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This week on The Next Food Network Star, 11 contestants remained in combat. Still recovering from contestant Alexis Hernandez's early retirement (read more about last week's episode here), the competitors were ready to prove themselves to the selection committee. Giada de Laurentiis, the show's "mentor," was all-too-ready to provide the wannabe hosts with their next cruel mini-challenge.

[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]

Mini-Challenge

To kick things off, the contestants had to work on the "fundamentals," also known as cooking and talking at the same time. They broke down the preparation of one of (naturally) Giada's recipes into steps, and each contestant had to present one step to the camera. As Doreen Fang put it, this challenge was "SOOOO crazy." With little to no segue, the contestants were thrown before the camera.

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There were some real highlights in this drawn out spectacle of awkwardness. Paul Young assured us that his "natural personality" would come out this week, and we soon learned that Paul is naturally kind of a jackass. Brianna Jenkins struggled with her presentation, and reassured us that she can, indeed, cook and talk at the same time. "It's the camera part that gets me." No comment.

And by far the best moment was when Darrell 'Das' Smith took a firm hand to the poor water-logged frozen spinach, squeezing it and yelling, "get it out, get it out!" 'It' being the water from the greens, and ostensibly not his pent-up aggression. Giada later referred to Das' actions as "brutalizing the spinach." Ah, great TV moments.

Star Challenge

The first thing my viewing companion/mother and I noticed about the set-up for the Star Challenge was the presence of famous fortune-telling genie Zoltar. "Like the guy from Big!", we both cried, certain that someone on the show would also reference this now-ancient Tom Hanks classic. But alas, the contestants were too entranced by the accompanying mountains of carnival treats to match our ace movie prop recognition skills. Next time.

For the challenge, each contestant was given a carnival treat (by Zoltar), which they then had to reinterpret into a savory party "bite" to be served a party hosted by guest judge Chef Duff Goldman. Some assignments were easier than others: lemonade and Circus Peanuts didn't seem too tricky, while banana split and cotton candy stumped me. Show me what you got, contestants.

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Das puts on the charm, and a beret. [Photograph: Leah Douglas]

During the party, there were some clear standouts. Das took lemonade and made lemon-pepper chicken wings, which were a big hit. Also a big hit with me was his donning of the beret/newsboy cap. I can see a serious Brad-Das bromance developing. In any event, he was a crowd favorite as well; one pretty blonde even said, "Das' chicken was great, but what really caught my eye was his personality." Indeed, I am sure his personality was what snagged your attention...

Paul continued being a somewhat insensitive jerk, hitting on some chicks and noting that "Asian people" kept coming back for his "Asian chicken wrap," even though he was just "a white boy cookin' Asian food." Dzintra Dzenis was all over the place with her crazy blackberry mousse/meringue/duck breast concoction, and was talking to herself a bit too much to claim sanity. Brad 'Beret Brad' Sorenson was so earnest about his peanut-shell-smoked dish, but Bobby Flay immediately tasted that BB had burned the shells. In the judging, Susie went so far as to call BB's dish "inedible." Ouch.

Aarti Sequeira was struggling all episode with self-confidence, and this came through when she nearly told the judges she "never thinks [she] can do anything." Aww, Aarti! But her tandoori chicken with scallion pancakes was a huge hit, and her winning smile covered up her rattling nerves.

Judgment Time

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The Top Four celebrate. [Photograph: Leah Douglas]

The top four was somewhat easy to call, but I think well-chosen. Serena Palumbo made a killer marinara sauce, which she said was guided by her grandmother, the "patron saint of marinara sauce." (OK, I think she actually believes her grandmother is the patron saint of marinara sauce. She said this about five times, in very serious tones.) Aarti was praised for her food and demeanor, but warned about self-doubt. Aria Kagan's interpretation of the banana split was interesting, though her meatballs were a bit dry. And Das' chicken and "personality" kept him riding high as well.

The Winner?

This week's winner was Aarti, and she almost fell over with joy when they called her name. Well deserved, Aarti—don't doubt yourself or your killer cooking chops!

The judges were harsh on the rest of the contestants. They called Paul's dish "kind of a cop out," because he only incorporated his treat, caramel corn, as a garnish. Doreen was called out for not having a real point of view. Dzintra was too scattered and unfocused for the judges' comfort. Beret Brad needs to pump up the personal stories and cook some friggin' good food.

In the end, Doreen was sent home. Honestly, I was very surprised—I thought Dzintra's overall showing was much less impressive than anyone else's. But, the judges have spoken—and I would never, ever second guess Bob Tuschman.

What did you think of the results of this week's episode? Who are you rooting for?

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