Fans of musical theater are probably familiar with A Chorus Line‘s classic number, “Dance, 10; Looks, 3,” in which an aspiring actress/hoofer explains how her lack of show-stopping curves hindered her career momentum — despite her exceptional ability to cut a rug. The evicted contestant this week on Food Network Star suffered from a similar imbalance in required skills: Indeed, somewhere on a briny and desolate wharf — or perhaps behind a rustic butcher’s counter — I imagine Justin B. is humming his own mournful tune: “Food, 10; Charisma, 3.”
I can’t lie and say Justin B.’s ouster wasn’t a little surprising: Four weeks ago, I’d picked him (along with Orchid and Jeff) among the season’s three most promising contestants, based on his good looks and his authority and passion for cooking. But tonight, as he presented his Star Challenge dish to Paula Deen, the cast of Cougar Town, and the Food Network Star judges, Justin B sounded as if his internal hard-drive had been set to “monotone” — or as Bobby Flay noted, the guy resembled a waiter reading the day’s specials — and then made matters worse by announcing his Israeli couscous was “on the bland side.”
Still, as much as Justin B. kept focusing on the “Food” to the detriment of the “Star” portion of the competition, it was his arrogance at landing in the week’s bottom four contestants that may have led to his early demise. Sitting in the green room as the judges debated whether or not to eliminate Whitney, Justin D., Penny, or himself, Justin B. began to sulk. “I really have nothing to say. I think it’s ridiculous,” he pouted. “I know I can cook. I mean, I’ve never questioned that ever.” Neither did the selection committee. But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter if Justin B. was making the kind of cuisine that would make him a contender on Top Chef Masters; his on-camera persona ranged from somnambulant to downright loutish. Take this week’s Camera Challenge, where Justin B seemed to have been taking pointers from overgrown frat boy Chris, introducing himself as “Big J from Atlanta!” and dropping verbal dung bombs like “shiitake, that’s good!” Only after the cameras stopped rolling, though, did Justin B. remember to share with the judges that his dish included layers of fontina, drunken goat cheese, and a bechamel sauce. (Side note: Weirdly enough, Justin B. was at his most animated when he drew his snack chip in the Kellogg’s product challenge. “Cheez-It crackers! That’s a win!” Alrighty then, dude.)
Even in defeat, Justin B. broke a cardinal rule of TV chefs: Never compare yourself to dreaded kitchen vermin. “I’m gonna be like the proverbial cockroach: Nobody kills me,” boasted the man whose washer earrings made Paula Deen (and me) feel a little skittish.
Justin B.’s ouster proved to be good news for several of his struggling rivals — any one of whom could easily have gone home without the slightest bit of outrage from Food Network Star viewers.
* We had Penny, whose industrial vat of gloopy mac and cheese would’ve looked right at home in a middle-school cafeteria. “They wouldn’t try to kill us, would they?” asked funnyman Ian Gomez, after tasting the burnt concoction. Let’s be honest: Even though Penny makes for “good” TV by virtue of the fact that she could, at any moment, sprout orchid tentacles and give us a recipe for Sweet Mermaid Stew, there’s no way she can last more than another episode or two. But here’s a tip Penny can use in her future TV endeavors: If you’re trying to win over the viewing audience, you may not want to describe yourself as delivering “more fake and phony on top of fake and phony.”
* We had Justin D. also drawing from Chris’ tool box (emphasis on “tool”) when he finished his Star Challenge and realized he still had airtime to fill. “Justin D! Flavor Factory!” he blurted, pointing into the camera as if reenacting a Vanilla Ice photo shoot, circa 1992. Way to set a tragique tableau, buddy. Even worse, Justin D. experienced a complete crisis of confidence when he discovered the grocery store had run out of trout and fennel, not exactly the kind of collected expertise one looks for in a Food Network host. I did like Brian Van Holt’s cheeky description of the bespectacled high-school dropout having a “sexy Harry Potter thing” going for him, even if Bob Tuschman was right that nifty spectacles do not a winner make.
* And we had endlessly trainwreck-fascinating Chris attempting to force two chicken lollipops into his greedy maw at the same time, stalking a raccoon with a broom, and forcing his Star Challenge partner Orchid to come up with a “safe word” to curb his lunatic behavior. I loved that Bobby Flay’s praise was limited to this classic zinger: “Today he didn’t do anything ridiculous.” Still, I couldn’t help but imagine some Food Network Star production assistant turning down the temperature in Chris’ fridge, just to ensure his lamb shanks remained frozen, resulting in another “code blue” situation.
A few other observations from the week:
* I’m glad pretty, poised Whitney landed in the bottom this week. Perhaps the unexpected shock of finishing behind Chris will jolt her into a compelling onscreen performance?
* Are Susie’s awful “wings” back tattoos a reason for instant disqualification? Perhaps.
* Did anyone other than me get a newfound respect for Paula Deen by virtue of her unfiltered, funny interaction with the contestants? My favorite moment was Paula’s aghast response to Jill’s pitiful green salad: “What can I say about this bowl of lettuce?”
* The list of viable contenders for a Season 7 victory seems to be shrinking, but Susie, Orchid, and Vic (who’ll need to learn to put his arms at his sides) seem to be chugging along quite nicely. My current favorite, though, is Jeff, who turned his Thai Basil Lettce Cups with Tofu from an underdog to a judges’ favorite, and continued to use his trademark sense of humor to sell his wares: “Trust the 230 lb Italian American man from Chicago to make your tofu.” I’m not sure I’m as sold on Mary Beth, though. Her meatloaf with buttermilk and panko thrilled Paula and the rest of the selection committee, but I thought her joke about every girl having room for extra pork in her life was more groan-inducing than thigh-slapping. Plus, her air kisses with Penny were the opposite of appetizing.
What did you think of this week’s Food Network Star? Who’s your current favorite? Were you shocked by Justin B.’s exit, or did his poor on-camera performance justify the decision? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV.