I realized last night while watching episode 2 of this season’s “Next Food Network Star” that they are really putting the contestants through the wringer this time. The first two weeks they were thrown into the fire so to speak, having to get in front of a camera and ad lib with almost no time to think about it. That does, however, truly separate those who have it from those who don’t.

So they began with this season’s mentor, Giada Di Laurentiis, having the remaining 11 chefs each take one part of her vegetable lasagna, and do that step while presenting it to the camera in one minute. I’m quite sure this is 100 times harder than it looks, and most of them had at least one flaw. Paul was too hyper; Aarti, Tom and Brianna all froze at one point; Serena talked to fast; Brad said the word “nice” about fifteen times; Aria talked as if her audience was a bunch of toddlers; DAS squeezed some frozen spinach as if he was in a desert and found a wet sponge; Dzintra was weird as ever; and Herb had the cheese step and referred to himself as being cheesy. Nice, Herb. Doreen actually did pretty good with this challenge.

Then it came time for the main challenge, and they introduced Duff Goldman, a.k.a. the Ace of Cakes. Apparently dude was a chef before he was a baker, so he announced the challenge–that they would be catering a party for 100 of his friends. And they had to do it on the Santa Monica Pier, while taking favorite carnival sweet treats and turning them into a savory bite using that sweet treat as a theme, and also while incorporating their own point of view.

Paul had caramel corn and made some sort of Asian chicken with caramel corn topping. Really dude?

DAS turned the lemonade theme into lemon pepper chicken wings.

Dzintra had cotton candy and made some sort of really strange duck bites with meringue and berries. Say what?

Herb had lollipops and made smoked salmon and cream cheese lollipops, making sure to incorporate his “healthy” point of view nicely.

Aria made a meatball appetizer out of a banana split theme

Tom had churros and made some sort of mahi dish with cinnamon aioli.

Aarti made a tandoori chicken out of a funnel cake theme, and it looked really good

Brianna had candy apples and made an Asian chili meatball

Serena had chocolate covered ice cream cone and made cheese croquettes with homemade tomato sauce

Doreen made pulled pork using root beer for a root beer float theme

And Brad had circus peanuts and made barbecue smoked pork using peanut shells to smoke it.

Of course, making the food was only part of the grading process…they also had to present their dish to the 100 guests as well as to the judges, which included Duff as well as regulars Bobby Flay, Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson.

The best of the week, for both food and presentation, were Serena, Aarti, DAS and Aria. And they chose one winner who really nailed it, and that was Aarti, despite the fact that she had shown a lack of confidence while presenting her dish. Serena was funny too, shouting out in joy to her deceased grandmother when they told her how tasty her sauce was. Needless to say, that group of four was safe this week.

Next up to safety was Herb, Brad (despite burning his pork and having Flay tell him it was inedible), Tom (despite making a dish the judges didn’t love), and Brianna despite being “aloof” to the guests.

That left Doreen, Paul and Dzintra. Doreen struggled with her point of view last week and again last night, as she blurted out that her point of view was “good food” or something broad like that. Ha! Paul’s food was not only not very good, but he basically made something and threw caramel corn on top, not really understanding the challenge, and then he was hyper to a fault, putting off some of the guests. Dzintra just made a mess out of the challenge food-wise and as one of the judges pointed out, keeps “getting in her own way.”

Paul was the first one sent back to safety, so it was between Doreen and Dzintra. Mrs. Mike said she couldn’t wait until Dzintra was eliminated, but would it be last night? Nope…it was Doreen….with her vague point of view and the fact she was in the Bottom 3 two straight weeks.

So now we’re down to 10 contestants….the same as what we started the last few seasons at. As always with these reality shows, a few stand out as potential stars and most of them are just biding time until they are sent home. I’m not saying the judges’ jobs are easy, but they sure seem easier at this stage than later on in the season.

Who do you like this season? Aria looked great last week but faltered a bit this week, while DAS really stepped up his game. I like Tom, but he might be too goofy and not a good enough chef. And of course, Aarti really brought it this week and vaulted herself into contention. She just has to believe she can win.

Thanks for reading and see you all next week!