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Wednesday, 30 of September of 2020

Food Network Star – “Impossible Beginnings”

“Did I really just say my mom looks like a cookie?”

Food Network StarI didn’t tune in for much of last year’s season of The Next Food Network Star (now named Food Network Star and hereafter referred to as FNS because that’s still a lot to type) because…well…I haven’t the slightest idea. I think it was because something else was on (was I watching The Killing…I don’t know), but I do think one reason was that I felt like, after writing about it during the season before it, I had a pretty solid grasp on the show.

But thanks to promos while watch Chopped All-Stars (I hope Chris Santos has learned a little something about how hard it is on the other side of that chopping block), I was drawn back to check in, at least just for the premiere, Food Network Star. Bouncing off the success of The Voice (and, I guess, The X Factor (or vice versa)), the show has placed each of their contestants under the tutelage of Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, and Alton Brown as they vie for the Food Network contract.

This is a rather interesting decision on their parts. De Laurentiis was originally added to the show to provide something of a mentorship role for the contestants, but she never really seemed to do much mentoring as the contestants struggled to improve their on-camera presence and develop their culinary point of view (CPOV) with not much in the way of assistance. My hope is, with dedicated mentors, that the caliber and growth of the contestants is less frustrating than it was two seasons ago.

I’m pleased to say that the general revamp of the show really really works here. It’s not only the inclusion of teams (which helps me keep track of who these people are, on a very basic level), but that the mentors actually engage and help their mentees is something the show desperately needed when I last watched, and I’m happy to see those aspects come forward here. Each of the three big stars do brief feedback sessions, both with individuals and the group as a whole.

And the show wisely provides a stake for the mentors by turning them into producers of the talent. So whoever wins the thing will produce that winner’s show, giving a financial incentive on top of a personal pride one of finding this new talent for the network. As is noted on the show, each of the mentors pick people that emphasize their own ideas. Alton wants teachers and storytellers, Giada wants cooking and personality, while Bobby wants good cooks he can teach to cook on TV, and so their approaches in coaching mirror that focus.

Of course Food Network Star is still all about the branding and the cross-promotion, as I wrote about exhaustively before. But I want to emphasize it again here, since with the angle about the current three stars adds a new aspect to it. The show no longer is just about enhancing Food Network’s brand but about making the brand of the channel’s three biggest and recognizable stars all that more high-profile (which in turns helps the channel’s brand as well, since they’re all interconnected, of course).

The new format also leaves the final decision of who stays and goes with just Bob and Susie, the GM and SVP of branding respectively. Previously, Bobby also weighed in, so now the show placing much more of an emphasis on the need for a solid new brand or personality for a road show. And now with the Cooking Channel, there’s a little more wiggle room for the folks who may not win, but are still popular (and a good idea since the other big change is that viewers get to vote on the winner in the finale).

So, onto the episode. The groups each have to launch a new restaurant concept with menu and decor in a day with a small budget (it’s basically Top Chef‘s Restaurant Wars episode). One of my quibbles with the show that still remains is that I’m not sure how a challenge like this ties into finding a new personality. It could demonstrate teamwork and time management, important things when shooting a TV show, but the challenge and the show don’t focus on those aspects so I’m not sure what the purpose is beyond entertainment.

Which is a really crazy thing to say, I know, about a TV show. But I think of it this way: The challenge feels segregated from the overall point of the show in the same way some aspects of narrative and gameplay don’t exactly overlap with one another. It’s not a direct analogy, but I feel like the challenge doesn’t always fit what talent is expected to do as a star for Food Network. So while it is entertaining for the audience, and a way to make this audition process more engaging, it doesn’t feel completely connected to its goals.

So the challenges remain, basically, window dressing as it were, in an audition process that should arguably be about how well you improve in TV and live demonstrations of your cooking. Frantically trying to make a dish in a matter of hours, even when you teammates totally don’t get the ingredients you need (notice how Josh never once mentioned how Yvan totally screwed him over, and is possibly responsible for Josh being up for elimination in the episode? That’s classy).

I’m not going to tell you about the dishes because at this stage I feel like it doesn’t matter all that much (And I’ve already written a lot). I will say that I’m not sure any of these folks are primed to fit a particular niche that needs to be filled within Food Network’s schedule, and since a lot of them didn’t get much of a chance to espouse a CPOV, it’s still too soon to tell who the favorites may be.

For my money, however, just based on this episode, I think Nikki and Michele from Team Bobby, Ippy from Team Giada, and Emily and Judson from Team Alton seem like the most ready to go out of the gate, on-screen presence-wise. Whether or not they have a solid concept yet remains to be seen.

Nikki’s got this “Girl on Grill” idea that seems like it might work, but I’m wondering if the network is ready to do that kind of a female-centric show, and what that would look like. And while I like the idea of Emily’s goal of taking 1950s dishes and making them contemporary, I feel like that can only get you so far. The rest seem a bit more in the weeds right now, but I think the new format will help prevent folks that don’t have a clear sense of identity from sticking around too long.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • “Chef.” “Sir.” “Ms. De Laurentiis.” I’m pretty sure we could’ve called Giada “Chef” as well, Bobby.
  • “Food is art.”
  • “Bakers never last in cooking competitions. Save your frosting for your cakes.” Except for the ones who win Chopped, right, Nikki? Because a few have. Just saying.
  • “I picked him because bow ties are cool.” Alton’s been watching a lot of Doctor Who.
  • “If this were high school, Team Alton would be the nerds.”
  • “No one cut yourself today. If you feel like you’re going to cut yourself, put the knife down and walk away.”
  • “The full Martita didn’t come out.”
  • Giada and Susie’s reaction to Justin? A little odd, uncomfortable. And he seems kind of oblivious to it…So what if there’s lipstick? (It’s lipbalm.)
  • I dig Alton’s super-confident swagger at the network evaluation
  • So while I didn’t talk about food here, we can totally talk about the food in the comments. I, for one, thought that Eric was SCREWED when he decided not only to make hand-made pasta, but hand-made ricotta cheese. I mean, who does that?

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