Last night’s episode of “The Next Food Network Star” featured two unique challenges. The first was a chili pepper challenge, in which the 9 remaining chefs had to stake their claim to a specific type of chili pepper on a table and then create at dish with it to present on camera for 30 seconds. The winner would have their dish featured at all three of Bobby Flay’s restaurants.

Paul made a scallop dish with habanero and coconut sauce; DAS made some sort of sushi with tuna; Aria made a pork tenderloin with chili marinade; Herb a yellow chili spring roll with crab salad; Brianna made chili and chicken kabobs; Serena had Anaheim peppers and made a salad with mango and avocado; Tom made poblano with chorizo; Aarti made a steak with serrano chutney; and Brad made chicken and shrimp with coconut peanut sauce using Thai chiles.

The worst of the challenge according to Flay and the other judges were DAS’s sushi and Herb’s spring roll. Herb immediately slipped into this depression that was kind of sad and made me feel really bad for him. He was left wondering if he should really be here. They really liked Tom’s dish and presentation as well as Aarti and Brad, but the winner of the challenge was Brianna. She can be corny and annoying at times (and by times, I mean all the time), but it really seems like she knows how to cook.

The main challenge of the episode was to take the comfort foods of the childhoods of three acclaimed chefs–Jonathan Waxman, Susan Feniger and Eric Greenspan–and re-invent said dishes to reflect their own culinary point of view. Waxman and Feniger were recently contestants on Top Chef Masters on Bravo, so it was cool to see them here. The contestants were broken up into groups of three–and each group was assigned to one chef. Tom, Aarti and Herb were assigned to Waxman; Serena, Brad and Brianna to Feniger; and Aria, Paul, and DAS to Greenspan.

Waxman’s dish was lamb with potatoes; Feniger’s was fried chicken with basic iceberg salad; and Greenspan’s was steak with macaroni and cheese.

Tom made a leg of lamb with smashed fingerling potatoes; Aarti made ground lamb kabobs with pomegranate molasses; and Herb made a lamb with shallot and red wine reduction. The judges liked Tom’s dish but loved Aarti’s. She appears to be a front runner more and more each week. Meanwhile, Herb swung and missed again.

Serena made an Italian style chicken cutlet that was heavy on the breading; while Brad and Brianna both made authentic fried chicken that, I swear, made me want to jump through my TV. Brad’s was with an aioli and Brianna’s was a chicken & waffles dish inspired by her own childhood since her dad had taught her to make it. The judges praised Brad and Brianna but didn’t love Serena’s take, saying it wasn’t authentic enough. I’m not sure why they stress point of view so much, but then berate the contestants when they don’t stay true enough to the task. Huh?

Aria made flank steak fajitas with jalapeno mac & cheese; DAS made a New York strip with 3-berry relish and a basic mac & cheese; and Paul took a huge risk by making a pork tenderloin with marscarpone and spaetzle. Yikes. DAS did not dazzle and his nervousness on camera shone through again. Meanwhile, Paul just veered way too far from the actual challenge, and Greenspan even made a comment that being Jewish, he never even ate pork growing up. Oops. And while they liked Aria’s dish, they didn’t love it…they only liked it more than the other two guys’ creations.

So the winners were Aria, Aarti and Brad–and each was safe from elimination this week. Next to safety were Brianna, Tom and Paul. I have no clue why they gave Paul a free pass, especially since he really messed up this challenge.

It came down then to DAS, Herb and Serena. Serena was declared safe, and then it was between DAS and Herb. Herb was given a pep talk by Flay about lifting his head up and getting back in it, and DAS was sent home. Bob Tuschman made the comment that DAS was getting slightly better each week, but he feared that by the show’s finale, he would not have progressed enough to be a network star. And that was a very correct assessment.

Okay, so we’re down to 8 now–Brad, Aarti, Serena, Herb, Aria, Brianna, Tom and Paul. I think we’re going to see Paul, Herb, Serena and Brad exit soon, and maybe Tom. But Aarti, Brianna and Aria seem to be the best overall performers when you combine cooking chops with TV appeal.

What do you think? Let me know in the space below, and see you all next week…