Monday, June 04, 2007

The Next Food Network Star: Episode 1

OK, here we go. Season three of “The Next Food Network Star” starts up with a frenzied montage of what’s coming up this season. We get it. It’s a fast-pace, stressful competition. Like Iron Chef for novices. And one of the main prize, other than their own food show, is a big ass 2008 Mercury Mariner (a compact SUV). Gas definitely not included.

We start with scenes from (sigh) New York City, where most of the Food Network shows are filmed. I miss New York. Anywho, Colombe is the first to arrive and I feel like this is the beginning of “The Real World.” She’s so hot. And it seems like this season the contestants got colorful new temporary digs, with bunk beds just like summer camp. Next is the Brazilian ex-swimsuit model Vivien. This IS the Real World: New York. Did I turn to the wrong channel? No, I’m good. I know because MTV is airing its MTV Movie Awards. (Speaking of which, was that kiss between Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen H-O-T?? What two straight guys won’t do for a laugh.) Back to the Food Network, the first guy arrives and he’s the scary bald guy, Michael Salmon. (Like the fish. His words, not mines. He’ll repeat this quite often in the next two hours.) OK, so this isn’t the Real World because the guys aren’t that hot looking. A whole string of other contestants come one by one. There’s Paul, my favorite, from L.A. He’s going to be the funny one, I think. And it’s not because he’s the openly gay one.

Joshua Adam Garcia comes in calling himself JAG. It really annoys me that he says he left the military TWO years ago but he comes in still wearing fatigues. Better watch out or Bush will draft you again, and no food show for you, JAG.

OK, more contestants. At this point, who really cares because it’s too early to be invested in anyone.

The contestants notice a fruit basket in the room, with a DVD. The background music plays a “Mission Impossible”-like tempo. (You know it’s always Mission Impossible or Charlie’s Angel for these mystery “assignments.”) They play the DVD and--BAM--up pops out Emeril. He welcomes the gang and tells them the non-surprise that one of them will get his/her own show and that a van is waiting outside to take them to their first food challenge. (I am really amazed how these people are so willing to go into an unmarked white van in New York City!)

They arrive at the Food Network studios and in come Bobby Flay and two other judges—Bob Tuschman, senior vp for programming, and Susie Fogelson, vp of marketing. All three are dressed like it’s the finale show. Bob and Susie have been the judges from the very first season and I have to say they’re the most scariest judges of all the reality competition shows I can think of. The two don’t come off well on TV, IMHO. (Ooops, there goes my chances of reapplying next year. LOL.)

Bobby tells them their first challenge is a potluck dinner and they each have to make a course that represents who they are. They have one hour to plan and create their dish, after each picking a course from a piece of paper in a saucepan. They rush off and start cooking.

I’m really impressed how everyone’s getting into making some really fancy dishes in just one hour. Patrick (another bald guy and a sous chef from Seattle) and JAG both picked the appetizer courses, and they’re both using scallops and shrimp, two of the fastest cooking ingredients.

Mike the Salmon guy is being a nice guy and he’s helping Tommy (the “big boy” of the group from Massachusetts), who is making cioppino, by making the croistini for Tommy. Apparently you can’t have cioppino without croistini. But, of course, he didn’t totally finish making the bread by the deadline. So the early lesson for Tommy? You only have yourself to count on. Don’t depend on some stranger, especially a competitor.

They go to Emeril Live’s studio to show off their plates. Each goes up one by one describing what they make. JAG comes up first and shows his seafood bruschetta. He says he JAG-ged it up to make food feel sexy. (Funny, when I look at him I don’t think Enrique Iglesias.)

Patrick is next and he makes scallops wrapped in what he calls prosciutto. In a taped interview, Tommy says it was actually salami. When Bobby Flay asks Patrick again what was used to wrap around the scallops, Patrick says pancetta. Patrick. Patrick. Patrick. Get your Italian meats correct. You might as well wrapped it with bacon so you wouldn’t get confused.

The other dishes include a thai curry halibut, roasted butternut squash with greens, orzo pasta with grilled tofu, oven roasted potato cakes, flank steak with red-wine-shallot sauce, brandy bread pudding and mango “puff and stuff.” (Hey, Nikki used puff pastry. I would have made that!)

