Two nights ago, the Food Network launched its fifth season of Next Food Network Star, a cooking show that is often and unjustly viewed as Top Chef’s ugly little brother. While the series isn’t as slick or upmarket as what Bravo has to offer, in some ways Next Food Network Star is actually a stronger product in that we the viewer can actually have informed opinions on what’s being judged. That’s because contestants on Next Food Network Star are not only trying to present appetizing dishes, but they’re also essentially auditioning for America. It’s all about their personality, their authority, and their taste-level — three attributes that I can happily pontificate about from my cozy seat on the couch.
Plus, let’s not overlook the judging panel. We’ve got Food Network executive Bob Tuschman, who’s affable and friendly and seems like he’d never hurt any living creature under the sun. We’ve got Bobby Flay, whose growly, thuggish voice sometimes betrays his immense talent. And then we’ve got marketing exec Susie Fogelson. Oh, Susie Fogelson. Really, the other two don’t even matter. No disrespect to Bobbies T & F, but it’s all about Susie Foges. She is the quintessential ice queen — the second coming of Carolyn Kepcher. And I mean that in the best possible way. Very few can level a cold, withering insult like Susie Fogelson, who manages to add a wonderful tinge of corporate je ne sais quoi to her frequent disapproval. Her hand-flapping protest of Kelsey Nixon’s Rachel Ray Show performance last season ("This feels uncomfortable") is legendary in my book. Honestly, I think she may just be second only to Martha Stewart. Like that doyenne of the WASPy putdown ("You just don’t fit in"), Susie’s critiques are gloriously soul-crushing, which means that when she likes something, it’s all the more exciting. She kind of is the X-factor for this show. A wonderful, wonderful X-factor.
However, as much as I love Susie Fogelson, the show would be nowhere without its contestants. This year’s batch shows some promise; although, given that Next Food Network Star has saddled us with the likes of Guy Fieri and Aaron McCargo, Jr., I’m not getting my hopes up too high. Heck, the only time my favorite contestant ever won a season (Amy Finley, season three), she spectacularly flamed out, quitting the network after having blamed "the blogs" for being too harsh on her. Oy. My only hope for this season is that we’re not stuck with yet another "Down Home" program that caters to the Paula Deen crowd. I want something young, hip, urbane! You know, like Ina Garten! Uh, scratch that (although, more Ina is always welcomed). Maybe Spike Mendelsohn (who incidentally has a web series on Food Network’s spinoff website, Food2). Point is, it’s about time that Bob, Susie, and Bobby chose a winner whose appeal extends to an audience with a somewhat sophisticated palate — at least more than what Aaron "What’s a chipotle pepper?" McCargo can offer (yes, he of the "Mega Egga Macaroni Salad" and "Fried Lasagna Bites.")
So with that mandate in mind, let’s take a look at the contestants and see how they shape up.
This guy is our stereotypical New Yawkah. He has a brash, slightly chauvinist style and people tend to like him. Too bad that when he had to present himself in front of not just the judges but a gaggle of Food Network stars (Giada De Laurentiis, Chef Morimoto, Anne Burrell, Alton Brown, Aaron "marblemouth" McCargo, Sunny Anderson, Alex Guarnaschelli, Ted Allen), he totally lost all his personality. Not that it really mattered to me. He was a bit too much anyway. I feel like his show would involve a lot of yelling and stereotypical utterances such as "bada bing" and "fugghetaboutit." Plus, I don’t feel comfortable with TV chefs having so much grease in their hair. Makes me question their grasp of quantities and taste.
Representing the South is Debbie Lee, who promises to serve up some real Southern cooking for all of us. GREAT. Because there’s not enough of THAT on Food Network. Luckily, she has a neat twist: she’s Korean. Yay! She automatically jumps to the top of the pack for me (I have a well-documented obsession with Korean food). Truth be told, there’s no way she could ever win this thing, thanks to what I like to call the "Bitch" factor. As in, she seems like a bitch. But a fun bitch! Either way, that’s okay. I like watching her, I like her taste level, and I like her cuisine. As of right now, even if she is a tad overly cynical, at least she’s funny, and more importantly, I totally trust her, which is a major factor in choosing a Food Network star. Oooh, and she lives in West Hollywood. Debbie — if you’re reading this and want to, I don’t know, cook me dinner, I will be more than happy to be your cheerleader. (I’m shameless, I know. But a man has to eat.)
