The Next Food Network Star: and then there were three…

Is it just me or is this season of “The Next Food Network Star” flying? We are now down to the final three contestants, which means that in a couple of weeks we will have our new champion. I also have that same feeling I had last year…that is, that there is no clear-cut, Guy Fieri-like favorite. In fact, I think the network struck gold with Fieri and may never find anyone like him in this venue again. But that’s okay, because the producers and execs have to know that anyway.

So last night’s episode continued in Miami where the final four of Melissa, Jeffrey, Debbie and Jamika were greeted by Iron Chef Michael Symon at their hotel, the Eden Roc. Symon assigned them their first challenge of the day, a live cooking demo on a Miami network TV morning show. But what Symon didn’t tell them was that each of the chefs would be sabotaged in one way or another during their demo.

Debbie went first and planned on making crispy catfish with edamame succotash, because, you know, she’s Korean. But Michael replaced the catfish with chicken and took away a few other key ingredients. To Debbie’s credit, though, she didn’t flinch, rolling with the punches as if she knew what was happening. The judges were watching in another room and were very impressed as well.

Melissa was making a tapenade caviar with potatoes, but the host of the show was sabotaging her by throwing things into her dish, most notably a ton of extra hot sauce. Melissa was perturbed and started talking a mile a minute like she usually does when flustered, but otherwise she did okay.

Jeffrey was making a pea/arugula/gorgonzola grilled cheese sandwich, but for him there were constant technical difficulties. He had to maneuver a microphone and a knife at the same time, all while trying not to stab the host, and he did pretty good. Jamika was making an herb roasted chicken and kept dealing with failed time cues and interruptions. She was not having fun as she was being messed with and the judges picked up on that.

Debbie wound up winning the challenge, much to the delight, we’re sure, of Susie Fogelson. Then it was on to the main challenge, and since Michael Symon was a guest on the show this week, it was an Iron Chef challenge of sorts—not one in which they all used a common “secret ingredient,” but in which they would be tested again and asked to think on their feet. There were four wood fire grills and work stations with pantries set up for each contestant, and Michael LaDuke with Red Lobster was on hand to announce the challenge—they would each have to make a seafood dish of their own creation using one of several different types of fish on hand, as well as incorporating one form of shellfish. They had 45 minutes to do this, and Debbie had the first choice of fish since she won the initial challenge.

She chose tilapia with, of course, Asian flavors. Melissa chose Arctic char which she was going to marinate in citrus and grill. Jamika was making mahi-mahi with tropical flavors, and Jeffrey a barramundi with Mexican ingredients. But then came another twist. Symon approached each chef, and with the help of fellow judge and Iron Chef Bobby Flay, began taking away key ingredients from each contestant. They took each of them out of their comfort zones big-time—replacing Debbie’s Asian ingredients with Mediterranean flavors; Melissa’s citrus with habanero peppers; Jeffrey’s Mexican flavors with Asian ingredients; and Jamika’s pineapple with celery root. Damn. Each of them was flipping out, but none more so than Jamika, who had never worked with celery root before. In fact, Jamika was getting testy with judge and network executive Bob Tuschman….yikes.

But each of them wound up coming through. Debbie made her tilapia with fennel, orange and olives, but forgot to use the capers Flay gave her, and then tried to cover up that fact by lying about it….hmmm, Debbie lying? That never happens. But they all liked her fish. Melissa wound up sweetening and lessening the heat of the peppers and Flay was extremely impressed with that. She also slowed down her presentation this time.

Jeffrey made his barramundi with wasabi and other Asian flavors, and while he was worried about how it would all turn out, it indeed worked and the judges loved his dish. Jamika finally caught on to the celery root and wound up making the most of it, but the judges still weren’t thrilled with her freak-out.

At judgment time, one of them would have their dish featured on Red Lobster’s menu, and that person was Jeffrey. Because of that, he was also safe for the week, ensuring a spot in the final three. It came down then to Jamika, Debbie and Melissa. The judges talked about how each of them had something special to offer, but at this stage of the competition, they begin to look at them in terms of who will be a star for the network. Each of them had deficiencies, but each of them had great qualities. They talked about Melissa having finesse, but was she enough of an expert? Debbie showed she could handle adversity well, but she again showed a lack of integrity…of course, she is Korean. Jamika is an excellent cook but her “shutting down” and not having fun during the challenges was a negative.

So after deliberating and admitting that they had a very difficult decision, the judges sent Jamika home. Well, we all saw that coming, didn’t we? Melissa has been on fire lately, and Jeffrey was safe for sure. And we all know now how much Susie loves Debbie, but she is on thin ice. So there you have it….we are down to Melissa, Jeffrey and Debbie. Who is going to be your next Food Network Star? I’m going with Melissa, but Susie Fogelson may fight me on that. See you all next week!


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