10. In the first episode, Chad crushed it right out of the gate. For those of us who have now watched nine seasons of this program, it's kind of a tradition to get a rush of excitement about one of the contestants in the first episode. Chad had it in a Cryo-vac'-ed bag.
9. Another favorite moment of mine in Episode 1 is when Alton talks to Stacey about how to address the camera and then she kills her presentation. Don't we just love seeing the magic of mentorship? Having been mentored by AB, I can assure you that the feeling we get from watching it on TV is only half as powerful as the feeling in real life — and look how far she ran.
8. Burger Bash. Man, talk about a meat grinder. So many bodies trying to do so many things. You had Chris eating raw meat, Danushka threatening toplessness, Lovely smashing her hamburgers into the grill, a freaking banh mi burger and Rodney, bless his soul, was like a speed metal a cappella solo. It was a classic FNS train wreck challenge and we ate it up like it was a Russell Burger with all seven sins on top.
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Ladies and germs, the time is upon us: the final showdown! We've seen this batch be flummoxed by chips and dip, serve golf balls as doughnuts and get tipsy on the Fourth of July (don't we all, though?). Indeed it's been one heck of a ride for our final four, and now for just one of them, the real road trip is about to begin.
Giada, Bobby and Alton have been sitting on these eggs for 10 straight weeks. After one final meeting with the mentors, it's time for these eggs to hatch and meet the big birds, Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson, one more time.
Stacey has seen firsthand the transformative power of a helping hand in the kitchen. Stacey was a woman who was once in debt, running a restaurant and raising a family. Robert Irvine jump-started her stalled vehicle on the road to success, and it hasn't stopped running since. Now at the top of her game, Stacey wants to help transform the dishes and, ultimately, lives of Americans by throwing some rims on their hoopty recipes, and turn their stroganoff into a fashionable hand-bag pattern. Obviously I can get behind that. Heartbreakingly, her pitch was too melancholy to sway the selection committee. Regardless, I do not see Stacey Poon-Kinney slumping in a corner in San Diego. I see Stacey kicking butt, as she's done for 10 weeks now.
A week ago, we watched as our six hopefuls scraped through a foodie field piece. This week, with five left, the tension is higher than Anne Burrell's hair. I think we've all been waiting to see this year's Donner Party moment, and it's finally upon us: the epic battle of Nikki vs. Stacey.
This is a challenge I can get behind because I love playing MacGyver in my pantry, and I feel that home cooks don't do enough improv cooking.
- Nikki: From minute one, Nikki's been able to climb out of any culinary ditch with her golden stepladder of camera presence, and today was no different. You should go back and watch the look on Stacey's face.
- Rodney: Rodney uses the sweet 'n' salty chips to make — wait for it — a pie crust. On camera, Rodney was as controlled and un-shticky as we've ever seen him. There wasn't a guitar in sight.
Martie Duncan and I used to say, "When one door closes, it's time to get out the jackhammer."
Since her elimination from this contest, Lovely Jackson, with help from Robert Irvine, has been the architect of her own reconstruction — drilling through six other competitors to regain a cutting board in the Food Star Kitchen.
With pizza doughnuts well behind us, the gang, now including Lovely, is to make a pa-sta deesh, for Gee-ah-da and her Food Network fratelli. That's not all. After the competitors cook their dishes, they have to describe with edible eloquence the dishes of their rivals. It's about to get pazza in here.
Spoiler Alert: Keep reading
With half of the hopefuls left, the crew returns to the Food Star Kitchen and sees Bobby Flay in chef whites, cranking out what looks like the best food I've seen on Food Network Star all season. I guess that's why he’s Bobby Flay and the other six people in the room aren't — yet.
Wonderful, incredible, delicious, sexy: These words don't provide any actual description of what's going on in one's mouth. I adore this challenge.
