Sorry, no short notes on the previous episode. It was a busy pre-holiday weekend for me so I switched to the Food Network just a minute into the show. But just a reminder, Mike “like the fish” Salmon was eliminated last week and now they’re down to just five finalists.
The finalists are at the breakfast table and Adrien’s reminding everyone that there are only five of them left, just in case anyone had trouble with counting. Amy comments that being in the top five is a pretty big deal, and Rory corrects her that “top four is an even bigger deal.” Snnaaaap. Take that, sister.
Cut to a red van zipping across Midtown and we’re supposed to assume that the five finalists are in there instead of the normal unmarked white van. In Adrien’s taped interview, he’s reminiscing about how he had to sacrifice a job he had for seven years to be on the show. (His former bosses wouldn’t grant him a leave to be on the show, so he quit.) He worked as a delivery man for uniforms. (Um, Adrien, I think you can do better.) The five line up in the studio kitchen and Amy’s wondering who’s going to be this week’s guest judge. With the mystery music running to a near fever pitch, out comes Alton Brown, or who I will now refer to as Professor Brown. (He looks kind of like a professor wearing that drab gray sweater jacket. Plus, he’s known for his show, Good Eats, which gets into the science of cooking. Disclaimer: I don’t watch his show either because I got a D in high school chemistry.)
The professor talks about the relationship each of the contestants will have to strike up with “the stack of glass,” pointing to the camera. It will either be love at first sight or that awkward blind date where you wished you had arranged for an emergency call from your friend. Professor Brown points to three bags of rice in front of the contestants. For a moment, I thought the Food Network got all Asian on me. But really, the bags of rice are just used as containers to hold paddles with various ingredients written on them. Each contestant picks one paddle out of the three bags and then has to make a dish with those ingredients.
They have 30 seconds to prepare their dish and then do a live three-minute presentation. The pickings went like this:
Amy: veal cutlet, oyster mushrooms, popcorn (ooh, evil Food Network producer)
Paul: calamari, fennel, persimmons (I think he got the best of the lot)
JAG: shrimp, snow peas, cornflakes (what is up with cooking with breakfast cereal?)
Adrien: flounder, Japanese eggplant, peanut butter (no comment)
Rory: minute steak, red radish, dried prunes (huh, I never heard of minute steak; what part of the cow is that from?)
Off they cook, and Rory talks about how a lot of time you have very little in your refrigerator and you have to make dinner out of whatever ingredients you have on hand, so today’s challenge reminds her of those times. Ah yes, I recall all the times I’ve made baked pasta using whatever I had in my pantry and frig, or stir fry of some odd mixture of ingredients. It’s always a hit and miss kind of thing. Now I’m thankful I live across the street from Safeway.
Professor Brown announces that the contestants have 60 seconds remaining and I get a flashback of Iron Chef America, where he’s also the moderator.
Now it’s time for the presentations, and Rory is up first. She’s all excited because this is what she came here to do, be on TV. She starts off by talking about her “empty pantry” theme and goes right into cooking the minute steak. I have to say she seems pretty relaxed. Then she points to her big plate of prunes, and she says they’re just like raisins. So to make you think they’re like raisins, she suggests you cut them into small pieces, about the size of a raisin, and toss them in a salad. She gets her steak out of the pan and then tops it with her greens and raisin-size prunes. The dish actually looks kind of pretty and simple. Of course, she’s just a tad past the three-minute mark.
Up next is JAG who does an Asian tempura using cornflakes as the breading. Typical JAG, he’s using a ton of ingredients and his demo, while definitely showing a lot of cooking, seems like you’re listening to him go over his list of ingredients. It’s like a commercial for Spice R Us. (Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a store that sold tons of spice in a big warehouse? I’d probably live there. Until my allergies act up, that is.)
