Slap Fights, Homesickness and a Decision to Leave — Jeff's Star Report

Hear from Food Network Star, Season 7 winner Jeff Mauro as he breaks down the seventh episode in hilarious fashion.
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Behind the scenes shot of Selection Committee Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis, with guest judge Richard Blais, and finalist Alex McCoy during the Star Challenge, Food Truck Showdown, 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

We begin this episode with a quick (yet tasty) amuse-bouche of heavy foreshadowing, served by the only remaining female finalist, Michelle. According to my brain muscle, she might be going home today.

That being said, we begin the day with a round of brunch confessions. Guess what? Dom likes meatballs and girls for brunch, Eddie likes steak and grits for brunch, and International Man of Mystery, Alex, is addicted to that classic brunch dish of chipped beef on toast. Brunch, brunch, brunch, crunch. Who doesn’t love a good ol’ brunch? It’s the most relaxing of all weekend breakfast-lunch hybrid meals. It’s the only time of the week when it is A-OK to drink unlimited Cold Duck mimosas with your friends and loved ones. It truly is the only meal of the week where you can eat pancakes and lamb shanks — SIMULTANEOUSLY. Most of all, it’s the only time you can legally get drunk during breakfast. Brunch is the best! Right? Wrong, at least for the finalists, because now they have only 20 minutes to piece together a quality brunch dish — to go!

Finalist Arnold Myint preparing his dish Hash with Quinoa, Roasted Vegetables and Poached Egg on top for the Mentor Challenge, Portable Brunch, 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

They begin cooking. Eddie is taking risks with grits; Arnold is literally wrapping his brunch to go; Jay is sticking to his POV with an andouille hash; and Michelle is attempting to make two quiche (quiches?) in 20 minutes. Jet-setting Alex is SHOCKED at the lack of chipped beef in the pantry fridge. Never once have I ever opened a fridge in this great country and NOT found at least one small bucket of chipped beef. I remember when I was a young tot on the streets of Chicago. We would hang on the stoop all morning, singing doo-wop, wading in the spray of the fire hydrant and eating chipped beef on toast. But I digress ...

Time to present their to-go brunch bundles. Jay goes first and, as usual, he nails the presentation and the food. Dom is next, which always makes me nervous, but lo and behold his presentation was smooth and clean, unlike his smashed meatball and poached egg open-faced drip’wich. Arnold nails the storytelling, but Giada and Bobby disagree on the execution of Arnold's food. We then learn that Michelle’s children unfortunately are required to go to school on Sunday, which totally blows. So does her food, unfortunately. She is obviously missing her family and not in the right head space. I can spot reality show-induced homesickness from a mile away. Hopefully she can bounce back for the next challenge.

Mr. Chipped Beef does another menu read but saves his presentation with a heartfelt story. His food, according Giada, is a brunch dish fit for a baby. Eddie promises instant abs with his subpar grits-encrusted strip steak. If eating steak is a sure-fire way to instant abs, then I should be Joe Manganiello.

Behind the scenes shot of finalists Eddie Jackson, Michelle Karam, Alex McCoy, Dom Tesoriero, Arnold Myint, and Jay Ducote, and Guest Judge Richard Blais during the Star Challenge, Food Truck Showdown, 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

Jay wins the first round and earns an advantage in the next challenge. In walks talented guest judge Chef Richard Blais. He announces a food truck throwdown. Eddie and Michelle, Alex and Dom, and Arnold and Jay are the teams. Jay gets to choose each team’s truck theme. Jay chooses the burger truck and gives tacos to Alex and Dom, and the grilled cheese concept goes to Eddie and Michelle. Each team has to self-market its food truck by shooting a commercial in the hopes of drawing more customers to its truck than the other trucks.

They begin conceptualizing, and immediately I'm feeling me some Asian Cajun. When I did this same challenge during my season of Star, my team went with the "Balls on the Roll" concept (relive that moment with this photo). All meatballs, all the time. We shot an extremely goofy commercial complete with juggling and singing, and guess what? It bombed. Even though I thought it was brilliant, the audience was turned off by my innuendos. Regardless, people are still talking about it to this day four years later. Swing for the fences with creativity — that’s my motto!

The video shoot begins, and the contestants have three generous takes to nail their commercials.

Those two lovable cats Jay and Eddie start and get tripped up in a sea of meat and bun puns. Eddie and Michelle begin and just can’t get into rhythm — literally. Michelle is dancing around like my drunk aunts at my eighth-grade graduation party. The duo's delivery reminds me of an early '90s PBS infomercial for a '70s rock compilation album. Cheesy indeed.