Another Angeleno, Eddie is the telegenic guy of the group. His contribution so far has been bland intensity, which in turn took the form of a tomato and avocado dish he termed a "B.L.A.S.T. Bowl." I think that stands for bacon, lettuce, avocado and… uh… Some Tomato. I’m not sure. It looked okkkay, but the reviews were fairly negative — landing him in the bottom two for the week. I’m hoping he’s able to up his game with more urbane California cuisine, but even if he can’t, he’s too pretty to be dropped in the immediate future; so I’m sure we’ll have him around a little while longer.
Prior to judging, I thought Jamika’s curried shrimp and mango dish looked to be one of the best of the lot. However, she apparently really screwed up the shrimp portion, despite nailing the mango slaw on which it sat. In other words, she was both good and bad, which kind of cancels itself out and leaves us with blah. The panel informed her that she has something that a lot of people can connect with. I’m not sure what exactly it was (being unspectacular? Knowing how to slice pineapples?), but I can tell you I did not feel connected.
The winner of week one’s episode, Jeffrey Saad is a restauranteur from Los Angeles, but to some, he’s simply a GREEK GOD. Yes, according to another swooning contestant, Jeffrey has a certain Hellenic appeal that is most undeniable. Call me crazy, but did Zeus have a receding hairline? Nevertheless, the guy seems to be on top of his culinary game, and his personality is strong to boot (I’d expect nothing less from a deity). Not sure if I want to watch a show based on him though. I feel like it would be the second coming of Michael Ciarello. You know, proficient but annoying.
There’s no way Jen is going to win this competition. Why? Well, she’s already been voted off for starters. Jen positioned herself as a Housewife 2.0, which meant… well, I’m not sure what it meant. I guess she’s a robot? A robot that makes lasagna and cleans? I could get behind that. Either way, Jen served up some generic green beans and prattled on like an idiot in front of the Food Network stars, thus proving that Housewife 2.0′s system software might need an upgrade. Smell ya later!
Our cutie-patooty female contestant of the lot, Katie is a registered dietician and personal chef; although, her skillz in the latter department have yet to be seen. She presented the judges with a lackluster Swiss chard dish that required little effort beyond finding a jar of Dijon and a functioning salad spinner. On the plus side, she is very winsome, and with her big eyes and long face, she looks like she’s been plucked right out of a Pixar movie. I hope she gets her act together because it would certainly be nice to have someone less awkward and strange than Ellie Krieger serving as the network’s resident health guru.
For all my yammering about wanting an urbane, youthful star, I must say that I love Melissa d’Arabian. She’s kooky Midwest hospitality at its best. I bet you could have a ten minute conversation with her about kale or salt shakers or seagulls. As the resident home cook of the bunch, she’s also the underdog. I hope she sticks around for a while. BUT that being said, while she’s fun in this context, I’m not sure I’d love a cooking show based on her. You just know her kids would be making cameos all the time. UGH. Plus, she does talk just a tad too much. She managed to drive Anne Burrell nuts, and if SHE’S calling you too much, then you know you’ve got a problem.
This season’s over-the-top, "fabulous," brimming-with-alleged-personality wannabe star is Michael, who so far is borderline with me. His whole shtick seems a bit forced (he still thinks saying "fabulous" and "honey" every few seconds is novel), but that being said, I liked his dish, and he wasn’t totally horrendous on camera. The jury’s still out, but he could either be awful (think Jay McCarroll from Project Runway) or a force unto himself (think Christian Siriano from Project Runway). Reserving total judgment for now.
Who else just fell asleep at the mere mention of this guy? Yes, poor Teddy is a bit boring and forgettable. His only noteworthy contribution thus far has been calling Jeffrey Saad a Greek God (seriously, I must question whether or not he’s actually ever READ Greek mythology). To Teddy’s credit, he made what looked to be an amazing potato gratin, but alas, IT WAS RAW. It’s like Hades himself cooked the dish. Making matters worse is that Teddy was a total dud in front of the judges. Unless he receives an ethereal reprieve from Hera herself, I’m sensing that Teddy will be gone faster than a jug of wine on Dionysus’s watch.
Am I right, people?