The Next Food Network Star IZZZZzzzzzzz…….

foodnetworstarWhat the heck happened to The Next Food Network Star?

Of all the food competition shows, this one has been consistently the best—even better than Top Chef—because it’s more than a competition. It’s a weeks-long interview for a real job—and a potential life-changing career as a celebrity chef with a valuable brand.

Oh, I know some of the winners were controversial, and Guy Fieri is still the sole break-out star of the lot.

But the actual show was fun to watch. There were always obvious also-rans, but there were usually at least three or four contenders to get excited about. So much so that several runners-up, including Kelsey Nixon, Jeffrey Saad, Adam Gertler and Tom Pizzica, eventually got shows on either The Food Network or its sister network, The Cooking Channel.

This year was different. Not only did the final three pale in comparison to some of the afore-mentioned runners-up, but the entire cast seemed like a group of also-rans.

A big problem was casting, of course. Someone got the bright idea to pack the competition with people who have been on previous shows, mostly on the Food Network, with a few culled from other areas (i.e. Gordon Ramsay’s show Hell’s Kitchen).

The logic behind this—well, there was no logic. Stacey Poon-Kinney, for instance, had appeared on Restaurant Impossible. That’s right, she was the owner of a FAILING restaurant who needed host Robert Irvine to teach her how to turn her business around. “Lovely” Jackson was a losing contestant on Hell’s Kitchen. Rodney Henry competed on Chopped and lost. Chris Hodgson competed on The Great Food Truck Race—and guess what? He lost.

Dnushka Lysek’s place in the competition wins the ultimate head-scratcher award. She has one of the most unappealing personalities of any contestant to appear on The Next Food Network Star. It’s not as if this wasn’t known to the network–she appeared on Chopped and 24 Hour Restaurant—and was a loser on both. Her bizarre, I-couldn’t-care-less-about-being-here personality was very apparent both times. On Chopped she was so lackadaisical—during a competition where people move like lightning to get their food done—the judges had to shout at her to get cooking. At least previously most-disliked Food Network Star competitor Penny Davidi cared, both about winning and making good food.

I can understand why they might have made this mistake: last year they changed the format and had the three mentors—Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay—head teams of contestants they had hand-picked. The winner wasn’t just going to be the person chosen as The Next Food Network Star, but the mentor as well—he or she would get to produce the winner’s show.

It didn’t quite work out that way. For some reason, winner Justin Warner and his mentor Alton Brown parted ways. Instead of a weekly series, so far Warner has only done one special for the network. It’s unclear if he will ever get a weekly series.

So perhaps they thought picking people familiar to the audience would avert this issue—though I’m not sure how. Again, decisions did not seem to be based on logic.

The other big change this year was the absence of Food Network executives Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson from most of the judging. Not only do Bob and Susie add gravitas to the enterprise—they are a constant reminder that this is for a REAL job, not just a shot at a few fleeting moments of fame—they are both engaging personalities on camera. I for one really missed their presence. There were also some weeks when one of the mentors didn’t show up to judge, either, which made it look like the network was starting not to care very much about the whole business.

Still, the network is probably vastly pleased with the person who won. The timing couldn’t be better for Damaris Phillips, a young cook whose point of view is modern Southern cooking. She could turn out to be the perfect antidote to the scandal-ridden and departed Paula Deen. (Yes, it’s a coincidence: the Deen scandal broke after the three finalists were chosen.) But I think on a previous season it’s unlikely Damaris would have made it into the top three, much less won the ultimate prize. And yet she was so obviously better than the other two finalists that it was no surprise whatsoever when she was announced as the winner.

Here’s hoping next year they inject a little more enthusiasm into the show and do a better job of scouring the country for new talent—real talent we haven’t seen before as losers on other shows. And that Bob and Susie come back as judges on a regular basis.

We like you guys, we really, really like you.

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