- Rodney, the recovering rocker, has made it quite clear to us that he speaks in the parlance of his former profession. It's not a bad thing, necessarily, but the actual taste of a "boss," a "killer" or "dynamite" isn't very appealing. Poor Rodney got the cartoon music played on him. That happened to me on 24 Hour Restaurant Battle when I compared pancakes to modernist sculpture. I deserved it.
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After the "shocking" and "tragic" (all of cyberspace's words, not mine) elimination of Viet, it's now clear that one misplaced pepper can spell doom for anyone, even an Iron Chef competitor.
Whoever thought up this week's challenge was a real smart prepackaged cookie, because a good POV should be able to be easily printed on a label and slapped onto whatever cooks create. A crystal clear POV is essentially your brand, and without a crystal clear brand (I make rebellious cuisine: It's my right and duty to do so), you're going to end up being just a lonely piece of eggplant in the ratatouille of life.
Keep reading Justin's recap
Food Network Star isn't just a job interview, it's a learning process. It's akin to studying for a Ph.D. in public speaking or training for the culinary version of Battle Royale. With every learning process there are markers for self-evaluation. In Food Network Star U, they are called "midterms" and they're designed to thin the pack once the stragglers have been picked off. Simultaneously, the midterms provide a glimpse into the very harsh reality that none of the competitors "have it in the bag," regardless of what is said in the comments below.
Test #1: Giada in Prank-a-dise
Remember last year when I had to do a "live" demo with a "charismatic co-host"? The fish bones? The awkward start? It was easily one of the most harrowing experiences of my life. How could it be worse? Well, Giada summons one Terrence Jenkins — co-anchor of E! News — aka the smoothest dude in the game — this time around.
From my experience on Food Network Star, I can tell you with authority that team challenges, and teams in general, are double-edged swords. A good team works harmoniously like gin, quinine and lime. A bad team? Well, read on to see why team-work, sharing and cooperation are things that were drilled into us in kindergarten.
The Planning Process
Team Western: Russell conjures the ghost of Fellini (not to be confused with Leone, the director most associated with the genre) to inspire a Spaghetti Western dish (not to be confused with my Spaghetti Midwestern recipe).
Team Musical: Rodney and Chris suggest that Lovely make a New Orleans beignet for the dessert course, but she doughs nut wanna do it. I'd pay any price to see a riff on Les Miserables, with Chris playing the role of Fantine, Rodney as Jean Valjean and Lovely as Cosette. Sing it with me! “Do you smell the tartlets baaake? Wafting the smells of meat and cake, it's the music of the stars of which Bob Tuschman surely maaakes! When you're speaking from your heaaart, and you are tasting with your tongue, it is a life for whom Food Network stardom will coooome!”
Team Romance: Romantically, the team goes for the KISS strategy (keep it simple, stupid), and makes a menu consisting of a chicken wing, shrimp and grits, and berries with whipped cream. This is why I didn't watch The Notebook.
It’s the third week of a live-action job interview. Ten contestants arrive at the Food Star Kitchen. We’re reminded by Danushka very early on that she’s been eligible for elimination for the past two weeks. I smell one of my favorite literary ingredients: foreshadowing.
- Chad’s been smoking (get it?) the competition for the past two weeks, but salsify’s subtle flavor isn’t listed one bit in the big book of baller barbecue, and that’s confirmed as Chad comically mispronounces it.
- Danushka, the challenge is to showcase the bonkers ingredient, not use the dragon fruit as a duffel bag. Do you pay more attention to the filling of the taco or to its shell? If Danushka was a taco, would she have filling at all?
- Russell's arrowhead root has more starch than a French cuff and is about as fun to eat as one, as well. Russell attempts to trick out this plain white T of an ingredient with his seven culinary stains sins.
It’s the second week of a live-action job interview. Eleven contestants pile into their Buicks and head to the mansion where Gone with the Wind was filmed. I couldn’t help but see the irony, as one more of the contestants will be gone with the wind by day’s end.
1. Informal: A heavy, crushing blow.
2. Slang: A celebration; a party.
Yes, someone got crushed last night, and to the rest, it was a party.