Paul’s next and the music turns a bit sweet, almost like something they would have played for Colombe. (Remember Colombe? Miss Snow White? Don’t you think the show got so much more serious after she got kicked out?) Anywho, Paul starts with a story about going fishing with his dad. Ah, doing the old trick of sharing a story to connect with the audience. He’s cooking and his pan is firing up, but he’s going on and on about his dad and clams and something blah blah blah. I think he said something about not wanting to wake up. Whatever. Too long a fish tale, that’s what it is. He’s not saying anything about what he’s doing with his ingredients. CUT, shouts the stage director. Gosh, you know, seems like this stage director doesn’t really give them much of a warning. It’s like she only warns them with just 15 second left. I think 15 seconds can go by pretty fast, which is why everyone’s going long.
Maybe Adrien will have better luck since he’s been bragging yet again about how he hosts a TV show in Jackson, Mich. He’s definitely comfortable in front of the camera, but his stove top is eerily quiet. He’s basically pointing to his ingredients and showing the finished product. No cooking in this cooking demo. It’s basically show and tell. Still, he says afterwards that he felt confident about his presentation.
Amy gives the final presentation and she’s doing a brisk walk toward the kitchen stage, so fast that Professor Brown has to grab her elbow and tell her to slow down. (And no running in the hallways Miss Amy.) On camera, she comes off pretty relaxed and friendly. She talks about planning an easy dinner party with her simple veal cutlet with “wow” factor, the “wow” being the popcorn. She doesn’t finish in three minutes either.
Professor Brown holds his class and he breaks down everyone’s demo. And it goes something like this: Rory, good tip about making prunes easier to take by calling them big raisins, but try cutting some while you offer that tip; JAG should have explained what blanching means (JAG says he assumed he was talking to a bunch of chefs. What? Did he think he was on the Chef’s Network?); Paul goes off into tangents with his stories about his dad; Amy shouldn’t be telegraphing what she’s going to do, just do it; and Adrien (this is easy) didn’t demonstrate any cooking.
Commercials. Oh, the Food Network is premiering a new show that’s the Latin version of Everyday Italian with a Latin looking Giada in a show called “Simply Delicioso.” Huh, I guess none of these five contestants on The Next Food Network Star is really the next star since it looks like the next star is really Ingrid Hoffman.
Everyone gathers back at the studio and stands before these five really red lids. Professor Brown reminds them about how each of them talked about their favorite ingredients to cook with during their application process. But you know that’s too easy, right? So the five lift off the lids to unveil their least favorite ingredients.
Professor Brown says none of the ingredients seem very objectionable, starting with Amy’s, who’s least favorite ingredient is bok choy, the Chinese vegetable. What’s weird is that they show a big plate of baby Shanghai greens that aren’t really the traditional bok choy. The traditional bok choy is the Chinese greens that have a very white stalk and really deep green leaves. That’s why they’re called bok choy because bok means white in Cantonese and choy means vegetable. Amy’s plate is piled with Chinese greens that’s shaped like bok choy but has a pale green color (sometimes labeled as baby bok choy in the American stores). She’s just giving bok choy a bad rap and she doesn’t even know how they look. (I actually love bok choy. It’s mild flavoring matches nicely with heavier tastes such as beef or sausages.)
JAG’s least favorite is tofu. He apparently hasn’t tried silken tofu, nor has he made my favorite dish, ma po tofu. (I think tofu gets a bad rap with most non-Asian eaters because it’s seen as a vegetarian ingredient and most of the original tofu sold in vegetarian stores were firmer and cardboard-like versions.)
Now Paul’s ingredient I can understand. It’s lima beans. I don’t think I’ve even eaten much of it but just seeing that big plate of it looks annoying to cook.
Rory says she doesn’t like goat cheese. And she compares it to smelling a male goat, which is really weird because where has she gone around smelling a male goat? And why is the male goat more smelly than the female goat? Rory has raised so many important questions that need answers.
And finally, Adrien’s least favorite ingredient is baby corn. He thinks they taste like dirt. Um, have you tried cleaning them? I love baby corn in stir fry.
They all have to make a dish that they will present in a five-minute demo. The demo also has to feature a script that explains their culinary vision.
The contestants are set loose at the Westside Market again. Paul says Adrien doesn’t know what to do, and Adrien admits as much. JAG says he’s going to make a Caribbean style pad thai. He’s at the registers and he’s spent too much, so he has to return some ingredients. (This is foreshadowing folks.)