Finalists Alex McCoy and Dom Tesoriero during the Star Challenge, Food Truck Showdown, 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

Dom and Alex go next and decide that the best way to attract food truck customers is to slap the crap out of each other while eating whole jalapenos. I honestly guffawed the whole time, so I’m sold.

The 60-minute cooking period begins. Some quick observations: How will Eddie pull off barbecued pork in 1 hour with — what I assume to be — very lean pork loin and bottled sauce? Will Arnold’s ramen bun hold together? If Alex’s eyes can’t even stand the peppers, how will people’s palates handle them?

The judges get a chance to watch the teams’ commercials. Arnold and Jay nail it and, in turn, entice the judges with their creative menu. Eddie and Michelle confused the judges with their constant snapping, dancing and lackluster menu. Dom and Alex had the judges rolling with their well-played physical comedy.

The crowds choose a food truck based on the teams' commercials and they start lining up. Meanwhile, the judges begin with Eddie and Michelle, who both prepared one-note grilled cheeses served with a side of zero-note tomato soup. The crowd agreed.

Dom and Alex fared a bit better. Alex’s taco was uneven and Dom’s was successful, but the collaborative side was underwhelming.

Selection Committee Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis, with guest judge Richard Blais, during the Star Challenge, Food Truck Showdown, 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

Jay and Eddie impressed the judges with their creative and juicy burgers.

Time for eliminations, and the first thing I notice is that Dom is dressed like a Staten Island funeral director. He is dressed like Tommy in Goodfellas when he thinks he’s about to get “made   axq.” I hope this challenge doesn’t whack Dom, but I guarantee someone will get whacked in the end.

Jay and Eddie were wonderful across the board. Alex and Dom were applauded for their shtick-y commercial, and Dom’s tasty taco was a crowd-pleaser. Unfortunately, Alex’s sausage was a bit burned.

Michelle and Eddie managed to bring the ooey-gooey factor, but their tomato soup was a steaming-hot bowl of blah. Like I predicted in the beginning of this post, Michelle’s mind is definitely not present and is back at home with her family. It’s an extremely long time to be away from your children and it’s not like it gets easier with each passing week. In my experience, the homesickness gets only worse as time goes on.

There were times during my season when I just sat in the shower for an hour, trying not to tear up, while singing sappy songs in my head. Seriously. I know it sounds lame, but I’ve never felt such a powerful homesickness in my life. I totally forgot how my kid’s face looked, how he moved through space. This led to a lot of negative feelings. At times I was convinced that I was ready to throw in the towel and go be with my wife and son. It was hard to fight through that, but luckily I found peace in the food and the competition. That’s what fueled me. It was the down time or the days off that my mind started to go dark.

Michelle is obviously at this place right now; in my opinion, she is in a much tougher spot being a mother, and a mother of three at that. Plus, she’s surrounded by a bunch of silly boys. Let’s hope she finds peace with whatever choice she makes.

So Jay and Arnold are the winners of this week’s challenge. The rest of the gang is on the bottom and back in the stew room talking feelings. I’m calling it: a self-elimination from Michelle.

Just when you think Alex is about to get axed, Michelle chimes in. Her heart is not in it anymore and she walks away from Food Network Star, leaving all the remaining finalists safe.

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

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

I’m not going say that Michelle gave up on the greatest opportunity of a lifetime. That’s an unfair statement, considering Michelle still has a lot of life and lot more to give to the world. Life is a series of opportunities, and while she did bow out of this one after a strong seven weeks, she still made a lasting impression in my eyes and hopefully on the fine folks at Food Network.

Reality competition shows are inherently odd, and only a handful of lucky humans have ever experienced what it is like to sign your life away and participate is such a nutty experience. Granted, it’s an elective experience with a potentially amazing payoff, but nothing can really prepare the average person for the amount of control you give up once the cameras start to roll. You have infrequent contact with family back home, so they have no idea what’s going on during the filming! My wife didn’t know what the hell was going on with me; she had no idea if I was eliminated or not. I left her with one paycheck, two mortgages and a 2-year-old — and during a terrible Chicago winter. In her strung-out mind, she thought I was living out my dream while poppin’ bottles in a Jacuzzi with a half-dozen people. Meanwhile, I was lying in a bunk bed trying not to think of home or constantly speculate what surprise was coming next.

About six weeks in, my mind was on only the competition, as I knew there was a wonderful light at the end of the tunnel if I could put the homesickness aside and perform well.

The behind-the-scenes elements the viewer does not see are a HUGE part of this game. Beyond the pressures of presenting and cooking, you have to beat back the blues, and often it’s harder than any 30-minute brunch battle or one-minute presentation to a panel of experts.

Go enjoy your family, Michelle, and good luck to you.

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