"Mama Raised Us All to Be Champions:" Of Likables, Shrimp and Long-Lost Italian Cousins — Jeff's Star Report

In his weekly rundown of the previous night's episode, past Star Jeff Mauro winner shares what's on his mind about the latest challenges and finalist unfoldings.
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Finalists Rue Rusike, Eddie Jackson, Michelle Karam, Sita Lewis, Emilia Cirker, Jay Ducote, Arnold Myint, Alex McCoy, Dom Tesoriero, Matthew Grunwald, Christina Fitzgerald and Rosa Graziano during the reveal of the Star Challenge, Food Star Showcase, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Eddy Chen, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Ahhh, early June is upon us. The flowers are in full bloom, the pollen count is off the charts, my tank-top tan is ripe and another cast of hopeful foodies — with often questionable culinary points of view — are presented before us in the grand parade known as Food Network Star. I could not be more excited for two reasons. First: I am, first and foremost, a longtime Food Network Star fan. And second: I am an alumni and winner of the show. Having been through this experience, I am the perfect person to guide us all through this season’s journey of ups and down, cuts and burns, unexpected challenges, and the ubiquitous quest for one’s culinary “personality.” Every Monday I'll be bringing you inside my mind for the latest dish on the previous night's contest.

It takes a lot of moxie to put yourself out there and audition for this show. An overnight process it is not. I tried out three times (getting very close once) before I was cast on Season 7. On that Sunday evening, when the premiere episode of Season 7 aired, my life instantly CHANGED. I know it’s a cliche statement, but from that point on my life has been a whirlwind wooden roller coaster of shoots, flights, appearances, the good and the bad, and tons and tons of fun. That being said, to whomever wins Season 11 of Food Network Star, I have a couple words of advice: Family is everything. Keep them close and be sure to have them remind you daily that, yes, indeed your poop does still stink. Be nice to everyone, especially the crew. Give back. My career has thankfully lasted, and I believe these are the reasons why.

OK, onto the premiere episode.

So on Day One, once the cameras start to roll and you are thrust into the throngs of a competition reality show, all bets are off. You have no idea when you're coming or going. No inkling whatsoever of what is coming next. Are you going to compete in a Star-themed Chopped challenge? Will your camera skills be tested or bested in a hyper-rushed 30-second segment on a national morning show? Will Geoffrey Zakarian pop out of an oversize Bundt cake and challenge you to a one-handed, one-eyed, seven-minute braise-off?

The anxiety and speculations run rampant, and this can affect every facet of a finalist’s personality and performance. This blends with homesickness, lack of creature comforts, and all the lights, cameras and boom mics into the perfect recipe for the most-entertaining job interview on television: Food Network Star. It wasn't easy when I did it in Season 7, and judging by this year’s cast, Season 11 will not be any easier.

First challenge: a 30-second intro to the judges. Being a winner and a naturally insecure individual, there are two things I look for when they introduce us to the new hopefuls. A: Is there a funny, chubby chef from Chicago with a penchant for comedy? And B: Does that person make sandwiches? I fought long and hard for this job, and I prefer to not have any direct competition. It’s ridiculous, but it’s the truth. It looks like we’re in the clear and my job is secure ... until ... ALEX. I’ll get to him later.

Finalists Eddie Jackson, Emilia Cirker, Alex McCoy, Christina Fitzgerald and Sita Lewis during the meet and greet, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Eddy Chen, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

First up:

Rosa: She’s reminiscent of everybody in my neighborhood and every fun, strong female in my life. I’d love to sit around a prep table with her while I shave mortadella on a deli slicer and she makes a fish salad while we both talk crap about 90 percent of the people in our lives.

Arnold: There goes my long-standing title of being the only drag queen/professional figure skater on Star. I love me some pizzazz, and Arnold is not pizzazz-deficient.

Sita: Definitely the first real point of view we’ve seen. I'm curious to see how she can meld two very strong culinary styles into one. Lots of confidence, too, but that out-of-the-gate confidence can quickly turn into "I miss my mommy" by the second challenge.

Jay: He's not the first cuddly, rootin’-tootin’ Southern-boy finalist this show has seen. The difference between Jay and the others? I believe him.

Michelle: Officially now my second favorite Armenian next to North West.

Dom: This guy! Another finalist who reminds me of 98 percent of the guys in my neighborhood. Can he gain the camera confidence necessary to become a Star?! Will he overcome his fear of the spotlight?! Will he give Matthew a “tune-up” for that knuckleheaded “wata” comment?! Tune in next week to find out.

Eddie: Pro footballer turned foodie?! Sure the guy's got sick traps and tris, but are his cooking and presenting skills as developed as his quads? These are questions I have to struggle with on a daily basis, on account of my muscles.

Emilia: Edgy food blogger. The only thing edgy thing about this one is her perfectly sculpted eyebrows (threading?). She could be the sleeper here. Once she gets over those first-episode nerves and straightens up her point of view, she just might bring it.

Christina: She is all over the map when it comes to her point of view, but there is time.

Finalist Matthew Grunwald introducing himself to the Selection Committee, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Eddy Chen, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Matthew: When you’re only 10 minutes into episode 1 and other finalists are already plotting an alliance against you (in a nontribal-based reality show), then you be making waves, brother! I guarantee this kid can cook hard, but I don’t necessarily care because, as of now, he is my absolute favorite. He’s like that one guy on The Bachelorette who gets completely hammered the first night and winds up ineffectively trying to organize a chicken fight in the hot tub but ends up passing out next to a fake plant. This guy will bring the crazy and thus will keep my eyes glued to the screen.

