My Sunday nights are now way more full than they used to be, which means I didn’t get caught up on Food Network Star until yesterday afternoon. One of the few long running and very successful reality TV competitions, Food Network Star has, during its run, brought the network some seriously successful talent, or at least successful network staples, including (but not limited to!) Guy Fieri, Melissa d’Arabian, Aarti Sequeira, Jeff Mauro and Damaris Phillips.
But a funny thing happened in the last couple of years. I think it probably started in Season 8, when the production, noting the rise of The Voice, and the fall of Idol, decided to retool into a mentor based competition. It only lasted two seasons before reverting into the old format. But somewhere along the line, the show lost the grip on what was important–that is, turning out talent that could be used to populate both Food Network itself and the stand and stir focused spin-off Cooking Channel. Perhaps it was the foolish choice to allow cowboy clown personality Lenny McNabb to win in Season 10. Certainly Alton’s abandonment of the ship last year for Season 11, leaving Bobby Flay’s terrible jerk personality and Giada’s narcissistic one to cope without him did not help anything. Not to say that they didn’t succeed better last year–Eddie Jackson may yet become a network staple in a couple of year’s time. Unlike Lenny, he had the potential, and the network is actively using him in prime time shows.
But tuning in this year, it was a bit of a shock to discover that the network, which until now had stuck to bringing aboard unknown chef personalities scouted via the internet and guest stints on traveling food shows, had allowed a full-time reality show personality to infiltrate the proceedings. Now, I don’t watch any of the Real Housewives series, so I am unfamiliar with Ana Quincoces (who the show’s bio calls “a cookbook writer” as if the audience will be fooled, or the contestant herself wouldn’t let us all know she’s already been doing this on other channels.) But in allowing a contestant on who is personality first, cooking second, the show seems to have accepted that perhaps what they are looking for is not someone who will bring you a new recipe at all.
To be fair, Cooking Channel is loaded with people like Ana. In fact, two of the guest judges for the second episode are part of this cohort. They were Hayley Duff, who you will probably know as the less conventionally attractive of the Duff sisters, and Rev. Run, who was once part of RUN-DMC, and terrified white parents everywhere in the 80s with his rap music. They, along with Tia Mowry, Tiffani Amber Theissen and Debi Mazar make up an entire line up of C and D list has beens that stand around the kitchen being personable. Occasionally they take a piece of food out of a bowl where a real chef pre-chopped it and makes motions at it with a knife, or a finished pie out of a cold oven, where the props people placed it for them, but other than these vague motions towards food, they’re not really there to cook, and we all know it.
But the point of Food Network was always as much to be the warm personalities you wanted to have on your television in your home while you do other things, as much as they were there to make food pornesque dishes that you would probably never make yourself. At some point, someone hit upon the idea that it didn’t matter if the personality made the food themselves or not. That they now have a contestant who obviously belongs in that school is a little disappointing–especially after last week, where she went head to head with a very bad contestant, Melissa Pfeister, who nonetheless beat her in presentation–but everyone in the crowd went and ate Ana’s food, because they knew who she was. (Melissa went home.)
Not only did I miss the first two episodes of the season, I also missed the run up series entirely, in which old contestants who had lost in earlier years competed in a televised version of the usual Star Salvation web series. Called Comeback Kitchen, and hosted by Valerie Bertinelli (who has become a regular judge for several primetime series) and Tyler Florence, the show was only three episodes long, and featured mostly people who did not deserve a second chance in the first place. (One who had already won Star Salvation, only to lose again.) The winner was Martita from Season 8, and probably the only good outcome the series could have had. The others, like last season’s Dom Tesoriero the incredible collapsing sexist contestant, didn’t deserve a second chance, while others, like Matthew Grunwald and Penny Davidi, only belong on Cutthroat Kitchen. Martita has both the nice personality and the sense that she could have won if she hadn’t shown up on Season 8 only to discover the show had completely changed the rules on everyone and put her on Team Giada, who had no interest in grooming her for the win.
I probably won’t be able to regularly recap the show this year–at least not until we get through this season of Game of Thrones. But so far, I’m pretty disappointed–both in the contestants, and in the production. At least the eliminated two contestants this past week, though we all know it’s because they’re in a hurry to get to four ousters so they can begin Star Salvation as early as possible. But then again, I suppose once one loses Alton Brown for good, it’s really hard to come back.