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In my ever-careening life as a food TV pundit, I was asked to judge on an episode of the The Next Food Network Star that aired June 24, as a number of serious eaters have pointed out. I agreed to do it mostly because I thought I would able to see Alton Brown, whom I have always enjoyed talking to. Alas, when I got to the studio I discovered that none of the three stars of the show—Alton, Bobby, and Giada—were on set for this taping.

I was ushered on to the set along with my fellow guest judges, Jess Cagle and Jill Bernstein of Entertainment Weekly, and TVFN executive judges Susie Fogelson and Bob Tuschman. Everyone was very friendly, but I wondered what Cagle, a really good and smart guy but hardly a food critic, was doing there. Well, it turns out that we were judging the contestants' ability to speak about themselves as they would in an electronic press kit.

Ahh, so we were more judging their presentation than their cooking skills. It made sense for the show in general, which is looking for the next Food Network star, not the next great chef, and it made sense for Jess Cagle to be there.

The contestants were focused and ambitious, and had been coached by one of the hosts. Their reach exceeded their grasp in the realm of presenting and storytelling, which is what they were being judged for on this particular episode. I did find myself liking the ones that went out of their way to tell me how much they liked Serious Eats. (Just kidding.)

I enjoyed my brief NFNS judging stint, and maybe next time I'll be called upon to focus on the quality of the food. Even though Alton wasn't there (he sent me an apologetic e-mail), he ended up coming over to the SE offices a couple weeks later when he was in town to do publicity for the show. He spent a couple of hours at World HQ talking food, food culture, cooking, and mentoring. He and Kenji even cooked together.

You'll see the results of his visit on the site shortly. And just in case you wanted to know who won NFNS, I don't know and even if I did, I couldn't tell you. Them's the rules.

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