Rue: Mmmmm, southern African cuisine sounds so, sooo good. Now what is it again?

Finalist Alex McCoy introducing himself to the Selection Committee, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Eddy Chen, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Alex: I mean, my first thought was obviously: “Who the heck does this guy think he is trying to encroach on my hard-won career? Especially with such a strong chin and golden mane? Does he even realize of my existence? Did he watch past seasons?! Does he own Google or even Bing?!” And then I watched his presentation and realized he doesn’t even smile. And that brings me to the first installment of The Many Rules of Food Network Star:

Rule No. 1: Smile. Smile hard. Smile all the time: when you're talking, chewing, going to the bathroom. SMILE, dang it. It’s easy to do when you’re naturally happy, but these guys are anything but natural right now, so you must really sell yourself, your point of view, and eventually your food by at least pretending you like it and want to be there.

Guest Judge JD Heyman, Judges Susie Fogelson and Bob Tuschman with Selection Committee Giada de Laurentiis and Bobby Flay during the Star Challenge, Food Star Showcase, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Eddy Chen, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Now it’s time for the big-boy Star Challenge, when the real cooking and camera challenges begin. To raise the stakes, in walks Da Folgs and The Tusch (aka Susie Fogelson and Bob Tuschman), my two intelligent, attractive and very in-shape bosses. I feared them then; I still fear them now. And these contestants better fear them as well. Aim to please them and you’ll go far.

For the most part, everybody is excited to get to cooking, especially Dom, who just wants to cook and not deal with any more cameras. Off the bat, the food is looking good. It almost seems like a shrimp challenge: Jay is doing shrimp, Dom is doing shrimp, Eddie’s got some shrimp, and Rue is in a business class aisle seat to Shrimptonia. All the dishes look good, except for Christina's salad, which was ruined by a questionable mandoline. And that brings me to rule No. 2.

Rule No. 2: Don’t blame the equipment. Especially a mandoline. Own it.

The clock runs out and the finalists experience their first-ever, obligatory “times up/hands up” moment. I’ll never forget my first “times up/hands up” moment. It’s a beautiful thing.

Here are some highlights from the Star Challenge:

Alex not only steals my point of view, but also the opening line to my Emmy-nominated Food Network show, Sandwich King. Regardless, he presents really well, smiles a bunch and connects with the audience. Unfortunately, his sloppy sandwich falls flat with a case of giant red onionitis. I have a feeling he can cook well, and his on-camera skills are good. I’m starting to get nervous.

Finalist Rosa Graziano preparing her dish, Arancini, as Selection Committee Giada de Laurentiis and Bobby Flay watch, during the Star Challenge, Food Star Showcase, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Eddy Chen, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Rosa: It took her a good 15 seconds to get rolling, but once she got rolling, her sloppy arancini ball slowed that roll.

Rue: She’ll get there. I see a lot of potential.

Arnold: Spunky drag queen? Money saver? Party planner? Pick a lane and drive in it. He obviously can cook, so he’s got that going for him.

Emelia: She’s as edgy as a chicken breast. Have a pint of espresso and smile!

Jay: Authenticity will get you very far in this competition. The judges have an uncanny bull detector and can sniff out a fake from a couple of blocks away. Seriously, Tuschman is like a petite bloodhound, but instead of sniffing out a murder suspect in the backwoods of some Florida swamp, he sniffs out bull. Thankfully, at this point Jay doesn’t stink.

Dom: He needs to be groomed into a better performer. Dang. I like this cat and hopefully he can just let loose. There is charm there; it just needs to bust through like that alien in that dude's belly in that movie about aliens.

Michelle: There's something brewing here. If she uses her family as inspiration, I guarantee things will come together for her.

Eddie: I love the idea of “cheat day.” He needs to rein in his concept. A show with two healthy meals, and one cheat day meal? Great show and a possible great host. I'm intrigued.

Christina: When we hear the judges describe your food using the term “random chunks” (which ironically was my nickname in junior high), you have to get nervous. She looks practiced but maybe not practiced enough.

Mama Sita: Great presentation, but come on, mac and cheese? For your first challenge, you have to come out swinging and reinforce your personality and point of view through your food. How about giving them some of that soulful Italian POV with carbonara mac and cheese? I like her!

Matthew: #Security!

Finalists Matthew Grunwald, Dom Tesoriero and Christina Fitzgerald during elimination, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 11.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Eddy Chen, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Elimination: It is no surprise: Jay, Arnold and Eddie kill it. Alex, Michelle, Rosa, Rue, Sita and Emilia get a pass as well. That leaves Dom, whom everybody wants to watch grow, as well as Matthew, a wonderful train wreck who better stay in this competition. Christina's on the bottom, too, and “ruh roh” — I'm not feeling good about this. Who goes home?

Christina. Bummer. I liked her and saw a lot of potential, but unfortunately she was the first to go.

Overall, I’m jazzed to the max to watch Season 11 unfold. Matthew came out crazy guns blazing, and if anything, it will be a hoot watching his erratic behavior either intensify or pacify as the weeks progress. Regardless, there are a lot of hopefuls who have the golden ratio of television, cooking and smiling skills I’m talkin’ about you, Jay, Eddie, Arnold, Sita and, hopefully, my could-be cugino  Dominoooch.

To these finalists and all future Food Network Star hopefuls, remember this essential piece of advice, especially when you’re about to give up: Give in or lose hope. Remember,  Mama raised us all to be champions.

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