Any suspense about who was going to take home the top prize on Food Network Star completely dissipated early into the Season 7 finale when silky-haired judge Susie Fogelson finally verbalized the thought bubble that’s been forming over her head for the last four or five weeks: “I love marketing this idea,” said the network’s branding honcho, eyes burning with dollar signs, as she made the case of keeping Jeff “Sandwich King” Mauro in the competition. “For what I do, I love this guy.”
And honestly, who can argue with La Fogelson? From Episode 1 all the way to the finale, Jeff maintained a strong and tasty point of view, made very few egregious food blunders (except for maybe that ghastly meat cupcake), and proved to be likable, authoritative, and genuinely funny on camera. That combo of skills not only set him far apart from his Season 7 competitors (except perhaps Susie Jimenez) but put him ahead of more than a few established Food Network and Cooking Channel veterans.
Before Jeff could assume his Sandwich King crown, however, he had to survive a two-part test of his skills. As our final three of Jeff, Susie, and The Culinary Artist Formerly Known as Vic Vegas arrived at Food Network studios ready to shoot their pilots, Giada De Laurentiis burst in with her best chipper smile to inform them that the show was breaking with tradition and eliminating one more contestant before test episodes would be shot. (Mercifully, there were no Italian words on the teleprompter to bring out Giada’s inner enunciation monster.) I kinda figured Vic was toast (with seven or eight too many ingredients) when he announced he’d be trying to boil down the Italian seven-fish tradition into one dish, and that initial feeling of doom was only exacerbated when the editors included footage of him getting splattered by a rogue blender.
Susie nailed her food and her presentation with a twist on her dad’s carnitas recipe, while Jeff deconstructed his dad’s eggplant parm (and told a funny story about Papa Gus’s penchant for late-night sandwich experimentation). I was amazed how the last two words of Giada’s critique changed her intention from exceedingly enthusiastic feedback to the kind of compliment that’s buried under 10 lbs of context. “That was one of my all time favorite sandwiches that I’ve had,” Giada chirped, “from you.”
Vic, however, didn’t bring enough charm or expertise to his demo on making zuppa di pesce. The big dude’s personal stories always lack the kind of vibrant color that would turn them from generic familyscapes into specific and entertaining TV tales, and combined with his inconsistent culinary offerings, he proved to be the right choice for elimination. Vic took it all very graciously, saying he was headed out into the world to figure out what could make him a better Food Network fit. (Maybe gaining the ability to rest his arms against his torso? I kid! I kid!)
With Vic’s burly body pushed off the plank, it was time to shoot pilots with some help from “director” Guy Fieri. (Anyone else ever imagine Giada going cray-cray pronouncing dude’s last name? “Fee-yay-it-tee!” “Feee-ayyy-teeee-yah!” “Fiat-eeeey-ay-uh-teee!” Gah! Someone make her stop already!)
Guy didn’t dispense much in the way of practical advice, but I did get a chuckle out of his big, enthusiastic, non-fakeout for Jeff and Susie: “For one of you, your life will never, ever be the same — IN A FANTASTIC WAY!”
Both Jeff and Susie struggled on camera, or so the editing had us believe, until their respective fourth and final takes. And then it was time to screen pilots in front of the selection committee — plus a focus group of all the eliminated Season 7 finalists. (Cut to shots of Penny pushing a koala into a vat of hot chicken stock.) As Bob Tuschman pointed out, both Jeff and Susie could be described with adjectives like “approachable” and “accessible,” and so it probably came down to the fact that Food Network already has one series about Mexican cooking, and zero about sandwiches. Honestly, I’ve been Team Jeff all season, but Susie performed so well the last few weeks of competition, I wouldn’t have been devastated if she’d scored the upset.
In his pilot, Jeff was funny and believable talking about wanting to buy a meat hammer for his son Lorenzo when he turns three, and extolling the virtues of crispy onions. Plus, the guy delivered a killer tagline: “You’re only a couple steps away from turning any sandwich into a meal, and any meal into one fantastic sandwich.” Howie, the first and worst contestant booted this season, whined that Jeff’s pilot had “too much schtick,” but Penny actually managed to cook up a positive: “Watch out Guy. Watch out Emeril.” (I kind of agree!) Vic, tragically, made this declaration: “One word for ya: Wow, brother.” Oh, Mr. Mo, that’s two words, not one.
Susie got a little more gussied up than Jeff for her pilot, and she, too, ended up previewing a show that I’d be interested in watching. Her sopes looked mouth-wateringly good, and once again, she shared a story about her parents that was sweet and believable. Even her parting comment about eating with her hands, not a fork, proved she’d finally learned to make her energy more adorable than manic. Penny, never one to try to squelch that horrible myth that women can’t get along with other women, snarled that Susie “wasn’t as engaging” as she was in her on-camera challenge earlier in the season at Mel’s diner, but offered nothing in the way of supporting evidence.
Anyhow, despite the fact that Bob wished aloud that “joie de vivre” was a “Mexican” term, the selection committee ultimately chose Jeff over Susie. Cue scenes of Jeff’s happy wife and baby celebrating with the newest Food Network star. Now let’s make some sandwiches!
What did you think of the Food Network Star finale? Did the right person win? Will you actually watch Jeff’s show when it premieres? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!