They get back to the studio and go to the set, where the Food Network minions have built a special kitchen for the contestants. Everyone’s in love with the set and they’re all acting like kids on Christmas eve.
In the evening, all the contestants are working on their scripts and they’re all working together. (That’s sweet, but I don’t remember this being a group project.) Amy starts comparing herself to everybody else and then gets insecure about herself. Then she gets the “Tommy,” and what I mean is she starts to miss her family like big boy Tommy who was tossed out a few weeks ago because he missed his family so bad that he took his mind out of the game. It’s starting to happen with Amy as you see her holding back tears while talking to her husband. Then during dinner with everyone else, she breaks down into tears while eating. Rory’s telling her to stay in the game because she’s come so far, but Amy’s just bawling about going home. (Maybe next year they should ask in the application form whether you have any kids and are you willing to be separated from them and your significant other who could be holding you back.)
Commercials. Speaking of kids, have you seen the State Farm commercial with the screaming kids? It’s like a commercial for birth control. This is why I’m such a great uncle because I spend time with kids when they’re playing and once they start crying, that’s when Uncle Ben hits the road.
OK, back to the show. It’s the morning of their presentations and they’re at the studio. They have 45 minutes to prep their dishes and then they’ll have five minutes to present in front of a camera. JAG is missing his banana peppers and he’s upset. He blames the baggers at the store. You know what? This is the same store that Paul left his bags at two episodes ago. So even though JAG may have not purchased the peppers since they weren’t on his receipt, I do have to wonder about the baggers because they don’t have a good track record thus far.
Amy’s talking about how she couldn’t sleep because she was stressed and missing her family. Next thing you know she cuts herself and she’s bleeding all over a bandage.
Professor Brown reminds everyone that they must show their perspective on food, or else why have your own show? The selection committee (Professor Brown, Susie Fogelson and Bob Tuschman) is watching from another room. Paul is up first and Susie says to no one in particular “c’mon Paul” even before he starts like she already knows it’s going to be bad so she wants to cheer him on for luck.
He’s making a lima bean soup with bacon and parmesan crisp. That sounds pretty good. Who doesn’t like parmesan crisps? You know how he was talking about his dad in the three-minute demo? This time he’s busy talking about his mom. That’s sweet but this is how people run out of time. He goes to the oven to get his crisp and he does this weird high-pitched voice about burning himself getting out his tray, but he’s not really burning because that’s a tray with pre-cooked parmesan crisp. So yes, Paul was being “dramatic.”
The judges basically say they don’t understand his perspective. They think Paul’s like a train on three different tracks.
Next is insecure Amy, and she totally blanks out right before her presentation. She forgets her script and just wings it and all the judges are confused. They wanted to see the “gourmet next door,” but all they get is this sweaty, stressed Amy, who’s making udon soup, btw, which I love. She’s not smiling and the judges see that. Oh wow, she just dumped a big handful of black sesame seeds over her udon soup noodles. Bob says it’s a disaster and she better hope someone does worst. Lucky for her, the remaining contestants do just that.
Starting with JAG, who ironically is also making udon with bok choy just like Amy, except he’s making a stir-fried version instead of soup noodles. (What happened to his pad thai?) He’s also adding the tofu that is his least favorite ingredient but JAGs it up with sofrito (a Spanish mixture of tomato, onion, bellpepper and spices cooked down into a paste). BTW, JAG’s bok choy is totally the real deal. It totally looks like what most Chinese call bok choy. However, I give him a deduction because it looks like his noodles are not udon noodles. First, they're slightly flat and udon noodles are thick and round like worms, and they're a bit long and udon noodles aren't very long. I think he's actually using Shanghai noodles. Sigh, these Asian fusion folks are killing me! He ends by saying his dish is “not half bad.” All the judges feel exhausted. Again, they count his ingredients (25 ingredients just on the first page of his script). JAG says he doesn’t want to simplify his cuisine because that’s not who he is, because, yeah, he’s a complicated kind of guy.
Rory’s up next and she’s talking about her recent move to the panhandle of Texas. She’s making a sweet, savory, spicy goat cheese salad. She’s talking a lot about her ingredients and then she goes and gets her prepared salad, without cooking one thing. I guess you really don’t need to cook salad, and of course she actually ends on time.
