Before I get started with my first installment of Food Network Star power rankings, let me just say that this feature should not be interpreted as an endorsement of this show. I don’t think you should watch this show. I tell myself that I shouldn’t watch this show. Sadly, I am a hopeless food-bro. Such that I often find myself 30 minutes into Food Network shows without even realizing that I’ve DVR’d them. It’s a curse. I don’t endorse this compulsion, but for those who share it, I commiserate.
For the uninitiated, Food Network Star is a show where contestants of dubious culinary pedigree compete with each other to see who is the best at cooking food you can’t actually taste. They’re mentored in this quest by the likes of Bobby The Chile Man Flay and Giada DeLaurentiis’s photogenic cleavage. Their eventual goal is to win the approval of Food Network Execs Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson, two people even more boring than their names would suggest. That’s a funny thing about the entertainment industry. You spend your whole time at college trying to be the hippest, most avante-garde, asymmetrical haircutted film student, and then enter the workforce, where you realize all of the real decisions are made by people named “Bob” and “Susie,” who are so uncool your parents would avoid them at church mixers.
In any case, this is now Season 11 of Food Network Star. Could you name 10 people on the Food Network, let alone the 10 past winners of Food Network Star? Doubtful, which throws some cold water on the whole “star” label. However, Season Two’s winner was Guy Fieri, whose culinary POV was described at the time as “Off the Hook California Cuisine,” so obviously this is an important show. It was our gateway to Flavortown!
OK, here we go.
1. (tie) Arnold, aka The Drag Queen
Arnold was the co-winner of this week’s episode (“Savory Baking,” FYI), so obviously he has to go at the top of the list. Arnold is an adorable little man who makes postcard-worthy perfect food without ever breaking a sweat. You could give him a tin of tuna and a half-drunk can of Coors lite and turn your back for 5 minutes and he would’ve whipped up some four-course feast, complete with themed cutlery. I don’t know how he does it, I think it’s Mary Poppins magic. Dude made meatloaf look like cupcakes and still had time left over to pick out a tasteful centerpiece.
Arnold owns a restaurant and moonlights as a drag queen named “Suzy Wong.” He’s super likable and makes amazing food, but you can tell the straitlaced judges are only pretending not to be slightly scared by his super-queenie persona. He’s a lock to make it to the finals, and an even greater lock not to win. Remember, this is The House That Fieri Built, the one that sells food culture to Middle America.
1. (tie) Eddie, aka Johnny Football
This ex-NFL player, chef and personal trainer (allegedly) is also pretty personable, and the girl judges coo over his biceps, until Bobby Flay tells them to knock it off because that’s something men do on reality shows. This week Eddie knocked the judges socks off with some tasty-looking cornbread muffins and a cheesy story about how he once tricked a teammate into eating savory muffins by making him think they were cupcakes. Lol! Made you eat good food, bro! Uh… OK. The judges seemed to think this story was worthy of a TED talk. Maybe it was the biceps? I dunno.
Too bad Eddie’s POV, “Cheat Day,” makes no sense. “Everyone needs a cheat day,” he says. OK, but why do I want the healthy chef to teach me to cook unhealthy food? That’s like hiring a personal trainer to teach me to channel-surf.
2. Michelle, aka The Armenian Mom
The “bland mom” persona never goes out of style on Food Network Star, and this Armenian-American “website owner, radio host and private chef” wowed the judges with her fair-to-middlin’ borag* and ability to not f*ck up long enough to tell a 30-second story. She’s got the on-camera skills and potential Q rating, but not much of a culinary point of view. I’ve had a decent amount of experience with Armenian food, and it mostly consists of meat on sticks over rice.
*That’s an Armenian cheese-and-herb filled pastry, incidentally. As one-quarter Armenian-American myself, it’s the only Armenian dish that was ever interesting enough for me to seek out a recipe. My family eats it with jelly, which I’ve never seen anyone else do. Sh*t gets weird by the time it trickles down to the third or fourth generation. A good friend of mine makes authentic Mexican tamales with his family every holiday, which he then incongruously eats slathered in ketchup. It’s actually pretty good.
3. Rue, aka Zimbabwe Girl
Rue is my sleeper pick to win this season, on account of Southern African food is actually a unique angle. She’s the only contestant whose food makes me want to look up a recipe, and the judges seemed to love her Bobotie, a South African meat pie with custard. Real talk, that looked tasty as f*ck. Too bad she still kind of sucks on camera. During her on-camera segment she touted “my aggressively charming personality.” TV tip: You rarely charm people by telling them how charming you are.
4. Alex, aka the Tennessee Sandwich Dork
Supposedly Alex is from Washington, D.C., but he’s about as Tennessee as a dude could look without actual croakies. Alex is likable, makes food the judges always like, and has a clear point of view (sandwiches, though in this episode he made fried rice for the first challenge, and then a crepe, which he unconvincingly tried to pass off as “a kind of Vietnamese sandwich.” Even though the Vietnamese are already famous for their sandwiches, which are sandwiches). Sadly, the Food Network already has Jeff “The Sandwich King” Mauro, who won Season Seven, and I don’t know how many more sandwich guys they have room for.
