Food Network Star Power Rankings, Week 4: ‘4th Of July Picnic’

Even with all the great television coming out on Sundays, God help me, I still find time to watch Food Network Star. I don’t justify this. As I’ve said, this column is not an endorsement, it’s me admitting my compulsion.

This week’s episode of Food Network Star featured the 4th of July Picnic challenge, which, considering it aired on June 28th, is a strange, de facto admission by the Food Network that they shot this episode almost a full calendar year ago. The guest host was Bobby Deen, “host of Spring Baking Championships,” according to his introduction, and also one of two Paula Deen sons employed by the Food Network, not mentioned at all during his introduction.

Deen’s entrance was followed immediately by a cutaway shot of contestant Rosa saying “Do you see that face? He’s gorgeous!”

The Food Network almost always not-so-subtly sexualizes their male talent this way, and the more times you see it, the more weirdly desperate it feels. Unless the chef in question looks like Mario Batali, they pretty much never introduce a chef or guest host without an immediate cutaway to a woman fawning over him like he’s the hottest piece of beefcake since Fabio. (“Mmm, girl, he can fill my piping bag anytime, gnome sayin’?!”).

Here’s what Bobby Deen looks like, incidentally:

In any case, that thing he’s holding is the “do I like this at this specific moment in time” audience-participation hand buzzer thingy, the perfect totem of test audience culture. The Hot Or Not Dial featured prominently in this week’s episode. Every time I see one I like to imagine the crowd holding one at famous speeches throughout history.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” (*audience slides dials to the left*)

(two hours later)

“Gee, Mr. Kennedy, our polls are showing that you’d be much better off dropping this whole ‘do something positive for society’ business.”

This Week’s Thing That Makes Me Embarrassed To Be Watching The Food Network

Since I promised last week that this would be a recurring segment… What’s shaming me this week is: promos for Michael Symon’s new show, Burgers, Brew & ‘Que.

See, at some point, the Food Network figured out that rather than telling Americans that we’re eating sh*t, and perhaps offering us some tasty sh*t alternatives, they’d be much more successful to just make porn out of the sh*t we’re already eating. And nothing fits that mission statement better than taking a James Beard Award-winning chef known for his upscale Greek food and having him drive around the country saying “YUM, CORN DOGS!” to various Billy Bobs. (Also, Michael Symon, don’t smile so hard, man, you’re going to crack a rib).

Listen, I love burgers and barbecue. I’m not a communist. But at this point, that’s every other food show. And as much as I love to eat hamburgers, it’s really not that interesting to hear how a guy made a hamburger. “Wait, you’re telling me you ground some chuck meat and put it on a grill? Well I’ll be god damned.”

Anyway, if you don’t believe me that the Food Network is bending over backwards to talk down to you like you’re a backwoods simpleton, consider that the host considered the “brain” of the group once known for being the food equivalent of Bill Nye the Science guy now hosts a game show where people try to cook fondue with a saxophone like a dumbed down Fear Factor.

Okay, enough ranting, onto the rankings.

This week, the contestants were split into groups – Jay, Michelle, and Rosa on the White Team, Emilia, Rue, and Dom on the Red Team, and Alex, Eddie, and Arnold on the Blue Team. Their task was to give a presentation to a crowd (all of whom were holding the “do I like this” dial and dialing accordingly), who would then choose one and only one team’s menu to eat. The twist was that after the teams went shopping, they had to switch groceries and come up with new dishes. Drama!

1. Jay (+1). Grilled Ribeye With Okra Stew.

Jay ended up with some beautiful ribeyes that Dom bought, and, shocker, both the crowd and judges liked expensive ribeye steaks. Jay also redeemed himself by cooking some more okra (stewed with san marzano tomatoes) that was also a hit, to redeem himself for last week’s disastrous gumbo. I am Jay’s okra redemption.

It should not surprise you to learn that “Jolly Fat Guy Who Cooks Steaks” is potentially a winning Food Network schtick. Jay was the only contestant who had both food the judges liked and a successful presentation this week, making him an easy number one.

Everyone below Jay was sort of a pick ’em.

2. Dom (+2). Flank Steak Fiorentina with Asian Panzanella Salad.

The Staten Island Stooge was back this week with a classic Dom performance – great food, disastrous presentation. His not-especially-convincing inspiration for his Italian/Asian fusion dish this week was “because Little Italy is right in Chinatown.”

Hey, he had to improvise. The story would’ve forgiven had he told it better, instead of describing his haltingly, finishing off with “and there’s, uh… a bunch of Asian spices in there as well.”

Sounds delicious! Then he ran off stage like he was Bo Jackson running into the tunnel after a touchdown. I rank him highly nonetheless, because his food was good (unlike most of the rest of this week’s field) and the Food Network seems to be trying real hard to make him the sentimental favorite, which has to count for something.

3. Rue (+3). Grilled Shrimp Skewer With South African Mango Chutney.

Despite being my pre-season favorite, Rue once again proved herself terrible at selling herself. Jesus, lady, all you have to do is tell a corny story about southern Africa and serve a southern African dish and the crowd is yours. Instead, she began this week’s presentation with “Hi, I’m Rue, I’m from Brooklyn.” Everyone loved her food once again, but if she’s improved this little as a storyteller so far, you wonder if she ever will. Consider also that before the teams switched groceries, Rue was planning to make a portobello salad. A Zimbabwean chef cooking a portobello salad. It’s bad when the only way you can stay on message is by being forced to improvise at the last minute. Get it together, woman.

