The Ins and Outs of Star Salvation, According to Its Co-Host, Plus Pilot Time with Rachael Ray — Jeff's Star Report

Hear from Food Network Star, Season 7 winner Jeff Mauro as he breaks down the tenth episode in hilarious fashion.
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Judges Alex Guarnaschelli and Jeff Mauro during the reveal of the Star Salvation Challenge, Make a Dish Using the Avocado, as seen on Star Salvation for 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

My season of Food Network Star did not have this nifty little competition sub-series known as Star Salvation, and you know what? I am quite glad we didn't! It’s one thing to compete against other finalists hungry for a chance at their own Food Network show; it’s another thing to compete against a finalist who’s tasted defeat and then got a miraculous second chance. The winner of Star Salvation will be a battle-hardened warrior ready to slay anyone in his or her path. The Salvation winner might as well be a half-human, half-cyborg soldier sent back from the future to take down the POV mainframe and save the planet from the destruction caused by the wrong finalist winning Food Network Star. The winner of Salvation may just win it all. It’s like the montage scene in every sports movie ever, especially Rocky IV: They lost, they got back on their feet, they trained harder than ever by lifting giant logs in the Russian tundra and doing inverted sit-ups in a dusty Soviet barn. They are now ripped and ready to step back into the ring.

This is why I’m glad my season did not have Star Salvation. It was hard enough trying to beat the normal contestants, let alone these reincarnated-zombie contestants who came back from the dead to destroy you.

Pound for pound, every finalist had majorly improved from his or her time on the big show. Emilia, Rue and even Grunwald were all a bit more refined in their presentations and cooking. Rosa seemed sharper, and I could tell instantly that Christina wanted this more than anything. We start Round 1 with the first four eliminated — Christina, Grunwald, Sita and Rosa. When Alex Guarnaschelli (my lovely co-host) and I walk in, I’m sure there are quite a few things going through their heads — mainly that there is a definitely a good-cop/bad-cop situation going on here. Sure, Alex may be known as a tough critic, and I may be known as a goofball, but rest assured, we both took this job very seriously. I wanted the right person to win Star Salvation, and I wasn’t going to make it easy.

Finalists Christina Fitzgerald, Matthew Grunwald, Sita Lewis and Rosa Graziano during the reveal of the Star Salvation Challenge, Make a Taco That Embodies Your Culinary Identity, as seen on Star Salvation for 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

The first challenge is a straightforward taco challenge, and Grunwald and Christina make two stellar tacos. Christina flubs her presentation, while Grunwald entices me with his bizarre energy. This was my first experience with the ol’ Grunwald, and honestly, he was fun to watch, if occasionally cringeworthy … almost like this new season of Bachelor in Paradise! Rosa also nails her presentation with a great story, but her food is just decent. Sita’s sloppy taco and lukewarm presentation send her packing for the second time. She is now officially the first finalist sent home — twice. Let the games begin.

Judges Alex Guarnaschelli and Jeff Mauro during the Star Salvation Challenge, Make a Dish Inspired by the Moment You First Fell in Love with Cooking, as seen on Star Salvation for 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

It’s now Round 2 and love is in the air, certainly evident by my giant pink polo shirt. In walks Rue, ready to reclaim her position. The finalists must make a dish that is indicative of the very first time they fell in love with food. They begin cooking, and, from my recollection, the vibe in the kitchen is intense. People are indecisive and hurried, a bad combo in this world, and some of the food reflects this. Christina’s soup is more of a thick, goopy dip, but her presentation is just fine. Rosa’s food is simple, but her presentation is authentic. Grunwald has a surprisingly tame presentation, and his food is wonderful. Unlike her presentation, Rue’s dish is amateurish. Unfortunately, Rosa goes home for the second time.

