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It’s January 17, the first day of shooting this season of The Next Food Network Star. I’m hanging around the makeup room with my fellow judges, Susie Fogelson and Bobby Flay. They both naturally look movie star handsome. I hate them. I take trowels of makeup. We’re all incredulous that it’s time to meet a whole new cast of hopefuls: “Didn’t we just finish taping last season?”
The first day of shooting is the last day of a very long casting process that you never see. We have a tireless casting director named Jennifer Sullivan who (along with a tiny team) has to watch every single one of the thousands of tapes that come in from hopefuls. And yes, that means countless ‘can-you-believe-this?’ efforts where hopefuls try to catch our attention in weird ways. One of my favorites: a large Gumby-like character called Broccoli Man. Unfortunately; we don’t have any slots open for shows hosted by cruciferous vegetables.
In December, we flew in our top 26 semi-finalists to the Food Network Studios in New York. No way around it, the setup is intimidating. One at a time, each hopeful is marched into our Studio B where – surprise! – they find they have 30 minutes to improvise a signature dish from a pantry of ingredients. Even worse: they have to do it while fielding a barrage of unending questions from a tough crew: me, my Programming colleague Bruce Seidel who oversees the show for Food Network, the two executive producers Bob Kirsh and Donna MacLetchie, and our casting team.
It’s never what you expect. Some of the folks we were sure were shoe-ins for the final ten slots stumble badly. One, handsome 40- something ski bum, seemed to be on drugs: sweating profusely and rambling wildly. We passed on touching or eating his hamburger. But some hit it out of the park.
We were all blown away by 19-year-old Shane Lyons, a former child actor, who cooked like a pro and was so unfazed by our machine gun spray of questions we were convinced he lied about his age. Adam Gertler, a 30-year-old former BBQ restaurant owner and improv actor who was funny, charming and smooth in the kitchen. Jennifer Cochrane, a single mom and former army cook earned the title “the loveable mess” from us. She was slightly dizzy, apologized for every step she took (“Oops. This will probably taste bad”), but was so cheerful and likeable, we thought she showed promise.
Nipa Bhatt, a 35-year-old self-described “Midwestern Indian girl” from Minneapolis, improvises a Bollywood style dance mid-cooking, and lights up the room. Lisa Garza, 32, a restaurateur from Dallas Texas is an expert cook with a 1920’s bob and a confident, stylish camera presence. Her look is slightly hard and she seems like she could be a tough nut to crack, but she captivates us. Aaron McCargo, 33, an Executive Chef at a hospital is such a big, effusive, likeable teddy bear he instantly wins us over – and this dude can cook. Kelsey Nixon, a 23-year-old recent culinary graduate, had been sending us tapes for years. She’s a sweet, high energy, passionate foodie and darn if her “I’ll keep coming back till you say yes” attitude didn’t finally wear us down and win us over.
Cory Kahaney, a 44-year-old comic and ex-chef – who I remembered loving on Last Comic Standing, turns out to also be an experienced and talented chef. Kevin Roberts, 38, has his own radio show in San Diego, as well as some cookbooks. He’s a good-looking, supremely confident, TV-ready presence. Not sure what’s behind the smooth radio personality, but we’ll find out. Finally, Jeffrey Vaden, a 39-year-old Caterer and Food Service Manager, who is funny and charming in a low key way. Is more there? We’ll see.
After the last of the auditions, we spend hours and hours sitting around a conference room with pictures of all 26 semi-finalists pinned to a bulletin board. We each plead for the finalists we believe in. And though I will be a judge, I listen intently as the producers, casting director and other programming executives fight to win a spot for the finalists they believe in. I’m looking for big, memorable personalities with expert cooking chops and a passion to teach America.
In the end, I am satisfied with our cast. They come from all over the country, from wildly divergent backgrounds. Most have a long way to go if they ever hope to win their own show. But none of them have any idea of the pressure filled, grueling challenges that lie in wait for them.