The contestants all eat their food to fulfill the “potluck dinner” portion of tonight’s programming while the judges do their first deliberation. Since this is a two-hour show, I’m not going to go into the details of their discussion as they basically tear into everybody with only a few good tastes here and there. In the end, the winner of this challenge was Colombe and her roasted butternut squash side dish. (It did look really tasty and who doesn’t love roasted vegetables?) But they don’t really say what it means with her winning this first challenge.

They show everyone going to bed, and Tommy talking about how he snores. Yes, if this was a one-hour episode, this would have been the segment I would have edited out.

The gang wakes up and they all get these cute gray Food Network chef coats. They jump in the van again and head to the Roosevelt Hotel and a typical banquet hall with a big wedding cake in the middle. Along with Bobby Flay is Duff Goldman of “Ace of Cakes” (a program I never watch because I’m not a baking-and-sweets kind of guy). They all have 90 minutes to decorate wedding cakes as their next challenge, and everyone feels they’re screwed because no one apparently has a baking background either.

Duff talks about fondant, and only one person (Amy the stay-at-home mom with a French culinary school experience) has used fondant before. Personally, fondant looks great and smooth for wedding cakes, but it’s just so thick and sometimes too sweet that I’m not a big fondant cake person. Everyone gets busy decorating their cakes, and apparently some contestants don’t understand that this is supposed to be a wedding cake as Vivien of Brazil makes some weird tri-color cake, and Rory from Texas makes a Texas sunset-inspired cake, except, as she says, the sun is setting into grass. (Big give away that this cake is not going to win.)

In the middle of the challenge, Tommy, Paul and Patrick go to a bottle of vodka that’s apparently there to thin out icing and the three guys do a shot together. Party boys!

Paul makes a classic-looking cake using strawberries to line the white fondant-covered cake. But as the openly gay guy, he puts two grooms on the top of his cake. I give him big points for not hiding his gayness as some other gay contestants have done on other reality shows.

Oh, gawd. JAG just tried to do a “Bam” and jumped up but basically stumbled over his round behind. He is sooo lucky he didn’t roll over another contestant’s cake. What an ass. Can I say that on TV? What am I saying, this is the Internet.

When the competition is over, Duff singles out the two colored cakes (Vivien’s and Rory’s) as the most off-putting cakes. And the winner is Amy who does a classic cake inspired by the hotel’s chandelier. It’s a simple white cake with blue dots. Talk about winning with simplicity. I give her credit for not overdoing it. But at the same time, I’m like DOTS?! She just got blue frosting and made a dot pattern around her cake. And it wins?? DOTS people!

After naming Amy the winner, Duff introduces Chef Robert Irvine of “Dinner: Impossible.” I’ve seen a couple of episodes of this show and I’ve always found Irvine to be a tad scary. It doesn’t seem to me Irvine’s about the taste of food as much as he’s into bossing people around. He tells them they have to cater a wedding for 100 people in six hours.

The group is split into two teams, with the winners of the two past challenges, Colombe and Amy, named team leaders. Amy is smart because she picks most of the working caterers for her team. Of course, there are 11 contestants so there’s an odd man out (actually woman, because it was Vivien from Brazil). To even the teams, Vivien gets to choose her team and the other team gets $500 extra in their wedding food budget. (Vivien, you just found out how much you're worth: 500 smackeroos!) Vivien joins Amy’s team and Colombe’s team gets extra cash for food. Even though she gets the extra cash, Colombe is still saying in her voice-over how she’s worried there won’t be enough money for the party.

They meet the couple: Jennifer and David. Sigh, she’s a vegetarian, which means we have to have some vegetarian dishes in this challenge. Jennifer is a bit odd. When Chef Irvine asks her what style of food she likes, she says “flavorful.” Shouldn’t that be the style for all food?

