Although I’m not specifically a fan of tattoos and curious piercings, I’ve decided that I would make an exception for Avery Pursell. It’s rather unfortunate that in order to watch her compete against the other chefs, I had to sit through the newest version of The Next Food Network Star. Well, ‘sit through’ is a bit of a stretch, really. More like ‘strolled in and out of the room and be annoyed that it wasn’t 11pm yet.’
I would be remiss in my blogging duties (not that I have been terribly thorough of late) not to mention here that my rather lengthy love/hate relationship with the Food Network is rapidly becoming more of a hate/hate relationship. The last series of The Next Food Network Star counted as one of the worst, heavy-handed, manipulative, ill-conceived and scripted excuses for ‘reality’ television I’ve seen in ages, and it succeeded only in driving me away from almost anything on the network since.
After seeing the advertisements for the new eighth series of The Next Food Network Star, now no longer called The Next Food Network Star, and seeing that the network have decided to ‘revitalise’ the programme by giving it something of a face-lift and a new format, my immediate reaction was one of enormous joy that it would be over in time for me to catch the re-broadcast of the Around The World in 80 Plates premiere on Bravo.
Seeing the fabulously uninteresting group of Paul Stanley, Big Chris, Vic ‘Vegas’ Moea and Justin the Second, Fishmonger compete on Chopped All Stars only just reignited my antipathy for last year’s programme and fuelled my utter indifference to the New & Improved version. And the melodramatic adverts for it, which had been slathered over every millisecond of available air time on the Food Network for the preceding month did, if only by their sheer pervasiveness and seemingly desperate grappling for potential viewers, almost nothing but repel me.
My only real interest – vague and half-hearted though it was – in subjecting myself to this programme again after last year’s misery was to see just how the promise of a new format and new rules would be handled. But even that did little to intrigue me, and I found my already waning attention frequently drifting during the 2-hour debut.
For whatever pointless reason, Dark Lord of the Sith Bobby Flay, Darth Giada, and Sith Master Alton Brown divided the 15 – yes, again – new Sith hopefuls into three groups of five for whom they would each act as mentor, making the competition just as much about themselves and their abilities as it is about their apprentices.
Team Flay was a Malcolm Jamal Warner circa the Jeremiah period look-alike called Malcolm , Michele (or Anne Burrell 2.0), Eric, Nikki, and Kara, who has my vote for the win. And it’s not because she’s attractive (which she is, of course) but because she seems to have strong presence ‘on camera,’ which astute readers will no doubt recall is industry-speak for ‘on the camera.’
Team Giada was a children’s programming-inspired group with names like Ippy, Linkie, Martita, Yvan, and Josh ‘The Rock n’ Roll Chef’ (because he has a band), and Team Alton was Cristie, Justin, Judson, Martie With the Partie, and Emily, also my pick for the win because I have a weakness for certain nerdy women in glasses.
I think I got their names right. Does it matter? No. Not really.
Once all the introductory nonsense was out of the way, the newly-formed teams of Sith Apprentices were thrown immediately into the…
…are you ready?
Wait for it…
The Star Challenge!
Of course it wasn’t the old Star Challenge we’ve seen carted out splashily for the last few years in which a celebrity chef or ‘star’ provides the contestants with some form of challenge which would lead to an inevitable elimination of one or more of them – this was the New & Improved Star Challenge!
In this version, celebrity chef or ‘star’ Robert Irvine marched out wearing the same black t-shirt he’s worn for a year and explained that on his programme, Restaurant: Impossible, he has 48 hours and $10,000 to rebuild and redesign a failing restaurant. The Sith Apprentices, he said, would have just half that time and half that money to design and open their very own restaurants from the ground up. But despite what you may immediately be thinking, this wasn’t anything at all like 24 Restaurant Battle, because on that programme two teams are required to create an entire restaurant in just 24 hours from the ground up. This is clearly very different to that concept simply because there are three teams, not two, competing in the challenge and at the end of it, one of the new Sith Apprentices would be eliminated.
