I have a chicken company that I’ve had for 14 years,” Walker says, “So it’s kind of hard. I used to eat steak like 20 years ago and today I don’t eat it at all. Being on the show was kind of interesting because a lot of my fans are like ‘how are you going to cook those dishes if you don’t eat them?’ But I know about flavor,” he adds noting the importance.
Walker isn’t the only guy on the show averse to meat — Vanilla Ice is also a vegetarian. “It’s going to freak you out to see the things this guy (Vanilla Ice) can do on a cooking show. This guy, he’s a vegetarian — he doesn’t cook any of that (meat), but he’s very competitive and he can make very good items. I tell you what — he was a ninja with the tofu.”
“I fell in love with the guy — I thought man, this guy’s cool. I watched him from afar and always thought he had a lot of talent. Watching how he associates with his fans, I thought, that’s a cool dude right there.” Walker says of his teammate who can do more than rap compelling lyrics.
The Celebrity Cook-Off, though a reality show by the very definition, isn’t the dramatic wreck one associates with that term, but if there was one contestant bringing a little bit of drama, Walker says it was Chris Kattan, actor and comedian from SNL. “He was a funny, funny guy and I tell you what, he was a little bit of drama,” Walker laughs. “As for drama that people will get excited about, we have to go into a grocery store, I was sort of lost; you only had a certain amount of time. That was drama — I don’t shop, I don’t know where to find olives — are they in the freezer, are they on the shelf?”
He even goes as far as to say a grocery store is more stressful than a defensive tackle coming straight for him. “You’re going to laugh, I think going to the grocery store is more stressful. I’m used to that 300-lb. guy. I can get around him, I’m faster, I can out-maneuver him. When you’re in football you have that helmet and big ole pads on, and you’re hiding. When you’re in the grocery store, they can see you stressed out, they see your face.”
Part of winning a show like this is being able to handle those other parts of cooking, like grocery shopping and cleaning up your mess — two things Walker says he’d rather not do. “I’m one of those guys who doesn’t want to clean up in the kitchen. Instead of going back and forth to the pantry, one of the things I’ve learned is to bring everything you need over to your station so you’re not wandering around. Instead, you try to reserve that time,” he says noting how stressful the timed competitions can be.
No stranger to fans cheering him on in any one of the many endeavors he chooses, Walker says his mother has become a big fan of the cooking showdown and is sending him tips along the way. “My mom called me after the shows and said These are the funniest shows I’ve ever seen.’ I said, ‘They are cooking shows, how are they funny?’ She said ‘You just look like you don’t know what you’re doing!’”
Walker admits she’s much more enthusiastic about seeing him on TV like this than she ever was while he was on the football field. “My mom has never been excited about me playing football. She always worried I’d get hurt or hurt someone else. But this here, she sees her son doing something she enjoys, something she taught me to do. She loves seeing this,” Walker says. “She is still teaching me. That is one thing being on this show did for me — this show has taught me to be a better cook. My knife skills have really improved. If Guy hadn’t stopped to show me how to use a knife, I’d probably have already lost my fingers,” he jokes.
But back to Vanilla Ice and his mouth-watering tofu. “I didn’t know tofu could taste so good! But then Vanilla Ice put some kind of sauce on the tofu and you could make a burger, a hotdog with tofu — it shocked me.
“I think cooking is exciting, because you learn something new. I didn’t know how to tone something down when it’s too spicy — I used to think all you had to do was drink a lot of water, but there are things you can use to tone it down. Guy is teaching me those little tips,” he says.
As for competition, it’s no secret the former running back is one of the toughest competitors around, and these culinary challenges are no exception. “I was happy to see Tiffany on my team. She has a lot of good qualities, people know Tiffany with that big voice and she can really sing, but she can really cook too. That’s what she does at home — she has parties all the time, she prepares meals. Seeing Florence Henderson, she’s the Brady Bunch, she got darn six kids, so she gotta be able to cook when you got that many kids — you know Alice ain’t cooking all the time, she’s cooking,” Walker jokes.
“It is so competitive, I’m studying my opponent, seeing where they are strong and where they are weak. I at first thought the weakest one would be Vanilla Ice — no one likes tofu — until the beginning of the competition he made something with tofu and he wanted me to taste it. I didn’t want to taste it but I didn’t want to insult the dude, but that junk was good. I thought oh crap! I was shocked that everyone came into the competition prepared,” he says.
Walker takes his limited amount of time on these six episodes seriously, as he does all his various other talents. “It’s not that I’m good at so many things, it’s just that I try so many things. I’m very open and I tell young kids they should do that. If you can talk it, you gotta be able to walk it. Don’t try to make your kids do one sport, give them an opportunity to do a lot of things — that’s what’s going to make you a better person. Growing up, I was a little bit over weight, and kids always made fun. One thing I decided at that time is that I would always try, no matter what. I would always try and work hard. And when I’m into any one thing, I focus on what I’m doing — I go out and study it, work hard, try to get good at it. I’m not going to say I’m great — whether it’s MMA, football, Olympics, cooking — during the cooking show, you’ll be shocked how many times you see me Googling recipes and pictures and trying to learn. There is always someone else that is better. I gotta get better as well.”
Believe it or not, Walker sees a lot of similarities between football and cooking: the first quarter is where you’re either mixing or chopping and the game is just getting started, but the fourth quarter is the time to step it up and score that final touchdown when the judges taste your food.
As for why you might tune in to this particular reality competition show, Walker puts it simply: “Everyone that watches the Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off, you’ll see me, a big football player, making very delicate things with my hands — turnovers, lettuce wraps, and more. People are going to see that Herschel Walker is more than a football player and just a good-looking face,” he quips.
But does the big guy have what it takes to win it all to join the ranks of past season winners Lou Diamond Philips and Dean McDermott? Tune in to Food Network to find out who takes the cake. Or the tofu.
Jayme Lamm is a freelance sports and travel writer based in Houston and is currently in a full-court press writing her hugely opinionated sports column, The Blonde Side. Follow her travels for sporting events and check her out on Twitter.
Jayme recently interviewed actress & comedienne Syd Wilder.