Seven-Ball Juggling Acts, the Food Network Star Pressure Cooker and Ingredient Flashbacks — Alex's Star Report

Hear from Alex Guarnaschelli as she recaps the latest episode of Food Network Star.
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Finalists Jernard Wells and Damiano Carrara preparing their dishes for the Star Challenge, Entertaining with Food Stars, 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.

“I have the most clearly defined culinary point of view,” boasts Ana in the beginning of this tense episode of Food Network Star. “I don’t know what ‘fun, fusion, fleek’ — that's not a culinary point of view,” she says, throwing shade in Tregaye’s direction. What a way to begin. There’s no denying Tregaye has been a trailblazer these past few weeks. Building momentum with Giada and Bobby is critical, and we are down to a small enough group that mentor support is either obviously there or about to end. We begin the Mentor Challenge by picking dates (and their corresponding national food holidays). Each finalist has to make a dish and do a live streaming event with a surprise guest and questions from viewers in the mix. This is like a seven-ball juggling act!

Damiano gets Frog Legs Day (huh?), and after complaining that there were all sorts of dessert-related days he could have gotten, makes a tasty frog leg saltimbocca (which means “jump in the mouth”). Damiano’s brother, Massimiliano, who is also handsome but is painfully shy, is a bit of an impediment in the live streaming. Massimiliano doesn’t know how to answer questions or connect with the camera. This is an unfair impediment for Damiano. His brother’s demeanor doesn’t have anything to do with him or whether Damiano can become the next #FoodNetworkStar. I think Damiano does an excellent job; most importantly, he tastes his dish during the segment. This is so critical when viewers can’t eat their screens. They want to see YOU eat so they can experience the flavor through your words and description! Strong showing, in my humble opinion. Bravo! Jernard doesn’t cosign on Damiano’s frog noises and muses, “I don't know what kind of frogs they have in Tuscany.” Funny stuff. Nice to see the stress is so high that the finalists are actually sort of loosening up a bit in the #FoodNetworkStar pressure cooker.

Finalist Jernard Wells during the Mentor Challenge, Every Day is a Food Holiday, 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.

Jernard makes a play on hot buttered rum with a smoked and buttered rum chicken. With his wife, Keena, as his surprise guest for live streaming, I am almost moved to tears by Jernard’s tears and obvious loyalty to his wife and his family in general. And the viewers feel it too. It’s one of the least schticky moments for Jernard, and also one of his best. My only question: Can he make an occasional salad, spa fish dish or smoothie? His dish is heavy!

Ana’s “deconstructed” (aka messy and unfinished) churro is great for the challenge and her point of view. I also love her relationship with her guest, her daughter, and feel it shows so much more of the human side she normally shields from viewers. But a churro in a Champagne glass with a bowl of chocolate? It simply does not do her stellar cooking justice. Let’s remember that Ana needs her cooking to be flawless to compensate for her learning curve with the demos. Ironically, the demo is good, but the cooking not great.

Finalist Tregaye Fraser during the Mentor Challenge, Every Day is a Food Holiday, 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.

Tregaye is clearly overwhelmed when her husband walks out as the guest for her live stream. She’s flustered. I understand why: He is handsome. That can be distracting. I also think she is focused on winning and can’t combine her home life and her “boo” with the emotions of the competition. It leaves viewers confused when she doesn’t introduce him and even more confused when she barely gets to cooking at all! Showing viewers her shoes makes her relatable, but why would I then look to her for recipes? I might think I should look for her shoe styles. The judges, complemented by Donal Skehan and Tia Mowry, are equally confused by Tregaye’s zucchini bread-fortune cookie duck dish. The fortune cookie gets lost in the mix, and the dish is not a tasty sum of its parts. It’s a misstep at a bad time in the competition. The winner? Jernard.

