Alex Guarnaschelli's Star Report: A Culinary POV Pie for the Premiere


There’s always so much hype and nerves when a competition gets off the ground. You sit in the greenroom with all the other contestants, laughing (and, in my case, devouring several bags of BBQ potato chips ... ) and chatting about where you’re from and what you cook. A blast of chilled air runs through the room as soon as the producer enters. It goes from a fun little meet 'n' greet to an unsolved "whodunit" mystery in a hot second.

The most-important aspect of the first episode is getting a look at each contender before elimination. What difference does elimination make, you wonder? Well, as soon as someone gets sent home, a door on complete, free expression and disclosure closes. Contestants fear every little comment they make to the judges. Every sprig of parsley, every lemon wedge could be the wrong move and land them on the next flight home.

Let’s face it: Being the first person sent home is always an added kicker. Contestants on Chopped will say to the judges: "I don’t mind not winning. I just don’t want to go home in the first round." That’s only partially true. EVERYONE wants to win. The stakes are particularly high here because the winner has accolades, bragging rights and a shot at a great culinary future on television!

Sunday night's episode of Food Network Star started with Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis and the first challenge. Oh, and because this pressure cooker’s lid can’t get any tighter, we added Valerie Bertinelli and Tyler Florence to the judges' table.

When I compete and see a panel of judges of that caliber, I look at the pantry and want to run and hide, or just serve a slice of buttered toast. Every ingredient seems wrong. Every signature dish I’ve made in my life has some imaginary flaw I make up on the spot! My grandmother’s chicken piccata will be too lemony for Bobby. My crab cakes will be too spicy for Giada. The point is to make food that describes who YOU are. These new finalists are in a movie theater (in an unfamiliar kitchen, no less) cooking for four superstars who have lasted in TV for years — decades, really! What would you make?

Let’s discuss each contender in pie formation, plus some ways they could improve (let's call those tweaks for next week my "a la mode suggestions"). If you haven't seen the premiere episode yet, we're about to break down each finalist's performance, so don't read any further until you watch.

Monterey Salka: Milk chocolate "rock 'n' roll" pie. Too much of a good thing? Ice cream: rocky road

"The rock 'n' roll chef" wants to be the female Anthony Bourdain and describes her culinary POV as "food isn't scary." She can clearly cook, and the judges love her food. Her presentation falls apart with breaks in her story and cursing. Lots of potential here, but Monterey comes across as a little scattered. It’s in her hands.

Martita Jara: Pumpkin spice. She's spicy! Ice cream: apricot

The Comeback Kitchen winner and wildcard is really charming. She has won the confidence of judges Tyler and Valerie, and she makes a black bean apricot crisp that wows. Judges found she "fell off the bull" a bit in her presentation. I agree. She is still one to watch. Love the jazz hands and sparkles!

Aaron Crumbaugh: A shepherd's meat pie, for sure, but what beyond beef? Ice cream: no flavor!

A chipper former model and family man is our future "meat man" for Food Network? While Aaron's coffee-rubbed steak with chimichurri was a great idea, the judges found it lacked salt. Do you see Bobby’s face when someone forgets to salt food? This self-described "farm boy ... chef ... stay-at-home dad" (whaaat?) needs to reel it in and put it all out there if he wants to cook bison steak for America.

Erin Campbell: Savory cheese pie. Can she do savory? Ice cream: berry crumble

She is so charming and to the point. "Haters gonna hate, baker gonna bake." Ha! She makes a berry cobbler that Giada loves for it’s appropriate almost-but-not-quite-there "jellified" factor. I love her Hispanic and Irish roots and that she doesn’t apologize for who she is. Definitely someone to watch. Question is: Can her range stretch to savory cooking?

Rob Burmeister: Buttered rum pie is warm and on point. Ice cream: fudge lunch-lady ripple

Rob is our resident Staten Island "lunch lady" who wants to educate kids. "I’m Guy Fieri times 10!" he exclaims. The judges love his crab cake with corn. I could taste that deliciously pure corn flavor as I watched the judges eat. Rob is a natural comedian and comes across as so real. He is definitely one to watch.

