It’s hard to believe, but we’re on our eighth season of Food Network Star, and this year, the competition began a little earlier than usual, premiering last week in the middle of May. Our old friends Bob Tuschman and the incomparable Susie Fogelson are back, as well as the show’s mainstay of mentors — Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, and GIada De Laurentiis. However, this time around, things are a little Voice-y. Flay, Brown, and De Laurentiis each mentor a team of prospects who go head to head in a variety of challenges (so far we’ve seen a Restaurant Wars-esque battle and a NYC food tour). Each week, the winning team receives immunity, while one person from the other two teams is selected to battle it out for a reprieve. This means cooking a signature dish (often with some sort of twist), presenting it to camera, and then finally pleading to “The Network,” which is the imposing new name given to Bob and Susie.
At its heart, Food Network Star remains the same show, and even with the format changes, it still remains one of the best reality competitions out there. Of course, what truly sets it apart (aside from the icy presence of Susie Fogelson) is knowing that the winner of this series will soon be a regular on Food Network, and as such, we as the audience feel rather empowered in forming our opinions about these people (thank goodness that this season will allow for a viewer’s choice). Since one of these jokers will soon be joining the ranks of Ina, Alton, and, gulp, Aaron McCargo Jr., I feel like it’s important to take a look at the field of contestants and assess their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Pros: A cute accent.
Cons: Terrible on-screen presence, a penchant for making soup with the consistency of old hummus. Luckily, she was eliminated after the premiere episode.
Pros: Memorable visual appeal, generally strong presence, good cooking skillz.
Cons: As far as we can tell, her culinary point of view is funky ’50s housewife. Color me crazy, but the idea of retro-meatloaf lacks any appeal whatsoever. She might make for a colorful reality star, but the shtick is wearing thin quickly.
Pros: He seems nice?
Cons: Judson is one of those creatures that gets up there, does something unmemorable, and then for some reason the judges hail him for having a personality that fills the room. Huh? Unfortunately for him, he stumbled in the second episode and nearly got himself eliminated after he failed to find the culinary excitement in a pickle. For that alone, I refuse to consider him a Food Network star. How can you be an authority and not know how to do something fun and interesting with a pickled item? Nevertheless, I fear Judson will be the one “The Network” puts a strange amount of faith in, allowing him to go way farther than he should.
Pros: Just about everything: quirky, low-key personality; seemingly adept in the kitchen; likable
Cons: None yet. Definitely a contender to go all the way. Might give the network an actual hip element (as opposed to the fake “hip” quality of Guy Fieri and his backwards sunglasses).
Pros: Massively likable. Plus, there’s something about her that seems shrewd.
Cons: She does ramble a bit. Plus, do we really need more Southern cooking on the Food Network? (The answer is no). I like this woman as a reality contestant, but her culinary point of view is overdone.
Pros: He can somersault.
Cons: Everything else. There is probably nothing more infuriating than the reality constant who paints him or herself as a “rocker” when in fact they’re nothing more than a timid, stuttering mess. Just because you say “ROCK AND ROLL!” doesn’t make you a rocker. In fact, it makes you quite the opposite. We’ve seen this put-upon guise countless times before, mainly on American Idol (Constantine Maroulis, Gina Glocksen, et. al), Big Brother (Evil Dick, Adam from last year), and on this very show (Vic Vegas, who was actually likable). Now we have Josh, who throws in some perfunctory “rock” elements before devolving into a stammering mess. His food looks nasty, his point of view tiresome, and his presence embarrassing. It’s hard to take him seriously as “rock ‘n’ roll” when nearly every tatted-up Top Chef contestant reeks of rock ‘n’ roll without even trying. UGH.
Pros: A funky South African / Mississippi accent; a name that sounds like both a saloon owner and a very scary Chicago gangster (or possibly a porn star).
Cons: Strange hair that at times looks like it’s been inspired by the ancillary characters from Muriel’s Wedding, a lack of confidence. Linkie is nice and all, but she’s pretty forgettable. As a winner, I couldn’t imagine her series being terribly interesting.
Pros: Strong on-camera presence, solid culinary chops.
Cons: Nothing just yet. So far Martita looks like a definite contender. With any luck, she could crack Latin food on Food Network.
Philip “Ippy” Aiona
Pros: Likable, cute, and effortlessly natural on camera. Plus, his food looks awesome.
Cons: None so far. Definitely a potential finalist.
Pros: Possibly the most photogenic of the bunch. Yvan is camera ready and totally likable. His food seems like it’s going in the right direction too.
Cons: He’s not there quite yet. There’s a lot of inexperience on his part. He forgot the simple task of buying eggs for Josh on episode one, his meatball from that same episode lacked elegance, and this week, his Italian skewer was met with indifference. Yvan is someone I would certainly watch, but I doubt he’ll get much father than the middle of the pack.
Pros: Definite food chops. He seems nice.
Cons: Boring as mother-effin’ hell. Eric seems like he’d be more at home on a local Napa Valley cable access cooking show. It’s not to say that he’s unprofessional. It’s just that he lacks any excitement. I would certainly trust his culinary point of view for sure, but only if I could stay awake long enough to see it.
Pros: None, really. That’s why she was eliminated.
Cons: Let’s see: her culinary point of view is nostalgia food (eh); she hates fried chicken (ugh); she doesn’t like waffles (seriously, wtf); and she’s about as memorable as a can of tuna. Sure, she seems nice, but how Kara wound up on this show baffles me.
Pros: He seems cool; he cooked for Mary J. Blige; he looks Lennox Lewis-y.
Cons: Malcolm can be stiff on camera. He came out of his shell on week two of the series. The question is if he can keep it up. Not sure.
Pros: Distinct, self-assured personality; likable; talented; would create a bleached blonde trifecta with Anne Burrell and Guy Fieri.
Cons: After the first episode, Michele seemed like a definite contender. This week, however, she faltered and exposed that she was in fact fallible. Still, she’s certainly the strongest on Bobby’s team.
Pros: Dunno. Decent cooking skills?
Cons: Forgettable. I think Nikki is supposed to be some sort of bombshell. I don’t know. She has yet to make any sort of impression.
Finalist Potential: Justin, Ippy, Martita, Michele
Top Tier: Martie, Malcolm, Judson
Middle of the Pack: Emily, Eric, Nikki, Yvan
Gone Soon: Linkie, Josh