Chef Irvine (this guy should so be an Army sergeant) shouts out that Colombe’s team is now the “orange” team and Amy’s team is the “green” team. The two teams start planning their menus, and then they go shopping while some stay behind to start prepping for the wedding, which will take place later that same day. What some couples will do for a free meal for their weddings; hire unknown, untried Food Network contestants. Good luck!

When everyone gets back and starts cooking, Nikki of the green team is supposed to make dessert and she wanted the alcohol, which her teammates couldn’t get because grocery stores in New York City don’t sell liquor. (I know. I was shocked too when I lived there. And liquor stores are all closed on Sundays too!) Nikki is pissed. She also doesn’t know what a cobbler is. She tells Chef Irvine that she’s making a peach-raspberry cobbler in a martini glass. She’ll layer a crust, then some fruit, then cover with more crust. “So you’re making a pie,” Chef Irvine says. “Yes, a cobbler,” Nikki replies, annoyed that Chef Irvine is questioning her knowledge of a cobbler. Apparently, Nikki feels a cobbler in the West is made like a pie, unlike how cobblers are made in the rest of the country, especially in the south. That’s all I’m going to say on cobbler-gate.

Chef Irvine is shocked that the orange team has spent a little less than $800 when they had more than $2,000 in their budget. Wow, this is really going to be a budget wedding.

Basically, the green team is on target and moving forward while the orange team is a mess and all that team’s members, which happen to all be men, are placing the blame on their leader, the only woman, Colombe.

The wedding: the two teams present their food, first the appetizers for the cocktail hour and then a buffet dinner. Top choices are the mango won tons from Paul (You know, I thought he was going to stuff the won tons with mango, but it was actually a goat-cheese filled won ton with a mango chutney. Ugh, I hate it when people aren’t clear with their labeling), the pepper beef from Adrien (a self-taught cook from Michigan who gets nervous easily) and potato gratin with broccoli rabe from JAG. (Tommy, BTW, pronounces rabe as “Robby.”)

Other highlights: Tommy is in charge of making the vegetarian dish and he makes polenta with chicken broth. That throws a wrench into the orange team, which now has to scramble to come up with a more authentic vegetarian dish.

And in another significant scene, Nikki (who owns her own catering company) tries to impress the judges by bringing her cobbler martini to their tables (even though this is a buffet dinner) and she — no she didn’t, yes she did — drops an entire cobbler glass on the side of Bobby Flay’s Calvin Klein suit. Bobby Flay’s all sweet about it, but can you imagine if this was “Top Chef” and Nikki just dropped her cobbler on Tom Colicchio?

The wedding is over. The bride is upset that the orange team again made vegetarian dishes that are just like side dishes. (Maybe she ate the polenta and the chicken broth gave her too much protein and made her grouchy.)

The contestants go home and are told to change into clean clothes after cooking all day. They go downstairs to find out that the winner of the wedding challenge is the green team, which is no surprise. This makes Amy, the team leader, the first to be named safe and she goes on to the next round. Bob Tuschman gives her her first critique, which is to shut up on Paris. I totally agree (see my original preview of Amy).

Everyone goes upstairs while the judges deliberate. While they wait, Adrien gets all high and mighty against Paul about how he should have told Tommy about the chicken broth even though he’s on another team. He says it’s not fair to let a misstep like that ruin the wedding day for the couple. Um, this is a competition, Adrien. And the wedding people should know to expect some disasters when they agree to free food.

The judges request the first group of five to face judgment: Paul, Nikki, Tommy, Mike and Adrien. You know this is like American Idol where they’re the middle-ground people and safe. They all receive their critiques: Tommy is shaky, get a grip. Paul, your food is boring but you have a great personality. Nikki has a bold personality but too bold for a food show? Adrien is playing it safe and needs to punch up his personality. Michael Salmon (like the fish) is told not to use that line any more. He also has the food chops but isn’t showing his personality. Bobby Flay tells Salmon “you can take the other finalists and continue to swim upstream in the search for the next Food Network star.” All the contestants have a brief puzzled look on their face because they don’t get Bobby’s confusing metaphor (or is it an analogy?). When they finally realize that Bobby is telling them they’re safe, they all breathe a sigh of relief.

