By Gerrad Hall
August 04, 2018 at 10:50 AM EDT

Some of the biggest names on Food Network have emerged from the channel’s culinary competition — Guy Fieri, Melissa d’Arabian, Aarti Sequeira, Jeff Mauro, Damaris Phillips. Now, co-hosts Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay are about to crown a new winner of Food Network Star.

“It’s a very diverse cast of characters at the very end,” De Laurentiis, speaking to EW a couple weeks ago on a break from shooting Sunday’s season 14 finale, said of the final three: chef Christian Petroni, food novelist Jess Tom, and firehouse cook Manny Washington (learn more about them in the exclusive video above). “I think that it’s very representative of where we are in the world today, and I think that it’s going to be a really, really fun finale.”

Throughout the season — which saw the return of season 4 competitor Adam Gertler and last season’s Amy Pottinger — the aspiring stars had to transform their signature dishes into portable, theme park food; create a food podcast; and judge dishes cooked by De Laurentiis and Flay, among many more challenges, all the while presenting their work to camera or live audiences.

“I would say that the challenges are pretty intense and they get more and more intense every single season,” De Laurentiis says.

How would she have handled those intense challenges in order to land her Food Network job? Below, she answers that question, gives her take on this latest season, and explains why what she looks for in a “star” differs from Flay.

Michael Moriatis/Food Network

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How would you compare this finale and season to previous ones, and even how the competitors have evolved through the years?
Every year it completely changes in the fact that they’re watching. Everyone we put through this tortuous [laughs] process have watched a bunch of Food Network Stars in the past, and so I think that the creative team always has to come up with new challenges because people start to realize where it’s going, and if it becomes too formulaic then the challenges aren’t challenging. That’s in the beauty of the producers who do this show. But I would say that the challenges are pretty intense and they get more and more intense every single season. I think that you will see high emotions, I think you will understand the pressure that goes into doing this for a living, and I think that’s something people never realize; they think that what Bobby and I do for a living is easy, a piece of cake, but it looks easy because we’re pretty good at what we do after 20 some years of practice. [Laughs] We’re asking you guys to get as good as us in, what, 9 weeks or 10 weeks, so it’s pretty intense.

The difference is sort of in the attitudes of these folks, and the drive and the passion for what they do. It’s a pretty amazing ride, I will say that.

As you judge each challenge, what are the biggest priorities for you in terms of what you’re looking for from each competitor?
Well … I’m a little different than Bobby. I mean, we have a lot of similar feelings on this … but for me, personally, I think you need to sparkle on camera, and you have to tell a really great story to lure people in and hook them. Bobby feels like it’s all about the food. But the only thing for me is, [the audience] can’t smell or taste it, so if you can’t somehow draw them in with your personality, your sparkle, and your storytelling, then it doesn’t matter how good a cook you are, ‘cause no one’s gonna taste it ‘cause no one’s gonna make it.

So for me, it’s about the relationship between you and that camera. The more engaging you are, then the more you’re going to be able to coax people in and they’re going to make your food.

Food shows aren’t just about cooking anymore, as we see with something exactly like Food Network Star — there is an “entertainment” aspect to them. How do you feel about the evolution of them from lifestyle programming to something bigger, where there’s drama and competition now part of the equation?
I will tell you, I get a lot of families that say their Sunday nights or their time together in front of the TV is spent watching either Food Network, HGTV, or Cooking Channel. I think that it’s informative, it’s fun, and it’s safe. These days you never know what you’re going to see when you turn the TV on. It’s something that’s all-inclusive, especially with food. We all eat, we all have started to appreciate home-cooking and spending time together around the table, whether it’s the kitchen or the dining room. That is sort of where a lot of memories happen for a lot of families, and so I think that’s why it’s become so popular and people sit and watch it as a family.

If my math serves me correctly, your first show on Food Network (Everyday Italian) premiered 15 years ago this past Spring…
Thanks for reminding me! [Laughs] … I’m so much older!

…but back then, in her early 30s, how would that Giada have done in a competition like Food Network Star?
I would never have even made the cut. This is a very difficult competition. Bobby I think would’ve made it through — maybe not on personality 15 years ago [laughs], but for sure on cooking chops. I would’ve maybe made it on personality — not even on personality; I think my personality has grown over the years and I’ve become confident over time just repetitively doing it. As for my cooking, I think my cooking has evolved as well. So I’m not sure I would’ve made it on either account. Bobby probably would’ve beat me for sure. [Laughs]

The Food Network Star finale airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.