It's Pilot Time with the Gold Standard for Food Network Star Success — Alex's Star Report

Hear from Alex Guarnaschelli as she recaps the latest episode of Food Network Star.
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Finalists Yaku Moton-Spruill, Tregaye Fraser, Damiano Carrara and Jernard Wells during the reveal of the Mentor Challenge, Cook For Your Life, 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.

We are down to the final three Food Network Star competitors: Jernard, Tregaye and Damiano. What a season! I don't know about you, but I feel like the cream has definitely risen to the top in this pack of finalists. I just can't really decide who the winner will be.

I have had the pleasure of co-hosting a great web series, Star Salvation, with Eddie Jackson, the divine Food Network Star, Season 11 winner. Together we put the eliminated finalists through a series of additional tests as a learning process before picking one winning finalist to head back to the Food Network Star competition for a second chance. Eddie is all smiles and confidence, but he is also a tough cookie! Together we explored each finalist's culinary point of view and coaxed more dimension in front of the camera. Truth? More than one of the eliminated finalists deserved another crack at Stardom, but one really brought it: Chef Yaku. How can such a tall human become almost small and vulnerable in front of a camera? It's a simple answer: love of food. The man just gets so into his cooking and sharing his recipes! He is the obvious winner of Star Salvation. And now, just as the three finalists emerge for their final pre-finale test, out walks Yaku to join the competition. The mission in this episode is to make a dish in 60 minutes that embodies their points of view. Then, make a video (only one minute long!) in which they each describe and eat their dish. Piece of cake, right?!

Finalist Yaku Moton-Spruill preparing his dish, Yaku’s Jamaican Tortilla Soup, for the Mentor Challenge, Cook For Your Life, 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.

Yaku makes a "kitchen sink" Jamaican Tortilla Soup that fuses Mexican and Jamaican flavors. I worry that he is fusing two cultures using 90 ingredients. It looks tasty, but is it too much? I do, however, love how much Yaku has grown in the personal-expression department. He tastes the soup and says: "Oh, my God. Who let my grandma in here?" Too funny!

Jernard makes one of his usual "anti-spa" dishes: chipotle-glazed pork chops with macaroni and cheese. It looks delicious. Watching Jernard cook, I like the way he takes inspiration from his family smokehouse and just dunks the pork chops right into the sauce. If you're going to go for it, now's the time!

Finalists Damiano Carrara and Rob Burmeister preparing Damiano's dish, St. Honore Cake with Diplomat Cream and Fruit, for the Mentor Challenge, Cook For Your Life, 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.

Damiano makes a classic French-Italian St. Honoré cake, but he struggles to collaborate with self-described "lunch lady" Rob. I think they spent more time searching for utensils than actually baking! I do love Damiano's old-school technique of caramelizing layers of puff pastry for the cake by baking the dough in a high-heat oven with a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar. I learned to do that working in a bakery in France years ago, and it's a simple technique that goes a long way. Damiano has a lot of these great baking and cooking tips up his sleeve. But he is cranky! He tends to shut down in front of the camera if everything isn't perfect. Life and food television, as we know, are riddled with imperfections. Can he rise to any occasion? His looks and food knowledge are tremendous, but is that the full package?

Hosts Giada de Laurentiis and Bobby Flay watch Finalists Tregaye Fraser and Monterey Salka preparing Tregaye's dish, Deep Fried Lobster Surf and Turf with Black Bean Corn Cake Short Stack, for the Mentor Challenge, Cook For Your Life, 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.

Tregaye is a bundle of nerves and has been since Bobby flat out told her in Week 8, "This is yours to lose." When I participated in The Next Iron Chef, Bobby said similar words to me and I nearly melted into the kitchen floor. With that compliment comes great responsibility, and Tregaye is feeling that heat. I wonder if she can ditch her "on-fleek fusion" and just be her unadulterated self. I hope she sees that on the horizon. She rarely makes a dish without corn, and I think surf and turf is a smart, safe bet. Do something simple and do it well. She makes it brunch-y with corn cakes on the side. Interestingly, her sous chef, Monterey, tastes the corn cakes and doesn't reveal that they are dry. Monterey also conveniently forgets to season the steak she cooks for Tregaye. There are booby traps laid out everywhere in competition, and it's no different when someone else is helping you cook your (hopefully) winning dish.

Finalist Jernard Wells presenting his dish, Orange Maple Chipotle Pork Chop with Lobster Mac and Cheese, for the Mentor Challenge, Cook For Your Life, 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.

Tregaye's presentation is a bit forced too. She spends too much of her time putting two sauces (which she never describes!) on her steak and generally doesn't invite the viewer into her presentation. Nonetheless, Tregaye is such a strong contender because she is filled with true joy and infectious energy. Jernard is a lot smoother in this round — he really lets go. He seems to be wisely taking Bobby's advice. Yaku is also so expressive, sharing stories of his world travels, but he has not settled on what ingredients will do the talking for him. He is sent packing for his Jamaican-Mexican dish. Yaku just needs a little more time to ripen on the vine.

Mentor Guy Fieri filming a pilot at Pitchoun Bakerry & Café, 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.

Jernard earns the first pilot, and Damiano and Tregaye win slots as well. I can't believe it's here already, but it's pilot time for the winning three! Who better to helm that process than the king of food loving and relaxation, Guy Fieri? Guy is the gold standard for Food Network Star success. Damiano films in a bakery, Jernard talks Cajun and Creole cooking, and Tregaye reports from a restaurant-club place that's on fleek. All were great first steps in the direction of Food Network Stardom, but two people make me want to change the channel or go get some snacks, and one keeps me glued to my seat. Do you know who that is? What about you? Who's your pick for the win? Tell me in the comments! 

Bonus: Here's my latest sketch of the finalists re-imagined as food. This time, it's all about vegetable personalities. Which vegetable are you? Tell me on Twitter with #FoodNetworkStar.

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