It’s getting down to crunch time on “The Next Food Network Star,” as last night they went from six contestants down to five, and one of the five is going to have their very own show on the network soon. So judge and network exec Bob Tuschman called last night the “midterm” and for good reason….it’s the midpoint of the season, and the challenges centered around actual camera face time with Food Network star Rachael Ray.

The “mini-challenge” was to take “grown-up” food and make it child friendly. They would be judged by Rachael as well as a panel of three kids. Note to the show’s producers…whoever cast these kids did an excellent job, because they were hilarious, smart and very entertaining.
Anyway, Jeffrey and Jamika had tofu to work with; Michael and Melissa had brussels sprouts; and Katie and Debbie had squid.

Katie made a quinoa salad with fruit and marinated squid, and as I watched it I thought there was no way in hell a kid would eat that, let alone like it. But I was very wrong…they did like it and enjoyed Katie’s presentation. Debbie made something more kid-friendly, baked and breaded calamari and sweet potato chips with soy dipping sauce. Her presentation was a bit dry and slow, but the kids loved her food. Oh, and Debbie mentioned she was Korean, again.

Melissa made mashed potatoes with pureed brussels sprouts inside, and she served a couple of raw sprout halves with it without having time to explain why she did that. But the kids dug the food. Michael made a brussels sprout/tomato soup and had lots of fun, though he tripped over himself again during the presentation. It was awkward, but as always, his food was his saving grace.

Jeffrey made tofu nuggets over spaghetti and did an excellent job. The kids loved his food too.
Jamika made corn/tofu snack wrap and she ran out of time before finishing. Also, hers was the one that the kids really didn’t care for. Yikes.

Then they had to do this in front of a live audience on Rachael Ray’s daytime network show, and this time they had to turn kid-friendly food items into adult ones, and they had to work in teams. Katie and Debbie were assigned chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese. Michael and Melissa had tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and Jamika and Jeffrey had to work with hot dogs and baked beans.

Katie and Debbie worked excellently together, really playing off each other, and you could tell Katie has really improved each week in front of the camera. They made baked chicken nuggets and mac & cheese with shrimp. Debbie mentioned she was Korean, again. The judges liked the macaroni but said Katie’s chicken was too dry. The girl doesn’t seem to know how to cook poultry correctly, does she?

Michael, who I think makes tomato soup for every challenge, was in his wheelhouse here. He made a tomato and basil soup, and Melissa made grilled cheese skewers. But Michael froze in front of the camera…odd, because he’s very outgoing most of the time. Melissa did okay but was going 90 miles an hour. The judges liked both items but were really struggling with Michael’s struggles on camera.

Jamika and Jeffrey were not a good team at all, disagreeing on what to make and then just not working well together on camera. They made chorizo and shrimp dogs with rice & beans, and while their food looked good, the judges weren’t crazy about it, and they were less crazy about their presentation. Jamika just froze, but she couldn’t jump in because Jeffrey, like Melissa, was just flying through it and not shutting up. Definitely awkward.

At judgment time, Bobby Flay stuck up for Katie but Tuschman and Susie Fogelson were not big fans at all. They liked how Debbie was at ease on camera but that she mentioned she was Korean too often (ya think?) and that she needed to give a bit more on camera. Melissa was rushed and overthinking things but otherwise decent, and Michael, in his own words, kept “crashing” on camera and the judges knew it. When Flay asked him what he thinks about when the cameras roll, Michael said, “the depths of hell.” Yikes! They said Jeffrey talked too much and that Jamika just shut down, something that was a product of Jeffrey’s motormouth, and also a product of Jamika not trying to jump in.

Whew. So this was a tough call, but they sent back to safety, in this order….Debbie (because she’s Korean, and because Susie Fogelson loves her), Melissa (because she has great raw talent) and Jeffrey (because he also has great raw talent). So it came down to Michael, Katie and Jamika. Michael was sent back to safety, but he needs to get comfortable in front of the camera, and fast, if he wants to hang around any longer — good cooking skills are only half of the equation.

Jamika and Katie could have both gone home last night, but based solely on last night I thought for sure it would be Jamika. The judges cited Katie’s overall improvement, but sent her home because they just don’t feel she has the cooking skills or enough of a personality to host her own show on the network…and that’s the bottom line. Jamika, however, is in danger along with Michael.

So there you have it, we are officially halfway home this season, and next week the final five go to Miami, where they will take part in a larger network grill-fest. Who do you like to win this thing? I’m going with Melissa or Jeffrey, but Susie Fogelson will fight hard for Debbie, because, you know, she’s Korean.

See you all next week….