A First-Person Account of Being Judged by Bobby and Giada, Plus the Finalists to Watch — Alex's Star Report
To kick off this episode of Food Network Star, we dive into the world of food hacks. A food "hack" is when you use a utensil for a purpose other than for what it is intended. I feel like we all have our own food hacks at home, such as using an iron as a panini sandwich press or repurposing a wine bottle as a rolling pin. This challenge revolves around one of the most-important skills for a food star: how to think quickly on your feet and be resourceful. My hack? Use a stovetop burner as a makeshift broiler and char whole bell peppers (on all sides). Peel the skin and toss the pepper with a little red wine vinegar, oregano and olive oil. Delicious. Sometimes you can make great food by "burning" it and making it your own, and sometimes, well, you just get burned. (Check out more of my ideas for kitchen hacks above: rubber-banded pickle jars, floating eggs and others.)
The deeper meaning in this challenge? We all have stories, anecdotes and life experiences associated with cooking and eating. Those stories can function like an aspiring food star’s "hacks" when presenting and talking about food! I always think about my own story and point of view when talking to viewers. Sharing your uniqueness is the best way to connect. But there is also an art to it. Let’s face it: If you watch Chopped, you’re likely well aware that far too many people make bread pudding and French toast in the dessert round. Contestants also overdo playing the "grandma card" and the "mom card" in their storytelling. Now don’t get me wrong: I love my mom to pieces, and my grandmothers were amazing cooks. My Grandma Guarnaschelli would layer tiny little hand-rolled veal meatballs in every layer of her cheesy lasagna. Imagine that bubbling mozzarella and unearthing those little garlicky meatballs and tomato sauce underneath? Wow. My Grandma DiBenedetto (on my mom’s side) would glaze chicken wings with marmalade and follow the dish with a simple bowl of ripe blueberries and creamy New England vanilla ice cream. Biting into that crispy edge of the wing and getting just the right amount of tang and sweetness from the marmalade? Shazam. Hungry yet? Yes. And that’s my point. Family and food create a seductive combination: Family makes us want to cook, eat and bond over food. If you can’t do that, the channel gets changed and you’re not the next Food Network Star.
Both Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis have judged me on multiple occasions, and let me tell you: It’s no walk in the park. Giada watches you with excitement, encouraging you to smile and share the best of yourself with viewers. She has mastered this at the highest level, and when you disappoint, she usually gives one of her "Mama Bear" smiles and says a couple of words through slightly clenched teeth. A perfect example is her response to Ana after the Star Challenge: "You hardly ever seem to get excited," Giada tells her. "I don’t see that fire in you." Words of warning from Giada. She lets Ana know that she isn’t letting the judge down; Ana is letting herself down. Even Jernard questions Ana’s choices when he exclaims, "What are you doing with a wok at a tailgate party?!" Ouch. I would bet money right there that Ana gets sent home for her low-energy presentation. Giada spares no prisoners with positivity. What about Bobby, you ask? Bobby just stares intently, steely eyed and says very little. There are two signature "Bobby moves" to watch for. Exhibit A: He smiles and then partially covers and lowers his eyes and shakes his head. Meaning? Something like "I may have enjoyed your talk, but your cooking didn’t measure up, and even though I like your personality, you either make some great food or hit the bricks." Exhibit B is a three-part move: The small and polite laugh, the tiny smile and the slight nod of the head. Uh oh. That's usually his way of saying, "Your food tasted good enough, but your stories and point of view are not holding my attention — in fact, who are you?"
Now that the field is narrowed, any slight mistake or weakness from a contestant can be called a pattern. The patterns I see and question? Damiano whips up gnocchi for a camping trip(?!) and now makes an opulent Burrata panini for a tailgating party? I’m sure of his cooking and point of view, but are his dishes relatable in their context? So far I am not convinced. Bobby doesn’t think Damiano’s sandwich has much flavor. Monterey finishes cooking her food in time without any raw chicken, but her presentation is a train wreck. She offers the judges a beer(?!) and prompts guest judge Robert Irvine to ask, "Is there any inspiration — other than you're homesick — for this dish?" Ouch. I would put her on the possible chopping block with Ana. They're two of the strongest cooks in the competition, but they both need to manage time and amp up their energy! Erin is completely starstruck by Robert. I don’t think I have ever seen a guest judge leave a finalist so flustered. What she calls "backyard brat bites" are a hit with the judges, especially Bobby, who says outright, "I’m a fan of bratwurst." But it’s Robert who leaves Erin tripping over her sentences. I would put Erin somewhere in the upper middle of the pack at this point.
Tregaye is the one to beat. Her Mentor Challenge food hack, using a saute pan as a meat mallet to pound and flatten meat, is spot-on. Even more spot-on? Telling viewers to channel someone they’re angry with when flattening meat. "Your husband forgot your anniversary?!" she asks the screen as she slams the saute pan. Guest judge Katie Lee cracks up. Bobby also laughs wholeheartedly, and come the Star Challenge, the judges enjoy what Tregaye calls her "inside-out cheeseburger" to boot. The only issue for her this week: Her food is salty and a little heavy in the Mentor Challenge. I don’t think that matters much. Tregaye even gets stuck using hot dog buns for her burger and somehow makes it out like she wants it that way! As Giada would say, "Never let 'em see you sweat." And Tregaye doesn’t.
Another strong contender? Jernard, aka the self-described "chef of love." Jernard is frustrated that he can’t quite pull everything together and reach the high standard he set for himself. Jernard has the gift of gab. When he starts glazing his tequila wings and says "Somebody’s gonna make a baby tonight," I’m all in on his seduction dinner. He channels his home life and uses it as his "hack" to help him relate to viewers. Brilliant. Effective.
Joy is another powerhouse. Week after week her presentations get stronger, more concise. I feel like I’m starting to know this Southern gal and the smart home cooking she shares with us. She is that "breath of fresh air," as Robert says, with just a smidgen of something comforting I have seen before. Her shrimp with jalapeno and pineapple slaw? Sign me up. My only worry is that her tasty food can get heavy in a hurry. Her 4,000-ingredient crab dip with mayonnaise and sour cream and her mayonnaise-heavy slaw with shrimp make me wonder.
When the smoke clears, Rob, Monterey and Ana are up for elimination, and Monterey goes home. To quote Giada: "Your energy is contagious. We just need more-focused thoughts." That's where I come in. Maybe Star Salvation is that second chance she needs to find it? Monterey joins Aaron and Yaku on Star Salvation to face off for that second chance. Watch the latest episode here.
Want more? Catch up on the rest of Alex's Star Reports.