For the Star Challenge, Jernard assigns food holidays to himself and the other finalists. They have to make two dishes representing their holiday in 60 minutes. He gives Tregaye New Year’s Eve, Damiano Cinco de Mayo, Ana St. Patrick's Day and picks Mardi Gras for himself. Honestly, I think his choices are too kindhearted. It’s as if he is giving what is GOOD for each finalist instead of exploiting their weaknesses. Jernard! This is a competition!

Finalist Damiano Carrara presenting his dish, Tostada de Pescado with Chilean Sea Bass, Shrimp and Bell Pepper and Pork Tenderloin Mole Pablano with Fresh Ricotta, for the Star Challenge, Entertaining with Food Stars, 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 embodies a fun New Year's party! Damiano’s Mexican dishes are almost stronger than his savory Italian ones! I don’t think they have enchiladas in Tuscany, but Damiano loves Mexican food. I almost think that would be a great format for him: an Italian in Mexico and South America. The issue, though? When Damiano presents his pork tenderloin with mole (and ricotta?!?!?) and his seafood tostada, his “resemblation” (?!) of his dishes leaves the judges wanting more. He adds his usual complaints, stating, “I hate cilantro." Hmmm. Even if you hate a certain food, shouldn’t you, as a #FoodNetworkStar, find a way to celebrate an ingredient that belongs in the cultural context? I make risotto and cook pattypan squash and would never eat any of either unless forced to. As Giada always says, “Never let ‘em see you sweat.” It’s about sharing and educating even if you don’t love it! Damiano's presentation is also rushed, and the judges struggle to understand what he is saying.

Finalist Tregaye Fraser presenting her dish, Black Eyed Pea Cake, Collard Greens and Brown Sugar Bourbon Pork Belly with Mascarpone and Yogurt Fruit Parfait, for the Star Challenge, Entertaining with Food Stars, 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 makes a black-eyed pea and collard green (both ingredients connected to good luck in the New Year) pork belly dish. Great concept. The food fits the moment. She also makes a throwaway parfait dessert. Odd. Tia tells her, "You were very authentic with your approach." It’s true. Her honesty level is on fleek even if Giada thinks her dessert isn’t. I feel the New Year’s Eve countdown at the end of her video transported me to the very moment I live each year!

Finalist Ana Quincoces presenting her dish, Peccadillo Shepard’s Pie with Irish Cheddar Mashed Potatoes, Green Coquito and Corn Beef and Pimento Empanada with a Pickled Escabeche Slaw, for the Star Challenge, Entertaining with Food Stars, 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.

Ana, Ana, poor Ana, gets stuck with St. Patrick’s Day (which she cleverly renames "San Patricio”) and takes so many shortcuts with her Cuban Shepherd’s Pie and empanadas that she finishes with time to spare! Never a good thing. If I ever finish ahead of the clock (which is pretty much never), I search for any improvements I can make until the last second. If you are done in advance, it means you probably could do something to improve your dish. And Ana doesn’t. And the judges see that. It’s the kind of move that can leave you retracing your steps and your elimination for years to come. I STILL think about a few dishes I made along the way that fell short. I kick myself for misusing ingredients, making the wrong choices, not redirecting in some way. When I see a lobster or a guinea hen (ingredients that were my undoing), for example, or that dreaded ice cream machine (equipment that has been my undoing), I still flinch a little.

Finalists Ana Quincoces, Jernard Wells, Damiano Carrara and Tregaye Fraser in elimination for the Star Challenge, Entertaining with Food Stars, 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.

The net result: Ana’s presentation was relaxed and fun, one of her strongest, but her food doesn’t hold up and she is sent packing. I personally feel like Jernard is in the hot seat right now, and it’s going to take a lot of love from the love chef to get him up to speed with Tregaye and Damiano. Someone’s going home, and it’s a question of whether Team Fleek, Team Love or Team Tuscany gets to stick around for more.

I made a collage with Food Network Magazine’s Maile Carpenter’s “Editor’s Note” (which shockingly fits the challenge of this episode) and some clipped viewer questions. It’s so interesting to me how the magazine embodies some of what these finalists have to achieve. What questions would you ask these finalists if you could? Let me know in the comments below.

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