We’re down to the final four contestants on Season 7 of Food Network Star, but as sure as you can see your reflection in Giada De Laurentiis’ teeth, only three true contenders remain. Seriously, does anyone expect the selection committee to build a TV show around a person who inspired this withering critique from Bobby Flay: “I don’t think she has a lot of experience cooking food.” Which makes me wonder why the judges chose Mary Beth over Whitney without at least reimagining the former’s contestant’s pilot concept. I mean, if the judges can actually change Vic Vegas’ name, why not turn Mary Beth’s “Sunday Dinners” idea into an interactive half-hour where the food writer travels the country collecting viewers’ favorite family recipes as they whip ‘em up in their kitchens?
Then again, for someone whose claim to fame is her ability to describe food in a way that makes audience want to lick their TV screens, Mary Beth actually got out-vocabularied by sandwich king Jeff during the Best Thing I Ever Ate challenge. I chuckled a little when Mary Beth told a Chelsea Market crepe maker that his confection was “as thin as ladies’ lingerie,” but I’m not really sure that’s the kind of association that’s going to get stomachs growling. I expected her to whip up an improved metaphor when she finally got in front of the camera, but all Mary Beth could come up with was “a millimeter of crunch, and another milimeter of beautiful, pillowy, velvety crepe.” Jeff, meanwhile, conveyed his message not only through his words, but in his ravenous intonations: He described his Rueben with such dreamy decadence, I could practically feel the rendered fat rendered fat seeping through the sandwich and onto my fingers.
Mary Beth’s credibility also suffered during the Star Challenge, where the final five were asked to serve roasted meats to a panel of stand-up comics who would, in turn, “roast” the chefs during their presentations. (Were those some of the most under-seasoned insults you’ve ever heard? Yes, I’m looking at you, Gilbert Gottfried.) When Camera Challenge winner Jeff assigned her with duck, Mary Beth resorted to getting detailed instructions from her butcher. How this is any different from hitting up Google and copying part of a recipe is a mystery to me, but in her defense, at least that blackberry glaze seemed to spring directly from Mary Beth’s own imagination. And while the professional food writer got labeled “pedantic” by the panel of comedians by rambling about duck musculature, at least she didn’t weep openly or discuss the date her bird was slaughtered.
Whitney, on the other hand, washed away her perky sorority girl veneer with real tears when she described how her parents supported her shift from engineering to cooking, but as comic Judy Gold pointed out, you don’t want to finish watching a show and end up feeling like you need to give the host a hug. But it was Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza who scored the night’s best line, in response to Whitney sharing that the pig she’d cooked had been “slaughtered last Monday.” “I can taste the pig’s personality,” deadpanned Plaza. “He was really happy.”
When the judges finally swung the axe, Whitney seemed a little miffed. “I don’t think I should be going home, but someone’s gotta go home and tonight, unfortunately, it’s me,” she sighed. But she had to know that she and Mary Beth were the wilted lettuce and cold porridge options on a menu with three potentially five-star dishes. Her elimination was an inevitability.
Of the three actual contenders, Jeff seems to be pulling away from the pack with consistently good food and a stellar personality. Oh, and according to Susie Fogelson, dude is also displaying a “subtle sexiness.” (Must be that sweat-drenched headband of his.) Seriously, though, I actually guffawed when Jeff asked the butcher about “vegan options,” and got an added chuckle hearing him describe suet as “how nature wanted you to deep fry.” Susie (the contestant, not the judge) served far and away the most attractive and complex looking plate of food, and I was genuinely touched by her tale of growing up in a family that migrated from Mexico to pick “every vegetable in season.” As Bob Tuschman noted, you can teach a contestant additional camera and cooking skills, but they have to be born with a winning personality. (Wait, was that a final dig at Penny?) Side note: Did anyone notice the look of pure panic the spread across Mary Beth’s face when Susie returned to the kitchen with a big smile and the news that she’d nailed her presentation?
And then there’s Vic, an extremely likable (and likely marketable) presence whose culinary credential still feel ever so slightly suspect. His giant slabs of prime rib and gloppy potatoes lacked any finesse whatsoever, and had Bob comparing it to “Medieval Times.” In fact, Bob’s followup comment about the meal might just have easily been describing Vic himself: “When I saw that big hunk of meat, that prime rib, coming towards me yesterday, it’s so cartoonishly exaggerated — I’ve driven Korean cars that have weighed less than that hunk of prime rib — it’s dispiriting because you can’t take it seriously.” But it’s not Vic’s size, really, that’s the issue. I think it’s his lack of confidence in his point of view: When the panel of comics and judges shot down his “Vic Vegas” persona in favor of his “Mama’s Boy” alternative, the burly dude gave up his silly surname without any hesitation. And then we had Bobby Flay talking about a change back to the moniker on his birth-certificate: Vic Mo. “Doesn’t that feel much realer to you?” Wait a second. I thought judges changing contestants name was exclusively the territory of Tyra Banks on America’s Next Top Model. The question in my mind is this: If Vic gets booted and fails to score a Food Network deal, which name will he use professionally? In a competition that’s always pushing for authenticity, that’s a question I’d have liked the panel to ask.
What did you think of this week’s Food Network Star? Did the right person go home? More importantly, did it matter if it was Whitney or Mary Beth? Is there any way it won’t come down to a Jeff-Susie-Vic final three? And who do you want to win it all? Sound off below, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!