Alex's Star Report: The Realities of Live TV

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What's more nerve-racking than live TV? On Food Network, I can handily say, not much. You make a mistake, you miss a line, you don't describe your food ... guess what? You don't get a second chance. It's out there forever, and I don't think our Food Network Star finalists are ready for writing their story in indelible ink.

Food Network is an ever-changing hotbed of cooking trends and new ingredients. For the initial challenge, Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis divide the remaining nine finalists into three groups of three. Ana, Erin and Rob tackle the hot list of new spices and ingredients, while Jernard, Yaku and Monterey are in the "Frugal Is Fashionable" department and cook with a portion of ingredients we Americans might commonly throw away, such as broccoli stems, cauliflower cores and stems. The third team, comprised of Damiano, Joy and Tregaye, has to cook a whole meal on one sheet pan.

The moment of truth?

Entertainment Tonight stars Kevin Frazier and Nancy O'Dell take the finalists through their live segments, asking questions and commenting as they go. Erin doesn't tell us what miso is, Rob seems amused and Ana melts down in silence. Live TV is tougher than you think!

Tregaye and Damiano manage to skate through, and Joy really shines. Joy engages Nancy and Kevin as she takes them through her dish. Joy is also able to connect life experience to her food, and it makes all the difference. On the road to Food Network stardom, your real life in cooking ideally becomes one with the viewers.

Jernard playfully discusses replacing basil with other greens in pesto. Great idea and it's quite a feat to give solid cooking tips under such pressure. I just worry that Jernard has a shtick that prevents viewers from connecting with his authentic self. Monterey smartly links food and her background in fashion with a tasty cauliflower dish, and

Yaku's broccoli stem work is creative and inspiring. Yaku is tearing a page from Bobby's playbook: If you know how to cook, connect with the audience by using that skill. Jernard, Monterey and Yaku handily win the challenge, and they all become team captains for the Star Challenge.

The challenge? Room service for VIPs.

Cooking for anonymous, upscale, discerning clients in a hotel, the three captains pick their own teammates. As Jernard, Monterey and Yaku make their choices, Ana is "the last one picked," Rob observes. Not a great feeling. We've all been the last one standing for dodgeball, and this isn't much different than a vulnerable moment in a high-school gym. When finalists sense weakness, they pounce.

Jernard, Rob and Joy make a strong trio here and so do their "Afternoon Tea" dishes: crab rangoon (Jernard), lobster salad sandwich (Rob) and a roasted vanilla bean cake (Joy). Yum. I want this menu while lounging in a silken hotel robe, for sure!

Yaku, Tregaye (those two seem to stick together) and Damiano make a "Honeymooner's Holiday" menu with shrimp (Tregaye), surf and turf (Yaku), and a puff pastry gelato dessert extravaganza (Damiano). Lots of heart-shaped foods (fillet, puff pastry) reinforce their theme, as do their opulent ingredient choices: crab, lobster, puff pastry. I think the honeymoon theme might have given some of the strongest contenders a slight advantage.

Monterey, Erin and Ana are tasked with cooking a spa menu. The headliners: crab and lobster (Monterey), white chocolate mint mousse (Erin), and salmon with guava (Ana). They have 45 minutes to cook these dishes. While cooking light for spa menus can be tricky, it can also provide an advantage when the judges enjoy lighter fare in the midst of all that eating. It's a subtle advantage, for sure.

So this challenge is totally easy, right?

A little too easy?

Yes.

Cue the anonymous and discerning room service client: Jesse Tyler Ferguson from Modern Family. With Giada and Bobby present, he calls two of the teams (mid cooking!) and makes a series of last-minute changes to their dishes. Jernard's crab? Can't be fried. Rob's sandwich? Can't be on pumpernickel bread. Joy's vanilla cake? Has to be two flavors — not just one flavor — of cake. Oof. The redirect? Brilliant. Jernard bakes his rangoon, Rob turns his sandwich into a lighter lettuce wrap, and Joy makes both lemon and vanilla cakes.

Becoming a Food Network Star definitely includes adapting to change on the fly. I honestly love the idea of a lettuce wrap for lobster. It feels like something I would eat poolside at a hotel. I just wonder if Joy's lemon cake will eclipse the beautiful vanilla flavor. Jesse continues his playful reign of room service terror by calling the spa team and saying that he is allergic to shellfish (Monterey changes her type of fish), asking to remove guava (Ana brilliantly subs in figs) and requesting no chocolate in the trifle (Erin subs in almond).

The other surprise room service client, Hannah Hart, calls the "Honeymooner's Holiday" team members and informs them that the surf and turf must have no red meat (Yaku subs in chicken), the shrimp must have Mexican flair (Tregaye subs in the distinctive cilantro) and the gelato has to be made without any dairy (Damiano daringly shifts to a last-minute liquid nitrogen sorbet). While the finalists brilliantly adapt and make beautiful and tasty-looking food, I honestly couldn't predict the winning team.

Some weak dishes, some weaker presentations left me confused about the top dog here. Joy, for example, says she is "as nervous as a cat on a porch full of rocking chairs," and it shows. Rob's use of lettuce instead of pumpernickel bread makes his beautiful lobster sandwiches literally fall apart when the judges pick them up.

Just when I decide team "Afternoon Tea" might emerge victorious, Jernard's dish is deemed heavy and his rangoon lacks filling. So I put my money on team spa, and Erin's runny mousse dessert makes me think twice. Team "Honeymooner's Holiday" you might say won? Me too. Except Yaku's lobster is raw. Le sigh. If we viewers can't peg the winners, how can the judges? Food Network is a tapestry of personalities. With just nine (soon to be eight) remaining in this competition, I am starting to see a theme with the judges' comments.

The top three: Tregaye is coming into her own, Ana's strong cooking is keeping her afloat and Damiano is winning people over with the gnocchi-camper-Italian-farm-hand(?!) look. Erin, Joy and Monterey don't get much feedback. I think Joy is strong, and Erin is so fun, but I want to see her range stretch beyond muffins, cupcakes and mousse. And Monterey just needs to take a series of deep breaths.

The bottom three surprises me: Jernard, a wordsmith, for sure, but can we get to his real-life vibe? Yaku is such a strong chef, creative and resourceful, but his lobster is raw! Rob's unfortunate shift from pumpernickel to lettuce turns his dish into a flop! It's a small, costly choice.

Yaku is sent packing, which is a shame because I think he is really coming onto his own. That same fate will be true for seven other finalists. Their only hope after that is Star Salvation (watch the first episode now!).

The web series Star Salvation kicks off with the Southerner Havird facing off against the cantankerous "meat man" Aaron and Yaku. And when the smoke clears in a few weeks, the Star Salvation victor will re-enter the competition for that second chance at Food Network Star. In the meantime, I'm headed for the kitchen to pack a gnocchi picnic for my camping trip and some miso cupcakes for breakfast!