Now the judges are rooting for Adrien, hoping for a good performance from anyone. Adrien is making a vegetable pasta medley with grilled baby corn. He’s using a lot of the wrong terms while cooking, which I’m sure is a reflection of nerves. (He says he’s roasting his nuts when he’s really sauteeing them in a pan.) Then he’s putting a raw egg into his pasta to create a creamy sauce, but the egg isn’t cooking all the way and all the other contestants (and the judges) are nervous for him because he’s about to take a bite of his pasta with the raw egg. I don’t know why these food people are so nervous about eating raw eggs when it’s used in dishes like Caesar salads and tiramisu.
Of course, going into evaluation everyone’s not feeling good. The judges’ comments are really the same for everyone so I’m keeping this evaluation short. Basically everyone sucked on camera and Susie says that if this were the audition tapes, none of them would have been invited to the show. She asks them what happened and everyone is giving excuses, except Adrien who says he felt comfortable except maybe the last 15 seconds. Bob agrees with Susie and says he wonders if there’s really the next Food Network star in the batch. America was wondering about two episodes ago.
Each person steps forward for an individual critique, but like I said, it’s so much of the same yada yada that I’m not getting into it and go right to the drama that is Amy. She gets a whole avalanche of criticism, which finally breaks her and she talks about whether she wants the job, and she actually says that she’s decided that she doesn’t want the job. She doesn’t want to pick one dream (her own Food Network show) over another (going home to her family). Susie asks if she wants to go home?
Commercials. Tempurpedic. God, I want one. The woman voiceover says their beds do more than just let you sleep on them. Woah, is this an X-rated bed or what? Actually, I don’t want my mattress to do anything to me as I sleep. I just want it to leave me alone so I can sleep.
Back to the public breakdown of Amy, she explains that if the judges have to choose between her and the others, she says they should send her home. But Susie asks her one more time if she wants to go home, but then Amy gives this weird answer that she wants to go home but that she’s a fighter and would fight another round. So really, does she want to be the next Food Network star or just wants to stick around for another week in New York?
The judges say there’s no true winner for this week, but Paul is apparently the least offensive of the bunch so he gets through to the next round. The next to get a pass is Amy, even after all her doubts. Professor Brown says they’re letting her through “against your wishes” and Amy corrects him and says, “not against my wishes.” So what was all that drama just a few minutes ago? They send the two away to deal with the last three: JAG, Adrien and Rory.
Rory gets a save and she’s totally relieved and thanks the judges for giving her another chance. So it’s between JAG and Adrien and Bob does the fake out by calling Adrien’s name then telling him that JAG is going to stay, so that’s his reverse way of saying he’s getting the boot.
Adrien is totally shocked that he’s going home and is pretty much near tears. He goes upstairs and tells the others he’s the one leaving, and everyone is shocked that all they can do is stare at him, which is awkward because then Adrien has to ask for a group hug because he’s so devastated and really needs a hug right now. Gosh, I would have hugged him right away. ;-)
Amy now says she really wants to do this and hopes her freak out is over. The final four flash their culinary themes (because they did such a bad job of showing it tonight), so in case you missed it: Amy’s the “Gourmet Next Door;” Paul is “Party Food on A Budget,” Rory’s making “Real Food for Real People”; and JAG is all about the Latino Fusion (which he pronounces FU-see-ON.)
Next on TNFNS: The final four does a mini version of Iron Chef America with guests Bobby Flay and Cat Cora, a smoke alarm goes off, and Bobby Flay tells one of them that he wouldn’t let him/her cook in his kitchen. Ouch. (This season’s contestants are really getting beaten down, and we’re supposed to love them later when one is crowned the star that was the better of four evils? I don’t think so. Someone has to step up their game or this season’s a bust.)
Speaking of bust, I’m taking a bye this week in doing my “What I Would Have Done” edition because it’s a holiday week and this week’s challenges focused more on the TV demos instead of the cooking. Now I’m off to cook me some bok choy.
"The Next Food Network Star" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on the Food Network, and repeats at 9 p.m. on Thursday. Photos courtesy of the Food Network Web site.