Monday, June 9, 2008

The Next Food Network Star

I planned to pass on watching this season's Next Food Network Star. I watched last season and was disappointed with the show. But here it is, summer again. School is still in session and already, the networks have ended their seasons, and once again it's slim pickings.

One of the reasons I didn't care for this reality show last season is the new direction of the Food Network. I remember when Joe and I got our first apartment and I discovered the channel. I was mesmerized by shows like Two Hot Tamales, The Essence of Emeril, and Molto Mario. These were chefs, doing what they do best and teaching the viewers how to do it all at home. They opened my eyes to an array of ingredients and cooking styles. I learned terminology and technique by watching their shows. The entire Food Network experience was not only entertaining, but thought-provoking and educational. But things changed.

Perhaps it was Emeril who started it out with his live show. He got a catch phrase - BAM! And then the marketers dug their claws into the network and the focus shifted from teaching how to cook, to entertaining with food, making it though the week, and selling us a brand.

It's as if a bolt of lightening flashed and now we have 30 Minute Meals and Semi Homemade. The Food Network no longer wants to expand our horizons, they want to let us know how to get through the week, and perhaps sell us some gadgets and a hook us on an on-camera personality or two along the way. But they don't seem too concerned with teaching us to love to cook.

This entire train of thought is evident in who are the people of the Selection Committee for The Next Food Network Star. Susie Fogelson is the Vice President of Marketing and Brand Strategy (nothing to do with food). She says she is looking for someone who can "not only represent Food Network's brand, but that can hone and develop their own brands." This means that the Food Network wants to sell you a product. They want you to spend your money on it. They want you to buy Rachel Ray's cookware and Emeril's seasonings. I can only imagine that when they sign a cook or chef to the Food Network, that they take a portion of any profits from the cookbooks sold by their employees. After all, they were allowed to develop their audiences because of the Food Network.

The other bigwig on the Selection Committee is Bob Tuschman. Tuschie is the Senior Vice President in charge of Programming and Production. Again, nothing to do with food. He, himself comes off as light on personality and heavy on making a buck. He is looking for a "personality that can excite millions." Too bad he doesn't fall under that category. Yet this is the person who decides who gets a show and who doesn't. I personally blame him for the lack of good cooking going on at the Food Network. I don't know if I'm justified in that, but I'm entitled to my opinion, right? After all, this show is called The Next Food Network Star, and not the Next Food Network Chef.

All the contestants are thin and good-looking. Unless they are there to teach you healthy cooking methods, then there's something wrong with that picture. Hmm, that is in great contrast to the chefs on Top Chef. Most of them were overweight to some extent.

So, after the introductions, the contestants had their first on-screen challenge. It was to do a simple introduction sentence, perhaps while holding a prop. Whoever goes on TV does need some sort of on-air presence.

On this quick and seemingly simple challenge, some fared better than others. I thought that Nipa did a good job. She stood out in my mind. There were a couple of contestants who flopped at this task. Some of them evoked a feeling of sadness in me. One did not. Confrontational Challenger Alert! Who ever would have thought that the woman who arrived at the indoor studio wearing rather large sunglasses and awkwardly high heels would have been difficult!

It was poor Nipa along with her young and innocent partner, Shane who had the displeasure of serving the judges in the first cooking contest.

I have something funny to mention here. I've never cared for Bobby Flay because he comes off as arrogant. But he seems to be one of the more personable judges on this panel, and he is the third and last member of the Selection Committee. As Nipa and Shane arrived and described their three-dish presentation, the camera panned around the table. Most of the judges wore a sneer on their face. The big exception was Sandra Lee, whose show I've never seen, but the chatter online is not flattering. The main focus of the chatter I read is that she really assembles instead of creates. But at least she's friendly! How can these judges be TV personalities if they don't know how to smile?

The next to present were Lisa and Kevin. Beeeeeep! Beeeeeeep! Confrontational Challenger Alert! Clear the room! Lisa arrived for the first cooking challenge in her 4" heals. Didn't she learn from the woman last season? There was a contestant last season who Giada took down for wearing heals in the kitchen. Come on, now. Kitchens are slippery and dangerous, so why would anyone wear 4" heals?

The next pair to arrive at the judges table was Adam and Jennifer. Now, Jennifer is an Executive Chef in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and she's paired up with this guy who doesn't appear to know what he's doing. He wanted to make a meatloaf. From the beginning she said there wouldn't be enough time. But she didn't hold her ground, and the meatloaf was a disaster. And she stands in front of the judges and talks about how she gets home and has to cook. This is her justification for the meatloaf dish, and this is what the Food Network is about. Surviving with food once you get home from doing what is important. Of course, Tuschie liked that part of her story. Damn him!

Pair number four was Aaron and Kelsey. I don't know where they came up with this Aaron person. Oh, yes, I do know - he is a Hospital Catering Executive Chef. Come on, now. Hospital food is notoriously poor! How did this guy even make it onto the show?

Things did not go well for Aaron and Kelsey. They fell apart and their fish sandwiches were missing the bread when they served them. Oh, the disaster! But at the Food Network, not finishing your dishes in the required amount of time doesn't matter. They liked it! That just wouldn't be excusable on Top Chef!

The final pair arrived. Cory and Jeffrey. In Cory's other life she is a comedian, but she is having real difficulties with the performance aspect of this competition, which has really surprised everyone. I feel so badly for her! What is going wrong? I really hope that she loosens up and finds her groove before they toss her out. Other than that, the judges didn't care for their dishes.

Now, to the judging. OMG! The pair that didn't even finish the dish was the judges favorite! They said that their go-getter personalities "covers up a lot."

So, here's the big question: Will I watch the rest of the season? Actually, I think I'll stick with public radio and more entertaining television reruns and reality. Gosh, maybe I'll read a book or something. But watching this show brought out the worst in me, and I'd rather not see it again.

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