With the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop to this season’s “The Next Food Network Star,” it’s safe to say that the proverbial tides are turning as we move deeper into the competition. Two contestants have emerged as front runners quicker than you can blink, and a few others are regressing.

Last night’s episode began with “mentor” Giada Di Laurentiis announcing the initial challenge, which was to create a party bite based on a specific holiday or event, and using the three ingredients that were set before each of them in a picnic basket.

Brad had a bachelorette party and made a crostini with strawberries. Aarti had New Year’s Eve and smoked salmon was the centerpiece of her basket. Tom had a “ladies’ lunch” and made a croque monsieur sandwich, which is sort of like a sophisticated grilled cheese. Herb had a pool party and did turkey burgers. Brianna had a 5 year old’s birthday party and made chorizo taquitos. Say what? Aria had a Sweet 16 and went with finger sandwiches. And Serena had poker night and also made a crostini, which was a bit odd considering this was a “guy” specific theme.

Anyway, Herb stumbled over his words and his burgers weren’t great either; and Brianna, while she always delivers with her food, failed because she didn’t make something young kids would want to eat. So the judges decided they had the worst performances of this challenge.

The ones who did best were Tom and Brad. Tom was absolutely hilarious and is starting to come into his own more and more. Ditto for Brad, who delivered his best performance yet and is becoming really comfortable in front of the camera. So the judges declared them both winners for this one, and they would have an advantage heading into the star challenge.

For that star challenge, Ted Allen was on hand to introduce and describe the task. They would have to transform classic dishes into modern fare, at a house in Palm Springs that was the estate of none other than Frank Sinatra. Along with the regular judges Bobby Flay, Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson; Allen was a judge as were Maile Carpenter, editor of Food Network Magazine, and Cal Fussman, an editor with Esquire Magazine. Brad chose first and went with chicken cordon bleu, and Tom chose lobster thermidor. They assigned Aria pigs in a blanket; Brianna tuna noodle casserole; Herb beef stroganoff; Aarti deviled eggs; and Serena pineapple upside down cake. They had $200 to shop with and 30 minutes to actually cook. Yikes.

Anyway, Aria decided to make breaded shrimp with caviar. Some of the judges thought this was so far off the mark for pigs in a blanket, while others thought she really took a big risk and that it was admirable. Tom made a grilled lobster dish, but he tripped up with his presentation a bit because he was long-winded.

Brad made a bacon wrapped chicken over risotto and the judges absolutely loved his food and his presentation, because he really took the Sinatra theme come to life. Brianna went with a crab and brie casserole, but she, as Fogelson observed, sabotaged herself by claiming she was not a fan of tuna noodle casserole. She also burned her bread crumbs and couldn’t use them.

Herb made a “healthy” beef stroganoff, but he is failing to make his healthy food taste good, and not using his Cuban roots enough according to the judges. Aarti made a “devilish” eggs with red curry rice and forgot the curry. She has regressed a bit the last few weeks, and regressed a bit more last night; and Serena did a puff pastry pineapple dessert, but used frozen puff pastry. Oops.

The judges declared that Herb had the worst dish of the night, and the winner was Brad, again. So Brad was safe, along with Aria, Tom and Serena. On the chopping block were Aarti, Herb and Brianna. Aarti was safe, so it came down to Herb and Brianna. I thought it was Herb going home, and so did Mrs. Mike, but it was Brianna. She had great cooking skills and occasionally showed flashes of brilliance on camera, but in the end, her attitude toward some of the challenges, like last night’s, were her undoing.

So okay….we’re down to six–Aria, Aarti, Tom, Brad, Herb and Serena. The way this is going, Serena and Herb will likely be next to be sent home. I’m revising my Top 3 projections–Brad, Tom and Aria. Aarti has showed time and again that she doesn’t totally have her head in the game, and her confidence level is low.

So that’s it…..thanks for reading and we’ll see you all back here next week!