The Next Food Network Star Season Premiere: Who Are Your Early Favorites?

I’m not sure who was in charge of casting Season 7 of The Next Food Network Star, but allow me to raise an Ina Garten-approved cocktail in this magnificent individual’s honor. Last year’s installment of NFNS was essentially an extended coronation march for the lovely Aarti Sequeira, whose victory against a bunch of overmatched tomato cans — many of whom seemed to lack basic cooking and/or on-camera skills — was never really in question.

Season 7, on the other hand, looks to be an entirely different kind of affair. At first glance, I’d say seven or eight of the 15 contestants featured in Sunday night’s season kickoff look like they have at least an outside chance at claiming the top prize of scoring their own Food Network series. And even the stragglers of the pack managed to spice up the cauldron with heaping tablespoons of drama, ridiculousness, and full-fledged crazy.

I’ve already got three early favorites, plus two longshot picks who look like they’ve got potential to improve as the season progresses:

Jeff: Maybe it’s because I’m obsessed with sandwiches (making them, buying them, eating them) but the easygoing Chicago dad’s idea for a series — Between Two Buns — sounds like the kind of thing that would immediately score a “series recording” status on my DVR (even if, at the moment, he’s more a prince than a king in the art of bread, meat, and cheese). Yeah, the ciabata of his chicken-ricotta-caramelized onion bite was a little dry, but is it Jeff’s fault the supermarket was out of brioche? Bonus points for the dude’s punny “Que Lime Pie” recipe title (even if Juba lost the funny in his translation).

Orchid: Won both season-premiere challenges (the latter with teammates Jeff and Juba), but deservedly so. Her pork skewers and cole slaw looked delicious, she gives off a quiet expertise about food, and she’s got a warm, inviting style on camera — although I’d dock her a few points for her cringe-inducing use of the term “Asian persuasion.”

Justin B: As a fishmonger and butcher, the hunky but slightly awkward contestant brings an intriguing point-of-view to the competition, and seems like he’s got the potential to improve with more on-camera experience. Does it make me a fuddy duddy to admit his washer-style earrings freak me out a little?

Longshot special: Judge Bob Tuschman had me cracking up when he noted you could call Vic’s show Empty Plate, but I’m glad the selection committee didn’t boot the tattooed dude just because he and Jyll collided in the kitchen and sent his calamari into a tragic free-fall. His missing lobster tails in the breakfast challenge were a less forgivable gaffe, but dude used the term “ballsagna,” and comes off like a foodier, funnier Vin Diesel.

As for the rest of the season premiere, I was happy the selection committee ousted hapless Howie, who couldn’t identify hummus while snacking off-hours with his fellow contestants, used the word “basic” at least four times during his first on-camera presentation (despite his media “expertise”), and admitted to being “a bit of a novice” in the kitchen. Oh, and worst of all, dude made what appeared to be the worst dish in the final challenge — a “dense, gummy, heavy” plate that Giada refused to credit as being “gnocci.” Guest judge (and my former boss), Entertainment Weekly’s Jess Cagle, chuckled that the dish, “reminds me of my childhood when I used to eat lemon drops and glue.”

Other howlers from the episode:

* Katy deciding it was a good idea to include two pairs of shoes on a kitchen counter to promote her impossible-to-understand series concept.

* Chris thinking that acting like a frat boy with roid rage was the equivalent of “saying hello in a hip way”

* Penny’s unrelenting aggression toward wildly insecure Alicia. I shouldn’t have laughed when the overtly hostile brunette repeatedly made a “buzzer” noise to cut off Alicia’s practice takes for her promo reel, but indeed I did. Ditto for this comment: “Poached pears? That’s what they serve at retirement homes because these people can’t chew!” And later, Penny’s passive aggression turned into open aggression, as she griped about Alicia while standing two feet away from her, as if she wasn’t in the room at all. As their teammate Justin D noted, the Penny-Alicia dynamic was like a wrestling match, though “not even a sexy one I want to watch.”

What did you think of The Next Food Network Star Season 7 premiere? Do you think it’s a more promising cast than Season 6? Who are your early favorites? Who would you like to see booted next? Sound off in the comments, and for all my reality recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!