4. Emilia (+4). Tandoori Chicken Skewer With Mint Pea Puree.

It’s a testament to how bad everyone was this week that I have Duchess Spaz at number four, even though she has zero chance of winning. Nonetheless she wowed the audience with a story about how her brother’s birthday is on 4th of July, and how he grew up thinking the fireworks were all for him, harf harf! I wish I had a gif of Emilia’s spazzy face making explosion sounds and laughing at her own jokes. Also, if the producers weren’t completely mailing this in they would’ve fact-checked that brother story. I like to think she doesn’t even have a brother.

Despite actually coming off likable this week, the judges dinged Emilia for her bland chicken (while praising her DELICIOUS PEAS). There was also a scene where she complained that someone bought chicken thighs with the bone in and skin on. If you ask me, that alone should disqualify her from being a food authority. Keep in mind, the episode was 4th of July-themed. If you can’t serve chicken thighs with the bone in and skin on at a 4th of July barbecue, when can you?

5. Arnold (-4). Shrimp Lollipop With Mediterranean Salad.

I debated ranking Arnold this high after turning in far and away his worst performance, with food that the judges called “really bland,” and inspired Bobby Deen to say “I think this is the first shrimp I didn’t finish.” (PAULA DEEN’S BABBY BOYS LOVE THEY SHRAMP, Y’ALL!). Nonetheless, everyone liked him, as per usual, and I think it was more or less understood that backyard barbecue wasn’t exactly Mary Poppins’ wheelhouse. Beautiful plating isn’t part of the judging criteria? Why not just cut off Arnold’s hands. I don’t think this hurts him too much. You wouldn’t ask Tinkerbell to shoe a horse.

6. Alex (+1). Chicken Katsu Sando.

I keep pointing out that Alex looks like the most Tennessee dude ever, and this week he proved my point by showing up to the barbecue in jean shorts. Alex cooked the judges’ favorite dish, the chicken katsu sando, which he pronounced “sahn-DO.” Which may technically be correct, but sounds to me like Sensei Chuck Brickanski from Cleveland taking extra care to pronounce his martial art “kara-TAY.”

Alex overpronounces his sandwich so much in the introduction that Giada says “Let’s taste Alex’s sandwich that I’m not even going to bother trying to pronounce.”

Okay, really? It’s “sando.” SANDO. Even if you pronounce it “sahn-DO” like a jackass, that’s still easily recognizable as a shortened word for “sandwich.” How dumb does a person have to be not to be able to pronounce “Sando?” Or more accurately, how dumb does a person have to think her audience is that she tries to relate to them by pretending she can’t pronounce “Sando?” Incidentally, later in the show, Bobby Flay also claims that he can’t pronounce sando.

Anyway, Alex is looking every bit the token “good chef who sucks on camera” who gets booted in the middle of every season.

7. Eddie (-3). Grilled Pork Loin With Curry Potato Salad.

Johnny Football Hero continued his free fall this week by cooking food no one really liked, a first for him. (Real talk, unless you braise it in something rich or wrap something fatty around it, pork loin is only slightly less boring than skinless chicken breast). His Caribbean food has looked mostly pretty good up until now, but what seemed like “down home southern charm” at first is starting to feel like he can only converse in boring sports clichés. If he wants to win, he’s gotta start taking this competition one show at a time, put in the work, etc…

8. Michelle (-5). Chicken Kabob With Glazed Baby Carrots.

Michelle fell like a rock this week by not being able to keep up with her orders and serving inconsistently-cooked chicken. Leading Bobby Deen to ask “Is carbon a flavor profile?” She explains her inability to push food out faster by saying she’s not a restaurant chef, but honestly, do you have to work at a restaurant to know that you should pre-skewer your chicken kabobs before people start lining up? That seems like common sense.

Also, a big f*ck you to the Food Network Star editors for setting Michelle’s segment to royalty-free belly dancer music. Even if we needed crappy music to remind us that Michelle is Armenian, that’s not even the correct racist music choice.

Anyway, I hope she mixes some ground beef with ground lamb soon, that’s the smartest thing Armenians ever did with food.

9. Rosa (even) ((eliminated)). Portobello Mushroom Sandwich With Cucumber Salad.
Rosa was lovable, as always, coming up with a “fireworks display of food!” theme that another contestant had the audacity to call “genius” (it takes so very little to impress on this show). And yet again she cooked bland food no one liked. It wasn’t the challenge either – before the teams switched groceries, her idea was to cook chicken parm. Think about that for a second. With a blank canvas and a moderate budget, she chose chicken parm. For a July 4th barbecue challenge, she chose chicken parm. For a holiday people associate with grilling, she chose a dish that normally requires a fry pan, a pot, and a broiler to make.

Forced to improvise, she came up with grilled portobello, which at least requires a grill. Of course, the judges didn’t like it, and what person watching would need to log in to find a recipe for a grilled mushroom cap on bread? The fact that she made it this far in the competition proves how important it is to have a schtick. Rosa was the worst cook with the best schtick and made it four episodes. In any case, she seemed nice.

PREDICTION FOR NEXT WEEK: Emilia gets eliminated. No way she can stay likable for two consecutive episodes. I further predict that Giada will wear something that shows off her cleavage.

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.