Please don’t throw all your rotten tomatoes at once, but watching Sunday night’s episode of Food Network Star, I kind of wished the Wicked Witch of the Kitchen had lasted one more week in the competition. No, I’m not saying I’ve suddenly developed an unsavory affection for last week’s evictee, the villainous (and proud of it) Penny, but wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to watch the self-proclaimed “Middle Eastern Mama” navigate the high-pressure waters of a live cooking segment on The Rachael Ray Show than malfunctioning robot Jyll? Who knows, maybe Penny would’ve torn out a clump of Rachael’s hair to complete her “Eye of Newt Stew with Reduction of Children’s Night Terrors.”
In all seriousness, though, wasn’t Jyll’s elimination all but guaranteed last week, when Wolfgang Puck was so offended by her risotto that he dragged her back into the kitchen to teach the proper technique for cooking the dish? (Hey, at least he didn’t make her sit in the naughty chair facing the corner wall for 15 minutes.) With that uncomfortable memory hanging over the episode like smoke from a burnt paella, it felt like the entire hour was nothing more than a procession leading up to Jyll’s tearful farewell.
Oh, sure, the perky newscaster type got the “redemption edit” during this week’s Camera Challenge — in which the contestants had to make cupcakes for the fabulous Ina Garten (whose presence reduced Whitney to tears). But Jyll’s glory and the Barefoot Contessa’s appearance were both short lived. Jyll’s chocolate-orange confection pleased the judges’ taste buds, but that giggling joke about the cake being blonde like her was more tragic than Jeff’s five-meat cupcake. And while Ina provided some solid feedback for the six remaining contestants, she made a hasty retreat back to her Hamptons dreamscape after realizing the everyday world didn’t contain enough gay men, fresh flowers, fabulousness, butter, cream, leisure time, and general decadence to satisfy her appetites.
I will say, though, I was a little surprised the selection committee wasn’t tougher on Whitney for essentially copying Ina’s signature coconut-almond cupcake, or on Vic, whose pancetta-basil-chocolate concoction looked as appealing as that squelchy thing I found in a Ziploc bag in the back of my fridge a few weeks ago. And the less said the better when it comes to Susie attempting to achieve “elegancy” by adding silver sprinkles to her corn cupcake with duck confit slaw.
As for our six finalists and their Rachael Ray appearances (which Bob Tuschman deftly referred to as “the true test” of a Food Network Star contestant):
* Whitney’s roasted chicken and white bean chili looked tasty, but her personal stories feel more like constructs around which she builds her on-camera segments rather than real-life experiences. For exampled, her comment about her firefighter brother and his coworkers — “all those guys eat is chili!” — felt exaggerated at best, and a cynical way to personalize her assigned dish at worst.
* Vic’s “Lachanga” — lasagna deep-fried inside a tortilla, complete with a topping of green olives! — was another setback for his culinary credibility. There’s no doubt the guy is charming and likable, and I understand how the selection committee can see dollar signs in his “Vin Diesel exterior” meets “squishy Mama’s Boy interior” persona, but dude might be better off traveling the country for a show called “Secrets of Italian Family Kitchens” than actually foisting his “Vegas-style” monstrosities on the viewing public, no? Also, if Vic does manage to score a spot on the Food Network lineup, Susie Fogelson had better include a line in his contract banning him from wearing short-sleeved sweaters with dress shirts and ties. Illegal! At least Vic’s culinary misadventures drew this zinger out of Bobby Flay: “I just don’t want to eat a tortilla-wrapped lasagna.” Amen, brother.
* Aside from using a piping bag of pureed carrots to add color and visual appeal, what exactly was the “completely modern twist” Mary Beth promised with her take on Shepherd’s Pie?
* Was I the only one who felt uncomfortable about Susie saying she essentially wanted to be Rachael? Girl, you’re definitely not going to win this thing channeling Single White Female, or even All About Eve. Especially not when Bobby Flay describes your veggies as looking “old and gray.” Still, I think it would be a little ridic if Susie gets ousted simply for acknowledging that misperceptions exist about Mexican food not being elegant or high-end, no?
* I’ve seen friends serve up better looking grub to their dogs than Jyll’s “meatloaf pie,” which was cooked in (gasp!) a foil pie plate! The judges seemed to want us to believe Jyll’s biggest crime was changing her point-of-view to “classic comfort food with a California twist,” but their comments during deliberations summed up the real reasons Jyll was never going to win. Bobby: “I don’t know that she has the authority to teach us about anything, really.” Susie F: “She has an artificiality I can’t get past.”
* Rachael’s comments about Jeff’s performances summed up my feelings about the entire season: “Sandwich guy killed it for me!” I mean, who doesn’t love a phrase like “teach you the fundamentals of cooking through sandwich artistry”? The guy never seems tentative about the food intel he’s imparting, and he’s got an easy, breezy humor that will only get better with some expert help from Food Network’s stable of directors, editors, and producers. I liked how he handled a viewer question about braising that didn’t really have an easy answer, and his jokes about hard cider and pork-bone lollipops (“make sure they’re old enough so they don’t choke on it”) were winningly weird. Jeff’s final zinger about teaching Rachael his recipe for sweet-potato fries “the next time you have me on” sealed my loyalty. I want Jeff to win this thing, and I promise to DVR his series if or when he does.
What did you think of this week’s Food Network Star? Who do you want to win it all? Would you have preferred to see Penny tackle the Rachael Ray challenge instead of Jyll, or should I just be glad they sent the Season 7 villain home before she tried to stuff Hansel and Gretel into a hot oven? Sound off below, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!