Alex’s Star Report: Finalists Tackle the Challenge of Breaking Through to Viewers

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The pressure mounts. The finalists dwindle in numbers. Want the truth? I have picked my potential winner. That’s right. And I’m wondering if you’ve picked yours. But don’t think it’s so easy to tell whom my money is on for the win.

This week on Food Network Star we explore the nuanced art of persuasion. I always remind myself that viewers can’t taste the food I am cooking. Sometimes when I post images or short videos on social media I get comments asking me if Smell-O-Vision will soon be available or telling me that something I cooked looks beautiful. That’s how I know when I have been lucky enough to "break" the screen between the viewers and me and make them feel as if I am right there cooking alongside them. And that doesn’t always happen. It’s tough! It takes tons of practice, plenty of mistakes and failures, and some success. The only thing viewers can “eat” is our words — our description of the food being made. Of course, the expression “you eat with your eyes first” always applies, but being “real" can make all the difference.

There are only six finalists remaining, and it’s also just past the halfway mark. Bobby Flay is definitely doing that math. I can tell he is looking at each personality, each point of view, to see if each finalist has gelled into someone he would watch on television. That little Flay math equation is being calculated as each finalist steps up to the plate.

We begin with edible art. There are so many instances where food is transformed into different shapes (for example, bacon and eggs becoming two egg “eyes” with a bacon strip “smile”). Duff Goldman, who is so creative and expressive, is the guest judge for the Mentor Challenge. Duff is a guy I feel like I know from watching on TV. He’s the kid I would have loved to finger-paint with in kindergarten. I’ll bet he swirled all the colored paints into a perfect rainbow with a unicorn in the center! Duff has definitely become one of the major symbols for culinary (and baking) creativity on Food Network. For that reason, I would really want to win him over.

Erin is naturally excited that this challenge is seemingly going to involve baking. Is that a good thing? I don’t know if someone who can’t both cook savory food and make tasty desserts can handle the responsibility of becoming a Food Network Star. Did I say definitely not? No. And Erin is very talented. She’s also fabulously optimistic and perky. To me, that’s also a must for a Food Network Star.

As the nerves increase, the cooking in this first challenge becomes oddly shaky. Jernard’s pork-potato “lollipops” may be strong on flavor, but they make for the weakest visual. I love Jernard talking about his kids and his grandfather’s kids, but I need more range. He’s smooth. I just want to know there’s more "there" there. I personally love Ana’s “bikini” design via eggs Benedict and Erin’s meatloaf-turned-cupcake — two real standout dishes that honor the challenge and match the finalists' points of view. Erin’s use of mashed potatoes as frosting for her “cupcake"? Brilliant and inspired.

Rob burns his turkey-shaped turkey meatloaf, and Joy oddly pairs a delicious-looking macaroni and cheese with slices of raw kiwi — what? — to make a smiley face. I love the image, but I can’t imagine having a bite of kiwi between bites of macaroni. My fave? Damiano’s “tulip” risotto and radicchio dish. I can taste the pleasantly bitter radicchio and the creamy risotto through the screen for the brilliant combo that it is. My issue? Damiano takes us back to Italy once again. I so respect that Damiano’s point of view is fused with his heritage and pride for Italy. But I feel like he needs to round out that point of view with more than a geography lesson. I would love to see Damiano give a presentation without using the word "Italy." I love his little asides about enjoying tacos, for example, and I wish he would show more of his experiences in America.

Tregaye remains the one to beat. She really does. She is playful and “on fleek” with her “fleek nation.” I find her compelling to watch. My question? I believe we have seen her cook corn before. Don’t get me wrong: When I cook on TV, I definitely have repeat ingredients I turn to again and again. But this is a critical moment in the competition. Corn again? I would be careful with ingredient choices. Bobby and Giada each have the memory of an elephant. It’s not the time to repeat ingredients. It’s time to flex those muscles and show some range!

When Rhett and Link from Good Mythical Morning stop by to film “Will It” segments with the finalists, things start to unravel. The premise of this Star Challenge? Film a three-minute segment with each finalist asking the question of whether a certain ingredient “will” fit into a classic dish or concept. For example, Joy has to answer whether kimchi “will” integrate into a bread pudding. Jernard has to convincingly sink tuna into a patty melt. Some finalists get luckier pairings. Rob has to make hummus fit into a calzone. He deftly replaces the classic ricotta filling with silky hummus, and the result is tasty.

But Bobby questions whether Rob is improving, and Giada wonders if he has hit a “plateau." Those are not encouraging words, and I fear the worst for him. Erin really got a bum pairing with sardines and a quesadilla. I mean, let’s face it, sardines are great chilled and served in small increments, but can you see a sardine easily fitting into a warm quesadilla? Not so much. I don’t know what fish I would be less likely to sandwich in some tortillas, never mind top with cheese! To her credit, she embraces the sardines and puts “whole bites” of the fish (as opposed to small bits) in her tortillas. The result is fishy.

Joy gets an ingredient she hates (the kimchi), so she buries it in a bread puddingesque hushpuppy. Joy is a powerhouse. If she wants to win, she needs to channel those great Southern roots and expand her ability to cook with anything, even if it isn’t something she makes on the regular at home. Damiano’s great cooking as the resident ambassador for all things Italian is a home run as usual. But Bobby and Giada see no risk taken in his cantaloupe spaghetti and meatballs. I have not seen Giada disappointed in Damiano until now.

I think this competition has come down to some people who are consistently solid with cooking and some who are consistently solid with presentation. Two competitors are strong in both and they are starting to rise to the top. This episode asks radishes “Will It” eggs Benedict and octopus “Will It” mac and cheese. I’m still wondering which finalist will become the next Food Network Star.