Finalist Rue Rusike prepares her dish, Frango Com Piri Piri, for the Star Salvation Challenge, Part 1: Guess Ingredients in Bobby’s BBQ Sauce; Part 2: Pick 3 Ingredients From Sauce to Use in a Dish, as seen on Star Salvation for 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

Round 3, and in walks Emilia. The Bobby Flay BBQ sauce challenge begins, and upon first impressions, I notice Rue’s giant chicken breasts on the grill. Nothing worse than giant chicken breasts. (Personally, my favorite part of this round was when I performed a hands-free, full-body nose smell. What was I thinking? Why did I NOT use my hands to waft?) Emilia has a great dish but doesn't connect her POV, or lack thereof, to her presentation. Christina doesn't finish on time, and Grunwald seems to be growing each round. Rue is saved by her exuberance once again, and, unfortunately, Christina goes home.

Finalist Matthew Grunwald during the Star Salvation Challenge, Make a Dish Using the Avocado, as seen on Star Salvation for 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

Because of Michelle’s self-elimination over in the Star competition, this next round is only the existing three survivors. Avocados are the star, and the contestants begin cooking. Rue’s dish scares me from the beginning, as does Emilia’s microwaved avocado cake. The only dish I was looking forward to was Grunwald’s, because it didn’t involve microwaves and/or peanut butter. Everybody’s presentations are decent, and the food, though somewhat gross, is at least inventive. Unfortunately, Grunwald finally goes home for good. I still believe there is a place somewhere for this kid, because he is a great chef with an intriguing if somewhat bizarre on-camera presence.

Judges Alex Guarnaschelli and Jeff Mauro during the Star Salvation Challenge, Make a Dish Using Unusual Ingredients, as seen on Star Salvation for 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 walks in for the next round and I know immediately that this guy would do anything to earn a place back in the competition. I also remembered Dom from an episode of Rewrapped that I judged and that he won, so I was already aware that he was a skilled chef. The contestants get some mystery ingredients, and Emilia makes us a stuffed squash blossom, but her presentation just doesn't connect with her POV. Dom’s carbonara is on point, and his on-camera work is uncharacteristically smooth. Rue’s presentation is just fine in my book, but in her usual hilarious fashion, Alex G. deftly cuts her down. To me Alex Guarnaschelli is the best talker on Food Network. No one talks about food as eloquently, and certainly no one critiques as cleverly. In the realm of Food Network, she is the queen of the English language. Long may she reign. Due to her lack of POV-to-food connection, Emilia hitches a ride on the one-way train to the elimination station.

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 is the next hopeful, and it’s time to do a classic Food Network “Let’s talk about food in front of a white background." The contestants must make and describe their one last bite. The interviews were all very good, I thought. Dom is 100 percent on point, and his food is excellent. Rue's dish and presentation are enticing, and Alex gives us an ethereal grilled cheese, one of the best I’ve ever had. This was the most-difficult round yet. They all gave us great food and balanced presentations reflecting their individual points of view. It is soooo hard to decide, and that is why we need some time to figure it out. Currently, Alex and I are holed up in a small basement bathroom in New Jersey while we decide the fate of these well-qualified contestants. It’s a classic 12 Angry Men-style situation, and plungers are being hurled, toilet paper is running low and I just ate the last of our gluten-free garlic bread. Needless to say, we’re gonna need a minute.

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

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

OK, it’s Dom, and he’s going back! I feel we definitely made the correct decision.

Meanwhile, the latest episode of Food Network Star was a doozy, am I right? I totally got why Dom chose Grunwald as his sous chef, because who doesn’t need a typhoon of insanity in their corner? He is also the best chef out of the eliminated. I was glad he chose him so I can watch the teenage-grade backtalk all afternoon.

Guest Director Rachael Ray directs Finalist Jay Ducote filming a scene for his pilot, Deep Fried America, 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

These four gentlemen all deserved to be among the final four, and they all had very good presentations and food. Dom's, Eddie's and Jay's were more Star-ready than Arnold's, which led to the first three guys earning a spot in the finale. Now it is time to make a pilot with the true queen, Rachael Ray. She is the hardest-working, most-professional and most-talented person in the business, and there’s no greater mentor then her to help give these finalists one last push into potential stardom. What will be interesting too is to see these guys unleashed without the constraint of unedited time or secret ingredients. I cannot wait to see the final, edited, pretty little pilots next week, when we'll meet the NEW STAR. (Want to see my Sandwich King pilot? Here ya go!)

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