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Saturday, 31 of October of 2020

The Next Food Network Star – “Lunch Truck With Paula”

Well, it finally happened. It took five episodes, but The Next Food Network Star finally produced an entertaining episode.

I chalk this up to the fact that, with the field winnowed down to 8 contestants, the show has a bit a more time to devote to developing their personalities beyond a CPOV, and to actually start doing a few things it might’ve benefited from doing all along (namely having Giada earn her paycheck). But lest you think that I was over the moon about the episode, the show’s strategy of clever promotion and branding remains intact, and is just as painfully obvious as it has been in the past.

Right up front, for their camera challenge, Susie tells the contestants that they’re creating a brand here, something that the network can sell to audiences. While Tom and Susie have never shied away from this idea (while Bobby and Giada focus on the food), that it came from Susie’s mouth at the top of the episode is telling. With 8 contestants left, it’s time for them to start zeroing in on their brand and making it clear what they can offer to Food Network. As a result, the camera challenge is another CPOV task, this time encapsulating their personality and style into a product that, feasibly, would launch their brand.

Herb, rebounding from his self-defeating spiral last week, does a healthy oil for a stir fry while Brianna comes up with an “Oh Berry Chocolate Sauce” intended to go on any sort of dessert. Tom does a Big Chef citrus marmalade that he mixes with chicken livers and Brussels sprouts, Aarti develops a easy to use tandoori paste intended to make Indian food accessible, Serena does a tomato sauce (shocking), Brad has a 3 onion cherry marmalade, Aria has an apple and pear chutney that is, and I quote, her “entire family in a jar.” Yum. Finally, Paul tries for another CPOV called Blue Collar Dollar with another tomato sauce.

Paul is perhaps the show’s most interesting contestant, though the fact that he lasted as long as he did is beyond me. Unlike Doreen who wasn’t given much time to figure out her CPOV, Paul had half the season to figure it out and still had zilch when he was finally eliminated at the end of the episode. His humor falls flat, his food is middling, and he just comes off as egotistical phony. During the evaluation period, Susie talks about authenticity, and Paul simply doesn’t have that in any way. But clearly there was something that kept him from being eliminated, or the previous contestants were just that horrible.

But authenticity is an equally weird issue on a show where we see people yelling and being mean to each other, like Brianna and Serena in this episode. Yes, they eventually make up (and go on to win the Star Challenge), but I must wonder why we see them fighting. How does this benefit their potential brand on the network? My only assumption is that they eventually make up is a sign of their professionalism and willingness to care more about the food than about their personalities. It’s also the second time Serena has had a conflict with someone else in the house, so maybe she’s not the one to be the face of a new show?

On top of this, what do we make of the fact that other contestants seem to have no problems with people? Indeed, the front runners at this point — Aarti, Tom, and Herb — have narratives about a lack of self-confidence and/or re-discovering a passion for the food. Here, we see ordinary people in a fairly extraordinary situation (a VERY long audition process) looking to make it big, but willing to make changes and become stars.

This track is in opposition to Brad and Aria, both of whom are struggling to make themselves distinct despite being well-liked. They lack the discovery of self-confidence narrative that the others have, and instead deal with figuring out how to innovate their already potential value to the network. Brad wants too much to be taken seriously by the audience and the committee, perhaps based on not being taken seriously in the cooking world because of his age, but that isn’t a reason that’s been parsed out for us. Aria, on the other hand, is less and less interesting as she can’t push her brand of family style anywhere.

In the end, I have to wonder how much realism we’re actually getting from the show, how involved Susie and Tom are in final cuts of the program, and whether or not I can really trust the narratives being constructed around these people. Authenticity, indeed.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • A lunch truck challenge just as Food Network decides to start promoting its new series The Great Food Truck Race? Yeah, very subtle, guys.
  • I was happy to see Giada finally start behaving like a mentor, not if only she’d do it in the kitchen with these folks.

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