Bold Food + Big Personalities + Bumps in the Road = 5 Unusual Finalist "Recipes" — Alex's Star Report

Hear from Alex Guarnaschelli as she recaps the latest episode of Food Network Star.
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Contestants Yaku Moton-Spruill, Tregaye Fraser, Jernard Wells and Joy Thompson preparing their dishes for the Star Challenge, Destination Show Promos, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Eddy Chen, 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

This week’s Food Network Star integrates the important world of Food Network Magazine with developing an important muscle for any burgeoning food star. That muscle? "Flexing" written recipes and food images to engage viewers and make them eat with their eyes. The challenge? Create an "original" dish based on a proposed recipe title. Giada and Bobby offered the following titles: "Batter Up" (Joy), "Crab Appeal" (Yaku), "Mount Everzest (Tregaye), "Better Off Bread" (Monterey), "Meat Me Halfway" (Martita), "For Heaven’s Flake" (Erin), "Cold-Hearted Cake" (Rob), "Hot or Not" (Damiano), "Sea and Be Seen" (Jernard) and "Carved for Attention" (Ana). I definitely felt some of these were harder to visually convey with food. While "Cold-Hearted Cake" could be illustrated with heart-shaped cake, and "Mount Everzest" could be sculpted into something mountainous with lots of citrus zests, "Sea and Be Seen" and "Meat Me Halfway" were not good matches for Jernard or Martita, respectively. The added catch? If esteemed judge and Food Network Magazine Editor-in-Chief Maile Carpenter didn’t connect the title and the food, the judges wouldn’t taste it! That’s rough. Can you imagine if you made a dish and no one ate it? Jernard, Martita and Monterey suffered this fate. The winner? Tregaye. Her tasty Lobster Bread Pudding gave the judges the clearest connection among the title, food and ingredients. This challenge win left Tregaye with an advantage.

At this point in the competition, things are getting a little lean and mean. The field is narrowing. The bud of the rose competition is OFF. I know what this feels like. When the director yells "cut" and you’re left standing on the set staring at each other’s dishes AND each other ... insecurity. Anxiety. Hunger. Fatigue. With the warm-up exercise behind them, the finalists cool their heels as Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay describe the next leg of the Food Network Star triathlon: Create a family road trip video and dish using the ingredients found in the trunk of each "road trip" car. Tregaye’s advantage? Pick her own partner and pair up the remaining finalists. This is a HUGE advantage, and she uses it wisely by pairing up people who are most alike. Two people fighting on video for the same point of view and wanting to make a similar dish? That's a recipe for disaster. To prove it, I broke up each pair of finalists into a "recipe" that yielded a different result when faced with Bobby, Giada and guest judge Ali Larter:

Contestants Jernard Wells and Joy Thompson during evaluations for Star Challenge, Destination Show Promos, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Eddy Chen, 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Recipe 1: 14-Kid Lake House Low Country Boil and Grilled Cheese (Joy and Jernard at the Lake House)

A pile of garlicky smoked Gouda(?!) grilled cheese sandwiches
1 low country boil
12 smoky, roasted sausages
1 cup parental fun
1 cup happy-go-lucky attitude
1/2 cup relax and enjoy this!
2 tablespoons "Mom? Dad? Are we there yet?"

The resulting dish: Joy and Jernard have 14 kids between them, so they know what it's like to have a pile of impatient kids in the car on the way to a lake house. They use that life experience to their advantage and it came out in their food. They shared the stage well. The grilled cheeses were tasty. The low country boil was a hit. Ali (who has a 5-year-old) appreciated their sensibility. This recipe is ready to print!

Contestants Erin Campbell and Damiano Carrara during the Star Challenge, Destination Show Promos, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Eddy Chen, 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Recipe 2: Happy Trails Mix (Erin and Damiano on a Camping Trip)

1 cup marshmallows
1 cup trail mix
2 portions ricotta gnocchi with pesto(?!)
2 trays trail-mix-graham-cracker-junkyard blondies
1 cup positivity
1 cup collaborative energy

The resulting dish: The gnocchi and blondies are delicious, but according to Giada, Damiano "did not paint that picture" of the gnocchi while telling his story. I wonder if Erin will always make a dessert. I wonder if anyone would ever make gnocchi on a camping trip. Sometimes what you make really needs to fit the context to engage viewers. The dishes also didn’t go together. If Damiano loves to eat tacos, for example, why not channel that for a camping trip? Send this charming recipe with potential for tweaks and a retest.

Contestants Yaku Moton-Spruill and Tregaye Fraser during the Star Challenge, Destination Show Promos, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Eddy Chen, 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Recipe 3: Whimsical Chicken-Fried Surf and Turf (Tregaye and Yaku at the State Fair)

8 tasty, crabby corn muffins
4 "almost perfect" chicken-fried steaks
1 cup "whimsical" flavoring(?)
1 cup pure fun
1/4 cup nerves
1 hide behind your taller co-anchor
1 scoop-up-and-take-out-of-the-state-fair exit

The resulting dish: These are two strong contenders who generally work well together. But Bobby found there to be a distracting element in their video. Tregaye jumped out from behind Yaku (who looked a little lost without her), then Yaku swept her quickly out of frame at the end. The resulting recipe might need to define what "whimsical" actually tastes like to come into better focus.

