The Final Showdown

by in Food Network Star, July 27, 2009

I’ve never met a more polarizing finalist, or, a more confusing one. She had so much going both for and against her. Some viewers were up in arms about her from episode 1. And yes, sometimes the truth seemed to shift underneath her feet like quicksand. Who can guess why she chose to slide into spin-mode on so many occasions? It was so counterproductive, unnecessary and, ultimately, a factor in the viewers and judges never totally trusting her.

On the other hand, she had innate TV skills, a unique culinary point-of-view and the cooking chops to pull it off. When Debbie auditioned in our kitchens for the very first time, I remember thinking that she could really have a shot at this: a natural on camera who could really cook.

So I was as puzzled as anybody by all of her misstatements and missteps. But, interestingly, every guest chef who met Debbie was as impressed by her as we were initially. The dream team of celeb chefs this week was all mesmerized by her natural communication gifts – even if her food fell short this week in almost everyone’s eyes (or mouths).

She admitted this week that she had “lapses in judgment” and learned from them. I’d like to think that’s true. She’ll have plenty of time to reflect on them now.

The Final Two
I couldn’t be happier with our final two. Jeffrey and Melissa have both earned their spots at the very top. They’ve displayed integrity, talent, skill and heart. What I love most is how evenly matched they are. In fact, I’d use the exact same words to describe them both: Smart. Talented. Warm. Generous. Expert. Creative. Likeable.

What I’m going to be looking for:

Melissa: Can she maintain the calm, breezy air and expert authority she’s finally found? No doubt she’s bright, charismatic and warm. And she’s a fountain of recipes, tips, techniques, and practical info. But she’s doubted herself along the way, and came across early on as a "harried housewife". Has Julia Child finally inspired her to be totally fearless? She seemed to truly believe, at last, that she belonged in a room with some of the nation’s top celeb chefs. Can she consistently radiate star confidence and command?

Jeffrey: Can he maintain the energy and passion that excited the table of star chefs in Miami? He has sometimes covered over his low key delivery with false energy. But in Miami he seemed to find just the right balance of sweet and heat, just like his cooking style. His food has been mostly outstanding, but when he failed, he failed big. (Will I ever forget Marcus Samuelsson’s rip that his risotto was “an insult to Italy?”). Missteps aside, I think the guy’s a talented cook, a great communicator, and is devoted to food. Can he exude the star quality I’m looking for?

I am very excited about the final challenge. This will determine once and for all who will join the likes of Paula, Giada, Ina, Rachael and Bobby on our air. Who are you rooting for?

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