Joy Thompson: Lady apple pie. Too simple? Ice cream: blue cheese

Joy is a combination Miss North Carolina 1999, a rapper and a Brady Bunch mom. She comes out of the gate with her blue-cheese-scallop-bacon crostini and a catchy, strong tag line: "South in your mouth." But Tyler Florence thinks the scallops were overcooked. Presentation: strong. Food: needs work!

Jernard Wells: Ruffled ambrosia triple-chocolate mud "love" pie. Is he laying it on too thick? Ice cream: truffled butter pecan, of course

The self-described "chef of love" from Atlanta is clearly conducting his own seduction dinner with America. Considering he and his wife have nine children, I’d call his "recipe" for food and love a success! His shrimp-and-grits dish is a hit with the judges, but they question whether he can do "original" food. I think he has a great POV connecting food and love — and a tag line to boot. He will be tough to beat.

Ana Quincoces: Cuban quince-mamey pie. But how to fuse Latin and American? Ice cream: chile-vanilla swirl

She is a triple threat: food experience, rich stories and a beauty queen. This will be a tough contender to unseat. Why do I see Ana as so promising? She can cook. Her Cuban take on a burger and fries wows with great flavor. This woman not only intends to weave Latin flair into the food of America, but she backs it up with a great first dish. But will she choke again during her next on-camera moment?

Tregaye Fraser: She made a humble pie and hid behind it! Ice cream: spumoni

Tregaye's tag line is "keep it cute" and she does. Perky. Energetic. Youthful language that’s "on fleek" with a younger audience. Tregaye sees her future Food Network show flipping school cafeterias into fine-dining establishments. Her shrimp and "electric slide" grits are a hit, but her presentation is lukewarm. Where did the original Tregaye go? If she sticks with her original "recipe," she will light up this field of contenders.

Damiano Carrara: Italian cannoli pie, but don't hide behind that great accent! Ice cream: amaretto

This is our Italian stallion of the bunch, and he knows it. A (likely?) disciple of Cutthroat Kitchen champ Fabio Viviani, Damiano has a desire to share his pastry dreams with America, and it is compelling. So is his accent and smile. Then Tyler bites into his steak tartare and asks, "Do they have salt in Tuscany?" Ouch. My question is, if Damiano is all about the pastries, why did he choose a deeply savory steak tartar as his first dish? POV comes out in the ingredients these contenders choose. I’d say the "steaks" are high for Damiano to deliver next time around.

Yaku Moton-Spruill: Coconut cream pie. Tasty. Ice cream: banana split decision

Yaku is 6 feet 9 inches of pure love for food and cooking. Yaku’s "Bar-B-Ku" steak dish aims to share his identity with the judges, but underseasoned meat leaves Tyler questioning the connection between Yaku’s hometown of San Francisco and Southern BBQ. Yaku is all charm and smarts, but will he share who he is with America?

Melissa Pfeister: Goji berry acai antioxidant pie. Too healthy? Need more fun? Ice cream: peanut butter

She is an athlete and a healthy eater; her lifestyle is her point of view. Her tag line of taking "foods that are not good for you and re-creating them in a healthy way" and harping on allergies doesn’t sit well with Giada. I agree. Food: strong. Presentation: might need a new set of adjectives.

Havird Usry: Georgia peach pie. Ice cream: Southern comfort

This guy grew up in Mississippi and lives in Atlanta. He embodies the "Southern gentleman" and cooks the food so many Americans love to eat. Havird whips up a "curry chicken salad" (were those strawberries on the chicken salad?) and is definitely low energy on his presentation. Ana says he’s "adorable," but he seems very bunched up that other chefs are angling for the Southern cooking POV. I say, focus on who you came here to represent: yourself! But unfortunately he doesn't get another chance to try this week. Havird goes home. He was wonderfully charming, but he may have let nerves get the best of him.

Let’s go to my "pie" chart for suggestions for next week: