Nothing like being thrown into the fire, huh? Last night, Season 5 of “The Next Food Network Star” kicked off with the ten finalists meeting in their cramped living quarters, and then being basically being thrown into a cage with wild animals…..well, you know what I mean. They had to cater a party for the network’s “sweet 16” party, where celebrities and Food Network stars would be eating their creations and critiquing them. Yikes.

The ten (Brett August (Washington Heights, N.Y.), Katie Cavuto (Philadelphia, Pa.), Melissa d’Arabian (Keller, Texas), Teddy Folkman (Alexandria, Va.), Eddie Gilbert (Manhattan Beach, Calif.), Jen Isham (Orlando, Fla.), Debbie Lee (West Hollywood, Calif.), Jamika Pessoa (Atlanta, Ga.), Michael Proietti (New York, N.Y.) and Jeffrey Saad (Los Angeles, Calif.). were broken up into two teams of five, with Bobby Flay picking those teams. Bretty, Teddy, Jamika, Melissa, and Jen made up one team and Michael, Debbie, Katie, Jeffrey and Eddie the other. Each team had $1200 to shop for their ingredients and five hours to prepare their dishes. The event would be held at Alex Guarnaschelli’s Butter restaurant.

Each contestant had to contribute one part of their team’s meal, and Brett and Debbie were chosen as their team leaders. Brett is one of those big-mouth, cocky types, but could he back it up? Meanwhile, Debbie made a critical mistake by not having a shopping list and going over budget, then having to carelessly empty the shopping cart of ingredients the other chefs needed. Oops. She also decided that they would serve a “community” dessert of pre-made angel food cake. Her teammates were not thrilled but nobody stopped her.

Each contestant had to step up to a micophone and talk about their dish, giving the judges (Flay, and Food Network execs Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson) as well as the assembled cast of stars (including Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis, Masuharu Morimoto, and Ted Allen) a glimpse into their stage presence, something that is equal to or even more important than their cooking ability.

* Brett made a squash soup and filet mignon with wine/mushroom sauce, something Duff Goldman (Ace of Cakes) referred to as jail or army food. But everyone loves Brett’s energy, cocky as he may be.

* Teddy’s potatoes gratin were raw, bringing back memories of Kelsey Nixon last season, but everyone loved the flavor of his dish.

* Jamika made a cold Jamaican style shrimp cocktail, with a jicama slaw underneath. The judges liked her slaw but not the shrimp, and they did like her presentation.

* Melissa, a mother of four, made apple tartlets that everyone absolutely loved. And she has a warm, bubbly personality.

* Jen made a very boring green bean dish, and while she was making it Flay was hovering over her in the kitchen, wondering how she could spice up something so bland. Jen’s answer was to add walnuts and cherry tomatoes, and you could sense her demise almost immediately.

*Michael’s point of view was “global-a-go-go” and he was also bubbly on camera. But the best part about Michael was that everyone loved his filet mignon.

* Debbie made crab cakes with spicy mayo, and while the judges all agreed that the crab cakes were just okay, the mayo brought the dish to another level. They also let her know that the angel cake idea was just poor judgment.

* Katie, a nutritionist, made what she claimed to be healthy dishes…a salad, and a chard dish.
She was bubbly to the point that one judge said she acted like a little girl. Yikes. Her food was pedestrian too.

* Jeffrey was California cool and has my early nod to possibly win it all. Dude is passionate about food and conveyed that to the audience, with Flay admitting that his description of the dish made him hungry. His dish was some sort of mushroom/zucchini concoction that really looked amazing…oh, and they all loved it.

* Eddie made some sort of BLT with no bread, and while it seemed like a good idea, it wasn’t a big hit with the crowd. Also, Eddie came across like a corporate speaker in presenting his dish.

Then all ten contestants had to face the music in front of Flay, Tuschman and Fogelson. The top three were praised and told to go back to their dorm–and those were Michael, Jeffrey and Melissa, with Melissa being the best of the whole bunch. Then, one by one, the rest were sent back to safety, until the bottom three of Brett, Eddie and Jen remained. Brett was safe, leaving Eddie and Jen. And it was Jen who took an early exit, the green bean dish her certain demise.

So that’s it….it usually takes a few episodes with these reality shows to get a feel for who the contenders and pretenders are, but right off the bat you get the feeling that the judges’ top 3 of Melissa, Jeffrey and Michael are very strong….and I like all of them. I also like the style/presence of Eddie, even though he was on the verge of being sent home..and with some tweaking, Teddy and Jamika could make some noise.

I can’t believe Season 5 is here already….and we’re right into the swing of things. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think!