Next group goes down: Vivien, Colombe, JAG, Patrick and Rory. The critique from the judges: JAG can be a sous chef at any of Bobby’s kitchen, but Tuschman think he’s too angry. Vivien is sweet and charming, but in public she’s a wallflower. Rory is getting by on her personality but her food is disastrous and Tuschman pegs her “calamity Jane.” She tries to explain herself but she gets cut off by Susie Fogelson (told you she’s scary) who says Rory’s attempts to justify herself all the time is off-putting. Colombe is coming off as my favorite because she’s pretty and fun-looking, and Bobby Flay says her food tastes great but she has to demonstrate more personality. Patrick is coming off stiff and looking like he’s not having fun. (Let’s see if he has fun in two minutes.)

Then Tuschman tells this group that two people will be leaving. OUCH, the sound guy just cued up this loud dramatic music like it’s such shocking news. When they come back from commercials, JAG and Rory are spared. (I really thought Rory should go for all her “calamity Janeness.”)

Patrick is the first to go and he runs upstairs and doesn’t say anything to the rest of the gang waiting and goes straight to his room to pack. Everyone guesses that he’s the first to leave. The second is Vivien, who I’m a bit sorry to see leave because I felt she would have had more personality coming out later. But I’m glad to see my girl Colombe survive. But when she goes upstairs, everyone looks at her like she’s the plague and that she’s the reason Vivien is going home. The rest of the gang gives a loud applause to the first two victims as they depart the “carriage house.”

So that’s the first episode. What a long one. I’m glad next week will go to the regular one-hour format. Then I won’t be up late re-watching the episode to do these recaps. Next week’s guest judge is Giada DeLaurentiis and the contestants do their first taped segment.

The Next Food Network Star airs at 9 p.m. Sundays. Repeats at 9 p.m. Thursdays. Photos courtesy of the Food Network Web site.

What I Would Have Done?
For the first challenge, where people made something for a potluck dinner, I placed the various entrée categories into a pan and pulled out “appetizer” as my contribution. If I had to make something in an hour for an appetizer, I would have made my ahi poke croistini because it represents who I am: Asian simplicity with a twist. The twist comes from the wasabi-infused crème fraiche I used to top the ahi poki, which is my Hawaiian influence as well. For the recipe, go to my archived post.


sabrinasmom said...

Hey Ben - for your Colombe fix rent Mighty Ducks 2 and 3! :)

Chef Ben said...

You know, I may have to put that on my Netflixx list just to see how see was younger. ;-)

Rene said...

Not sure which will be more fun, reading your recaps (I missed the show but have it Tivoed for later) or seeing what you would have cooked!

Anonymous said...

I think we have alot to look forward to this season. And yes! I kinda felt the same way with the whole Real World thing going on. But it's ok, but Viven is gone now, lol. I had nothing against her, I just couldn't see her winning. Winning isn't all about chance, in most cases and she did not have what it takes. But who knows, I have never really won anything, haha. If you have a good luck charm in your pocket then I wanted to tell you that I work with Bon Appetit and we’re running a sweepstakes where a lucky food fan will win a trip to NY, have lunch with the Bon Appetit editors in their culinary studio and tour the Food Network Studios. Check it out: You’ll be able to give the editors your honest opinions about the network one on one! Best of luck!

Chef Ben said...

Oh. My. Gawd. Anonymous, I entered that sweepstakes a week ago!! (You know I sign up for every sweepstakes when there's a chance to go to New York!) But thanks for the reminder. An any juicy insider information you have about Bon Appetit will be interesting to hear. I mean, you're anonymous and all! ;-)

Anonymous said...

IMO, the Challenge series is too much about personality marketing and too little about food preparation as a craft and art, and having the wherewithal to share that talent and skill when the winner finally gets their own program. Why is it constructive to 'criticize' contestants by telling them they're "not showing enough personality". Are they in training or competition? Either you have personality, or you don't. Forcing it to 'show' isn't realistic or fair. I don't care that my chef can say, "100 years" in Italian, I care that he can make polenta I don't want to spit out. I'm tired of Food TV masquerading as ESPN, but I know I'm in the minority on that. -Vic