"From the looks of it, this season will be full of top-name celebrities and exciting challenges. And hopefully lots more crazy eyes."

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Finally! The always thrilling Next Food Network Star kicked off another season on Sunday night, beginning our whirlwind adventure of emotional highs and lows as 12 contestants battle it out for their very own Food Network show. On this season, as opposed to previous ones, many of the contestants are professional chefs or have other experience in the industry. Their personalities vary from the hilarious to the endearing. Without further ado, the show!

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Giada loves to smirk at us.

Here is Giada de Laurentiis. She is this season's "mentor." I was a little confused as to what this meant, until she said: "I am living proof that the Food Network can make you a star." Ahhh, okay. So they've caught on that the prior seasons' winners haven't exactly inspired confidence in a new flock of hopefuls. As you were, Giada.

[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]

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Oh, Brad. I'll forgive the beret.

The contestants all arrive and begin meeting each other, and us. Initially I'm drawn to Herb Mesa, a personal trainer and chef whose energy is huge and whose biceps are huger. But then, Brad Sorenson walks in. "He's my favorite," my mom (and viewing partner) says loudly. I can't help but agree. Look at those dimples! That scruff! That....beret?

Some other initial standouts: Dzintra Dzenis, mainly because of her crazy name and the fact that she's already auditioned for the show three times. We can't question her dedication or desire, that's for sure. Serena Palumbo has an interesting past, going from ballerina to attorney to aspiring culinary show host in such a short time. And when Darrell Smith, or "Das", saunters on-screen, my mother sighs again: "He's another strong runner."

Oh, mom. Must we objectify the poor stars in this way?! But then again... Anyway, let's get serious.

Mini-Challenge

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Doreen's a little wound up.

The contestants have 45 minutes to take a chicken and a potato, and create a dish that exemplifies their "culinary statement." Seems easy enough.

I like challenges like this—every cook should feel comfortable and confident working with those ingredients. And indeed, the cooking seems to go OK. Except for Das and Aarti, whose chickens are both raw when presented to the judges, and the camera.

Doreen is a little intense, and can't quite figure out how to keep it together when speaking to the camera. And makes some crazy eye expressions. Herb and Aria are stand-outs in presentation style and energy, and are promised a "real advantage" in the next day's challenge. Das is at the bottom, and is "totally, totally bummed out." Aw, Das. Don't be sad.

Star Challenge

God knows what "Star Challenge" means in theory, but in practice the contestants were assigned a two-part challenge. First, they had to create a 15-second promo for their very own Food Network show. The judges seemed less concerned with overall concept, than with ability to act in front of the camera.

They brought in a "big-time" Hollywood director to shoot the promos. The contestants wrote their own scripts, then recited them using a variety of backgrounds and props to convey their compelling culinary message.

The results were mixed. Nearly everyone had difficulty relating to the lens—except Aria, who appeared to hit it out of the park immediately. It seemed as though everyone had the opportunity to shoot and re-shoot until they reached a decent product. I can't remember this being the case in prior seasons, but it leveled the playing field a bit.

Brianna's "It's Fun Time!" theme didn't go over so well, and Das waved his arms too much for anyone's comfort. Aarti had a hard time selling her "Paarti" (yeah...let's talk about that later), but eventually worked in enough giggling to suit the director's demands. Everyone found Tom's promo hilarious, but to be honest his chef's hat plus life vest plus grill persona struck me as, well, disturbing.

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What was this??

For part two, the contestants were given the task of cooking a six-course lunch for "the ultimate celebrity chef"—but they didn't know who! Hah-hah!

The lunch had to be inspired by "California cuisine." The winners of the mini-challenge, Herb and Aria, get to choose teams and assign each team member a course. Both choose the appetizer course for themselves. Paul, whose serious attitude didn't fare him well in the promos, and Alexis, whose nerves were jangling loud enough to interfere with my television audio, were picked last. Neither was too happy.

The teams were off to the market, wildly shopping for ingredients. Notable moment: serious man-love between Herb and Das, with the cameras catching a particularly lovely moment when Herb screams "I got watercress, bro!!" in Das' direction. Awww.

The menus are shaping up well, although who knows if they're actually "California-themed." The judges don't ultimately seem too interested in the technicalities of this challenge. It's revealed that the celebrity chef is Wolfgang Puck. Damn. I'm a little nervous for the poor contestants.

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The Grey Team featured leader Aria, along with Tom, Brianna, Paul, Aarti, and the not-pictured Dzintra. No reality show episode can elapse without some seriously real drama (not made up or hyperbolized, EVER. Really.) and this week's NFNS was no different.

Dzintra got something mysterious into her eye, causing it to swell and redden, causing the poor girl much pain and whining. All her rubbing at it certainly couldn't have helped. In any event, the set EMT directed her to the ER, ASAP—so off she went, teary-eyed from frustration, sadness, and whatever the heck was stuck in her eye. Somewhat surprisingly, at least to doe-eyed me, the other contestants completely shot her down for abandoning the challenge for a dismissively dubbed "eye problem." Ouch.

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The Black Team featured Herb as team leader, along with Beret Brad, Das, Doreen, Serena, and Alexis. Brad completely hit a home run with his dish, despite having to use frozen salmon. He could barely keep his beret straight, he was so excited about receiving praise from High Priest Puck.

Doreen was "disappointing," having run out of time for the plating of the apparently critical beet reduction garnish for her potato soup. But Alexis beat her out by serving raw beignets to the judges, and proving completely inadequate before the camera. Uh oh. On to the judging.

Judgment Time

Dzintra resorts to basically begging the judges for another shot, despite her absence throughout most of the challenge, and presenting a dessert that was in fact prepared by the other chefs and not even her own concept. After much internal struggle, the judges declare her team, the Grey Team, the winners. The easy choice for overall champion is Aria, whose smile lights up the screen and Bobby's heart.

A predictable win, but well-deserved. I've got my eye on you, Aria. (So long as I don't get any particular matter stuck in there—we've seen where that goes.)

The Black Team then goes before the firing squad. Serena gets ripped on for basically being a caricature of herself. Alexis gets seriously chided for his runny beignets and his paralyzing terror before the camera. Das' self-love and "too-cool-for-school" attitude (straight from the mouth of Bob Tuschman) backfire a bit as the judges tell him to be more approachable. Brad, however, seemed safe and secure with his great salmon and solid promo. So whose dream was going to end once and for all?

The judges bickered a bit more, giving my mom and I some time to moan at them to just make up their minds already. Brad, Herb, and Serena are quickly identified as the top of the bottom. Despite Tushman's declaration that he must get off his own "fan-wagon" (these quotables just keep on comin'), Das is safe.

Finally, they announce that Alexis would be the one headed home so soon. It's too bad—I loved his no-BS attitude and unapologetically paisley shirts.

From the looks of it, this season will be full of top-name celebrities and exciting challenges. And hopefully lots more crazy eyes. What did you think of tonight's episode? Does it look to be a promising season?

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Yeah...there's more where this expression came from.

Bonus: Blast from the Past Email from Aarti

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We dug into our email archives and found this note from Aarti (in her pre-NFNS days) back on March 24, 2009, sharing her YouTube page with us.

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