Food Network Star: A Comedy of Culinary Errors

One of the main reasons I love Food Network Star is that the show occasionally delivers on the promise of its title, bringing new personalities to the food-centric channel in a way that, say, America’s Next Top Model has never seen its winners on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

But Sunday night’s telecast also proved the show can score laughs as big as any sitcom. In fact, there were moments where I was almost convinced I was watching The Katy Clark Show, an absurdist comedy about a hapless chef/fitness instructor and her foodie foibles. Consider:

* During this week’s Camera Challenge, in which contestants had to make pizzas that revealed their culinary styles, then pair them with personal stories, Katy (pictured, center) made a peculiar pie — one side covered in greens, one side slathered in cheese — that reflected her scattered personality. Then she took it to the judges and blurted this priceless bit of ridiculousness: “I had a Chinese worker stay with me a couple weeks ago. We made pizza together and she said that was the best thing she had all weekend, was making pizza with me. So remember, I’m Katy, helping you keep a balanced life!” Katy’s poorly explained anecdote had me wondering if there’s some new program whereby the U.S. is exporting Starbucks baristas to Beijing, in exchange for itinerant farmers from the Chinese countryside. Probably not the kind of random associations Food Network is looking for in its next breakout series.

* Katy struck again later in the episode, when contestants presented their Star Challenge dishes to a panel of celebrity chefs. Guest judge Scott Conant rattled off the copious ingredients in Katy’s menu — an apple-walnut-shallot compote with braised bacon and a pepper short rib on gorgonzola mashed potatoes with a mustard cream sauce — in an attempt to get her to see she was making a meal far too complicated for the challenge parameters. “You see where I’m going with this?” he asked, hopefully. Katy’s painfully earnest response: “You think it should be pork?”

* And then, of course, we had Katy’s boiling, sputtering sauce causing widespread anxiety among the judges. “Have you looked at the pan?” Conant fretted, as the stovetop temperature reached surface-of-the-sun levels. But instead of heeding his subtle warning, Katy went ahead and added a bottle of wine to her concoction, sending the entire meal up in a stunning (but highly amusing) blaze. “Mission accomplished,” grinned Season 7 mega-villain Penny, and I had to begrudgingly agree.

Given all her culinary flubs, it wasn’t a surprise to see Katy get booted at episode’s end, but I’ll miss the way the judges’ eyes popped whenever she spoke. “I’m fitness. I’m all about fashion. I’m not all-day cooking. That doesn’t work for me,” she boasted, as Giada De Laurentiis wondered aloud if girlfriend was auditioning for the right job. (Spoiler alert: Definitely not.) Of course, Katy’s downfall wasn’t the only key plot point of the 90-minute telecast.

* For the first time in show history, the panel gave walking papers to a contestant at the end of the Camera Challenge as well as the Star Challenge. The former elimination spelled defeat for Juba, who had some promising cooking chops but treated looking into a camera as if it was the equivalent of sticking his hand in a garbage disposal.

* The Camera Challenge also brought us a rare moment of non-incompetence from emotionally fragile Alicia, but I thought her anecdote about discovering a new food on a bad date felt more like a carefully crafted construct for a punch line — “It does take a pig to find truffles!” — than an actual life experience. Later, though, Alicia returned to weepy form, breaking down after the judges criticized her sad, monochromatic plate of bacon-wrapped scallop, pancake, and carrots (see image below, and tell me what the heck is sticking out of that scallop?).

* Justin B (pictured, right) continued his ongoing hate-hate relationship with the camera by flubbing his lines and ending his presentation with a one-word exclamation: “Fail!” But as Susie Fogelson explained in her new-age, no-nonsense manner: “Perfectionism has no place here. Just be real.”

* And Penny (pictured, left) rebranded her show idea from “Stilettos in the Kitchen” to “Middle-Eastern Mom,” but failed to recognize that acting like a raging she-beast every second of every episode is probably not going to endear her to the Food Network audience. Look, I don’t blame her for strategizing a way to derail early front-runner Orchid — especially if said strategy involved exposing Orchid’s lack of knowledge regarding high-end ingredients — but Penny never infuses her competitiveness with humor or playfulness; at this point, she’s a poisoned apple or cursed spindle away from being a full-fledged Disney villainess.

* Whitney and Mary Beth emerged as potential contenders with their wins this week. I liked Mary Beth’s short cut of using a marrow bone in her sauce to get to the rich flavor of braised short ribs, as well as her “only a dollah!” butcher-shop anecdote, but her performance during the Camera Challenge still seemed stilted to me. Whitney, meanwhile, might’ve helped erase that grim-faced engineer vibe if she’d managed to smile — even a little — after winning her portion of the Star Challenge.

* Jeff’s spring roll might’ve been a hot, unraveled mess, but the guy has a leg up on his rivals in developing a likable on-screen persona. “Thank you, chef, for allowing us to destroy your kitchen,” he told Conant at the start of the Star Challenge. “It’s an honor.” Later, he even managed to score laughs after perspiring into his food, telling the panel that all he could think was, “Stop sweating you pig monster!”

* Jyll got praised for making Wisconsin beer brats, but is that really a Food Network-level recipe? And is it really a play on sweet soy-glazed pork belly and scallion pancakes?

* The limits of Orchid’s culinary knowledge may have been exposed, but I was happy she didn’t whine or cry or get in a huff when Penny pitted her against the restaurant-chef types during the Star Challenge. Anne Burrell was right, though, that Orchid’s canned oyster kind of looked like a hairball.

* And finally, if anyone is going to pick up the sitcom mantel from Katy, it could be Chris, who went all en flambe for his mixed seafood stufato, then had to concede to the judges that he did it for “no real tecnhical reason.” Later, when he couldn’t find dry vermouth for his dish, he decided to use Pernod as a substitute, despite not knowing what it tasted like. When Bobby asked Chris to describe Pernod in three words, my brother, my husband, and I each had fun coming up with potential answers. Our respective picks: “No f****** idea!”; “Not dry vermouth?”; and “You tell me!” Chris’ eventual descent into guessing Pernod had some similarities to chewing gum and mouthwash left a horrified Burrell asking, “Seafood and peppermint?”

What did you think of this week’s Next Food Network Star? Did the right people get sent home? Who’s emerging as your favorite? Sound off below, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!