Alex's Star Report: Chocolate Promises and a Golden Rule of Cooking

Hosts Giada de Laurentiis and Bobby Flay watch Finalist Ana Quincoces preparing her dish, Blood Orange Romesco Lobster Crostini with Patata’s Bravas, for the Mentor Challenge, Food Authority, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Hosts Giada de Laurentiis and Bobby Flay watch Finalist Ana Quincoces preparing her dish, Blood Orange Romesco Lobster Crostini with Patata’s Bravas, for the Mentor Challenge, Food Authority, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Hosts Giada de Laurentiis and Bobby Flay watch Finalist Ana Quincoces preparing her dish, Blood Orange Romesco Lobster Crostini with Patata’s Bravas, for the Mentor Challenge, Food Authority, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Hosts Giada de Laurentiis and Bobby Flay watch Finalist Ana Quincoces preparing her dish, Blood Orange Romesco Lobster Crostini with Patata’s Bravas, for the Mentor Challenge, Food Authority, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

"Ana's demeanor is kind of relaxed and calm, and we have plenty of people who are stars on the network who have sort of that same level," Bobby Flay has said of Ana. Hmmm. While Ana may be calm, things are heating up between her and Tregaye. While I am never surprised at the frayed nerves, undercooked chickens or overbaked cookies, the tension between finalists here is running shockingly high!

The Mentor Challenge: Take a classic dish and "[filter] it through your unique point of view," according to Bobby. I love a challenge that asks each finalist to put his or her personal "stamp," as Bobby says, on an iconic dish like macaroni and cheese or lasagna. This is when the cooking and talking have to distinguish you from your fellow finalists. Jernard whips up a Philly cheesesteak and deep-fries huge rolls to make his sandwiches. Le sigh. It appears le love chef loves le fryer. It also looks like the rolls will soak up about half a vat of oil in the process! Tregaye, a Philly gal, muses to herself that his bread (and entire sandwich) will likely be very soggy. And as Giada De Laurentiis holds her sandwich in the air, oil literally drips from it.

Ana cleverly veers away from her Cuban roots and more toward Spain with a tomatoey romesco sauce for her lobster roll. For the time being, while Ana's presentations are clearly strengthening, it's her great cooking that carries her through the rough spots of her learning curve. Is there any time left for mistakes? There are only five people left standing! Can she make up for lost ground in her sometimes awkward and strained food talk in time to win?

Finalist Damiano Carrara preparing his dish, Habanero Green Chile Enchilada, for the Mentor Challenge, Food Authority, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Finalist Damiano Carrara preparing his dish, Habanero Green Chile Enchilada, for the Mentor Challenge, Food Authority, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Finalist Damiano Carrara preparing his dish, Habanero Green Chile Enchilada, for the Mentor Challenge, Food Authority, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Finalist Damiano Carrara preparing his dish, Habanero Green Chile Enchilada, for the Mentor Challenge, Food Authority, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Damiano makes a bunch of grumpy faces, as if the frozen egg yolks and frozen butter followed him from last week's pastry freezer challenge. Hatch chile enchiladas repurposed and filtered through the eyes of Mr. Italy? While the sage, chicken and ricotta he enlists to execute his dish look incredible, he frowns and pouts his way through the process. I am not sure whether I would change the channel on his displeasure or keep it to watch that glorious chicken cook. Curious dilemma: I love Damiano, but he may need a scoop of fresh strawberry gelato and a power nap before he continues.

Erin still seems somewhat lost with savory cooking, and the jambalaya throws her off almost as much as the loco moco confuses Tregaye. The difference between them speaks volumes. Tregaye rallies with a loco moco "remix," while Erin hides somewhat timidly behind a hot dog and some tasty-looking (and slightly al dente) jambalaya-flavored rice. Before Bobby even announces Tregaye as the winner, he also puts on the serious pressure: "This is yours to lose," he tells her with that signature steely-eyed stare.

The Star Challenge? One of my all-time favorites: Guilty Pleasures. The five courses of the meal are to be cooked and judged individually by Trisha Yearwood and yours truly. What fun! Trisha loves to cook and eat. She also has amazing star power and is so real. While it’s critical to cook great food on Food Network, you have to compel an audience that can't taste the food to eat it. For me, Trisha's cooking show does that.

On TV, you are often only as strong as your words, and the finalists have only one minute to present their decadent guilty-pleasure dish. Ana makes a pork trio for the first course but doesn't wow with her food talk. Her pork dishes are very impressive even if "a lot of bread," as Tregaye points out, is a heavy way to begin a meal. One of my all-time golden rules of cooking? Avoid making a duo or trio, because one part of the dish will always be better than the other(s). It's a slippery slope. While there may be a high point, you open yourself up to have the rest be a low point.

Finalist Tregaye Fraser's dish, Deep Fried Scallop Oscar, for the Star Challenge, Guilty Pleasures Dinner, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Photo by: Patrick Wymore ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Patrick Wymore, 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Finalist Tregaye Fraser's dish, Deep Fried Scallop Oscar, for the Star Challenge, Guilty Pleasures Dinner, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Tregaye makes her very personal fried scallops "Oscar" with corn sauce. Not the first time she has made the corn sauce. Does she have too small a bandwidth, recipe-wise? Why repeat recipes? That said, the corn sauce was the best single flavor I tasted in all of the dishes. Damiano opts for squid ink pasta from Bologna that is transportive. I love his personal connection and family story, but the descriptors he uses in his presentation sound a little hollow to me. What about the "funk" of the squid ink? What about the striking color of the pasta? How about mentioning that the struggle to roll his dough is worth the delicious end product? These might be some compelling aspects of the recipe for viewers, who may want to re-create or eat it.

Finalist Damiano Carrara's dish, Clams and Sea Urchin Squid Ink Tagliolini, for the Star Challenge, Guilty Pleasures Dinner, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Photo by: Patrick Wymore ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Patrick Wymore, 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Finalist Damiano Carrara's dish, Clams and Sea Urchin Squid Ink Tagliolini, for the Star Challenge, Guilty Pleasures Dinner, as seen on Food Network Star, Season 12.

Jernard makes a dish I might title Filet Mignon with Everything One Might Ever Want, from Cheese to Bacon to Booze and gives us a Rated R+ presentation. Trisha and I loved Jernard's personable side and the warmth he shows when talking to viewers. He just has to make sure his warmth doesn't veer into "steamy." There were too many great ingredients and too much seductive talk. I love Jernard, but he ends up sounding muffled and confusing. He doesn't need all the bacon and the shtick. He's better without it! Bobby says it best: "The one thing you don't want to do is become a caricature of yourself."

Erin makes a chocolate dessert (cookies and ganache) that really tastes like a blondie cake light on chocolate. A great blondie? Totally! A decadent chocolate dessert? Alas, no. You may not yet know this about Giada, but if you promise her chocolate, you better give it. Erin can't seem to accept that while her baking skills are great and she is smart to make something she has done many times before, the dish just doesn't make a strong impact in the context of this meal. With Tregaye (again!) and Damiano at the top of the dwindling heap, Erin is sent home and into the heat of battle for her second chance in Star Salvation.

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