Contestants Martita Jara and Ana Quincoces during evaluations for the Star Challenge, Destination Show Promos, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Eddy Chen, 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Recipe 4: Fusion Con-fusion Sopes and Chicken (Martita and Ana and Grandma’s House)

2 #GrandmaCards (the story of everyone’s grandmother who cooked, what she made and, in this case, what liquor she drank)

1 tasty sope
1 tasty batch almost-unfinished Chicken Marbella
1 bottle coffee liqueur
1 bottle tequila
1/4 cup confusion

The resulting dish: This was a good strategy from Tregaye because both of these talented ladies have convergent culinary points of view. Their presentation felt a little frenzied and they didn’t talk about their food. Giada found Ana "conversational," and the judge thought Martita was "polished" and "rehearsing." The judges liked their drink best. Uh oh: Martita’s dish looked almost identical to what she made in the first challenge. The judges seemed to be worried her recipe bandwidth is too limited. Ana’s food was good, but her performance was a little stiff. This recipe needs better timing, less alcohol and more ingredients.

Contestants Monterey Salka and Rob Burmeister during the Star Challenge, Destination Show Promos, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Photo by: Eddy Chen ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Eddy Chen, 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Recipe 5: Potato Chip-Baked Clams and the Almost Ice Cream Sandwich (Rob and Monterey Take a Trip to the Beach)

2 dozen tasty baked clams
1 bag potato chips, aka Rob’s "favorite vegetable"
2 beach towels
2 beach chairs
1 boardwalk
12 cups suuuper-sweeeet frozen custard
1 emergency bag potato chips

The resulting dish: The presentation and the energy of this duo? On point. While the judges wondered if Rob’s tasty clams had enough refinement, it was the promise of an undelivered ice cream sandwich that created a problem. Monterey’s cookies didn’t turn out, so she crumbled an emergency bag of chips on top of her ramekins of frozen custard — not the ice cream sandwich she promised in her video. Bobby felt it was too sweet. Tears were inevitable. When food doesn’t deliver, ratings fizzle too.

The winners: Joy and Jernard! These two made magic together. Jernard’s kids and love, Joy’s fun-loving cooking? A winner for sure. Erin, Damiano, Rob and Monterey were all safe despite various hiccups. Tregaye and Yaku hung on near the bottom. While Yaku had the best dish, Bobby told Tregaye point blank: "Whimsical doesn't mean anything to me." Martita and Ana were left on the bottom. Giada expressed frustration with Ana’s various "excuses" for what went wrong. It was Martita who left us this week. She's very talented, but she just wasn’t able to relax and show enough varied dishes to hang in there.

There's nothing to do but keep cooking and searching for that next Food Network Star. My road trip? Back to the TV so I can see if the self-described "chef of love," the "lunch lady" or the gnocchi-making camper from Italy comes out on top next week.

I illustrated some of my favorite classic American desserts and paired them with each finalist. What are your parings here? Match them up based on your preferences, then check out my suggested answer key for Food Network Star desserts:

Ana Quincoces: Hasty Pudding. Ana has a lot of TV experience, but she might want to slow down her talking and speed up her cooking. Hasty pudding is a delicious classic. Maybe not-so-hasty pudding next week?

Martita Jara: Triple Ice Cream Cone. Martita may have three great scoops of ice cream, but does it extend beyond that? Two similar dishes and her "polished" talk sent her packing.

Joy Thompson: Cheesecake with Raspberries. This week was rich and smooth, with just the right amount of freshness. This cheesecake is ready to slice!

Jernard Wells: Red Velvet Cake. Jernard’s red velvet talk about food and his good cooking make him a serious contender for the win. Red velvet all the way!

Yaku Moton-Spruill: Ambrosia Fruit Salad. Delicious flavors, understated, pack a real punch. Can Yaku bring his presentation up to match his great cooking? I hope so!

Tregaye Fraser: Strawberry Shortcake. This is one of America’s favorite desserts. It’s a balance of so many good things. When it's made well, it’s unbeatable. When it isn’t, it’s not. Tregaye has it all. She just has to assemble her shortcake with less whimsy.

Monterey Salka: Rocky Road Ice Cream Brownie. We need her words to match what she cooks. And this girl can cook and talk, for sure! Can she bring it together or is it a rocky road that will end next week?

Rob Burmeister: Carrot Cake. A solid American classic with many great layers. And it’s a cake made out of a vegetable! Maybe we can convince Rob that potato chips aren’t the only vegetable this passionate self-described "lunch lady" can use.

Erin Campbell: Lattice-Crusted Apple Pie. This dessert requires great technique and has to deliver because it is the gold standard of classic American desserts. Erin has the skills and chops to make this. Can we get a savory pie, though? Hmmm ...

Damiano Carrara: Banana Split. I love all the flavors, but there’s a push-pull factor when it comes to the gnocchi, the Italian accent and his culinary point of view. We will keep the sundae; let’s hope he doesn’t "split"!

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