Maybe they could have some kind of a Sandwich Thunderdome? Actually, that’s a pretty great pitch for a Food Network show. Don’t steal that.
5. Jay, aka the Jolly Fat Guy
Jay took a big tumble after winning Episode One. This week they dinged him for “sounding like he was trying to sell me a used car.” His pitch sounded too practiced, I guess. Even though his sausage-filled beignets looked goddamned amazing. What’s he supposed to do? Tell him to pitch five people on the same dish, of course he’s going to repeat himself.
Jay is a good bet to make the finals, but he’s hurt by the fact that last season’s winner (“The Gourmet Cowboy”) was also a jolly fat guy. Also, Jay seems much less like a pro-wrestling caricature than that guy did. That’s a good way to handicap Food Network Star contestants, by the way; they always favor people with the most WWE-esque schtick. Sadly, this season’s a little light on those, with nary a Gourmet Cowboy or Rodney “Pie Style” Henry to be found. God damn I miss Rodney Pie Style.
6. Rosa, aka Jersey Girl
If I were to follow my own pro-wrestling caricature rule from above, Rosa probably comes closest. Ay oh, mama gonna make you gabba gool ovah heah. (*grabs crotch, gestures with hands*) Rosa is charming and likable, but honestly, who needs another lecture on how to make red-sauce Goodfellas food anymore? Half of Food Network’s current staff (Giada, Alex Guarnaschelli, Mario Batali) dedicated entire careers to trying to move America’s conception of “Italian food” beyond that. Rosa made a decent-looking flank-steak bruschetta thing this week, but for the most part, her version of hoary Italian-American classics doesn’t even look especially good. There’s already a Sopranos cookbook.
7. Dom, aka Shy Guy
This week’s big reversal was Dom impressing the judges with his newfound ability to converse with another human without sh*tting himself in fear. To cap off that victory, Dom’s timpano (baked ziti inside a pie, basically) looked pretty bomb. Still, I think they were overvaluing how much being able to talk with another human relates to being comfortable doing a solo camera demo, which is way harder (trust me, I know, go watch a clip of me on The Grid if you don’t believe me). Not to mention, the conversation in question consisted mainly of “Ay what paht a New Yawk you from? Brooklyn? Fack my asshoal, my fackin cousin’s from Brooklyn. Dat pizza sh*t owes me ten dollaz.”
Dom’s food looks like an elevated version of Rosa’s. I don’t need to learn meatballs in red sauce, but for timpano I might tune in. But in terms of TV skills, or even just being-a-person skills, Dom needs a miracle.
8. Emilia, aka Duchess Tries Too Hard
This “culinary instructor, software-company executive, and former head pastry chef for the Washington Redskins” dresses like an evil sorority president from the ’50s and everything she says manages to sound simultaneously haughty and naive. Her point of view is something about spice, meaning she puts harissa in everything. (Harissa today = truffle oil five years ago). Everyone keeps telling her to smile, but that’s honestly the least of her problems.
9. Sita, aka Mama Sita
Sita is a half-black, half-Italian mom, and the fact that she gave herself her own nickname should tell you about all you need to know about her. She also talks about herself in the third person, beginning one sentence with “Sita is known for her big bold flavors” or some such. She seems as exhausting as people who talk about themselves in the third person tends to be. Her POV is “Italian Soul Food,” which was this week manifested in Alfredo sauce cooked with mayonnaise, possibly the single most disgusting-looking food item ever cooked on Food Network Star. And I’m not even a mayo-hater. I love mayo. But you know what’s the last texture I want in my pasta sauce? Mayo. If you want eggs in your pasta sauce, make a carbonara; no one wants to learn your what’s-in-my-refrigerator fusion garbage.
10. Matthew, aka The Awful One
Matthew is what we call a producer’s pick. The judges hate him. You hate him. His food sucks, he’s a jerk to everyone, and his POV is some vague nonsense about hashtags and appealing to millennials. He acts like he was raised in a closet by old Apprentice tapes and spent his 22 years trying to emulate previous reality-show villains. He cooked in a trillby, for God’s sake. I wouldn’t be surprised if his parents paid for a reality-show-villain tutor when he was little.
The usual thing to do with this character would be to keep him around for four or five episodes even though he’s clearly the worst and has no shot at winning, but the producers need those hate-watch eyeballs. His character arc was all set up. We learned to hate him last episode, where he barely survived, then he showed a token improvement this episode (a story about his mom, awwwww!). He was all set to hang around for two more episodes being the catfish who keeps things interesting. The judges were about to boot Emilia (or so they would have us believe) when Matthew smirked and Giada changed her vote to boot Matthew at the last minute. Can’t sneak nothin’ past Ol’ Giada! Wisdom, amazing boobs, she’s really the full package. And so Matthew is gone. That was a real curve ball, sorta. Kudos to those producers for preserving a kernel of unpredictability.
Until next week.