She might not be Food Network’s ‘star,’ but she shines anyway

“Food Network Star” contestant Caodan Tran says her talent for food is one route toward her career goal of TV host.
Photo by Rasy Ran

Cao Tran auditioned for several reality-TV shows before landing on one in October 2016.

She appeared on “Cooks vs. Cons” on Food Network.

By the time it aired this past February, Tran already was on her way to Hollywood to tape her next appearance, as a contestant on “Food Network Star.”

The 30-year-old Oak Cliff resident lasted five weeks on that show, but her TV career is not over yet.

Tran started working in the restaurant industry at age 18. She’s worked at high-end restaurants in Austin and Dallas, and she operated a personal chef business when she was cast on “Food Network Star.”

A couple of days after she was eliminated from that show, Tran announced that she took a job selling cars for Vandergriff Toyota in Arlington [Update: Tran now works at Toyota of Dallas].

Cooking for clients and rarely doing her own creative culinary work “was sucking the life out of me,” she says. She wanted a job outside of cooking, and her husband, Oak Cliff native Zach Wilkins, has an intense interest in cars, which Tran says rubbed off on her.

But she’s also aware that becoming an authority in another realm could inch her closer to her ultimate goal, TV host.

“Really, I like being in front of a camera,” she says. “So whether that’s food and cooking or cars or something else, it’s giving me another area of expertise.”

Tran recently picked up a gig with Visit Dallas, the city’s tourism bureau, hosting videos about various Dallas neighborhoods and attractions.

Food has always remained passions for Zach Wilkins, left, and Caodan Tran. Tran, the Food Network Star finalist, says she felt keeping it that route brings her more enjoyment than remaining in the service industry. Photo by Rasy Ran.

And she makes her own videos about cooking and meal prep. It’s like Tran and Wilkins created their own reality TV show: They’ve challenged themselves to spend just $50 a week on food.

Every Sunday, they allow themselves a restaurant meal and then they head to the Grocery Clearance Center on Cockrell Hill Road to pick up whatever appealing groceries happen to be in stock. Back at their Jefferson Boulevard loft, they create a week’s worth of meals.

It’s like being handed a box of surprise ingredients. The only judges are themselves, and they win when they get through the week without spending extra money on food.

They’ve found that they often wind up eating as little as $25 worth of groceries per week between the two of them.

“It’s really great because you don’t have to think about food,” she says. “You’re just using it for fuel.”

Wilkins, who works in marketing and once ran a food blog called “The Glut Life,” sometimes appears in his wife’s YouTube videos, which also contain restaurant reviews as well as Tran just talking about life.

She credits her husband for encouraging her to pursue TV. As an elite high-school athlete and the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, Tran says she received “so much tough love” and is harshly critical of everything she does.

“Zach always does believe in me more than I believe in myself,” she says.

Wilkins says he revels in being Tran’s “trophy husband.” Even the CEO of the company where he works often asks after his TV star wife, he says.

Before her turn on Food Network, Tran auditioned for “The Amazing Race” and was cast in a similar show — she says it was like “The Amazing Race” set in J.R.R. Tolkein’s middle-earth — that never aired. She also auditioned for season 12 of “Food Network Star” before being cast in the subsequent season.

Reality TV isn’t the ultimate dream for Tran, nor is it selling cars or even being a personal chef.

“My dream was always to be in the realm of food,” she says. “But really when it came down to it, I latched on to food and it was something that I became good at, and I became an authority on it, and it was my way of getting to that next level.”