The other major shift in narrative was that, once the Sith Apprentices had figured out their restaurant menus, themes and names – Do South for Team Alton (Do South, get it? Do? Due?), the not-at-all-pretentious-sounding Blu for Team Giada, and the dull Tasting Space for Team Flay – each team would have a limited time frame in which to purchase their own goods. This entirely New & Improved concept required that the teams would further divide themselves into even smaller groups: one portion would go to a place called ‘Fresh Market’ and the other portion would go to a warehouse-like location called ‘Restaurant Depot.’ Once at their respective destinations, the teams would communicate via space age consumer-grade electronic devices held in their hands and shout instructions at each other very loudly whilst running about.
To further complicate an already complicated scenario, the Sith Apprentices would be given Discover cards and be required to hold them at curious and cumbersome angles during use so the cameras could languish on them to ensure paid sponsorship.
Once this so-called ‘shopping’ task was completed, the Sith Apprentices would then have a mere six hours to prepare their various foodstuffs for a staggering 150 people! 150! That’s like tons of people! One can only imagine the pressure. And a big hats off to the producers of Not Necessarily The Next Food Network Star for throwing in such an unexpectedly New & Improved twist to such an otherwise tattered and threadbare concept.
This new ‘cooking’ segment included lots of exciting camera angles and spirited music so that we at home could really feel the intensity of what it would be like to work along side total strangers in big professional kitchen for six hours. Very often the action was intercut with, for lack of a better term, ‘interview’ segments filmed in what appeared to be some sort of clinically stark cookware showroom wherein the Sith Apprentices spoke ‘on camera’ about topics relevant to the particular situations seen along the way – a type of narrative or informal dialogue, if you will, which provided colourful commentary and keen insights. Overall it was quite a radical departure from all that has gone before.
In this New & Improved bit we saw, for example, that Eric wanted to make pasta from scratch – and he was see making enough dough to create almost 20 noodles; Yvan didn’t buy eggs no matter how often Rock n’ Roll Josh told him to buy eggs; Martie With the Partie felt it was ‘over ambitious’ of her to make three different devilled eggs all at the same time, but at least she had eggs; black-eyed pea and cabbage purée is not, in fact, a proper soup, no matter how much Cristie wanted it to be and does not have flavours that ‘pop’ and, as Judson said, it ‘doesn’t look pretty to look at,’ and, finally, Nikki wants to see the ‘dynamic personalities’ of her companions ‘on a plate’ – a concept I never would have thought possible.
Amidst this profusion of terrifying new ideas, Dark Lord Flay, Darth Giada, and Sith Master Brown interrupted their apprentices to explain that ‘There’s one more thing we have to do’ or, as Alton suggested, add ‘a twist of new flavour’ to the proceedings. Like me, I’m sure the reader will be echoing the sentiment of all the Sith Apprentices who stared in abject horror and astonishment at their mentors. How could anyone be expected – in a fierce competition such as this – to shop and cook – all in one day! –only to have matters complicated all the more by having another theoretical spanner thrown in the works? It’s unimaginable!
Truly the producers have shown their mastery of The Dark Side with these New & Improved ideas.
Gathering together once again, the Sith Apprentices were told by Chef Robert Irvine that the group of 120 diners (with no indication as to why the number had dropped so dramatically) would be able to choose where they want to eat ‘at.’ This stunning and unexpected turn is completely unlike 24 Hour Restaurant Battle where 150 guests pick which of the two just-opened restaurants they want to experience based on the menu options and concepts presented to them.
In this New & Improved twist, each of the three teams would be required to do a live two minute presentation of their respective menus and concepts upon which, then, the prospective diners would decide where they wish to ‘eat at,’ and everyone looked shocked because this was no new and nothing like it had ever been done before on Food Network. Josh said he would ‘rock it out,’ though, because he has a band. And by ‘rock it out’ he meant struggling to memorise the complex Shakespearean-style soliloquy of ‘Welcome to Blu where we are serving California cuisine.’
And the final shocking twist, however, was to introduce the new Sith Apprentices to ‘The Network’ for whom the winner will be working: strangely only comprised of Bob Tuschman, the senior vice president and general manager of Food Network, and Susie Fogelson, senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy, who was wearing a black skirt with a giant Santa Claus buckle on it pulled up above her navel. One would think more than two people were involved in programming and operations. Do they act as janitorial staff as well? Unless… it is possible that the sweeping changes in this new iteration included a dismantling of the previous power structure into which void stepped Bob T and Susie to re-establish the Dark Jedi under the Rule of Two and, in all probability, usher in a new Supreme Order unified under a Grand Lord…
Over the next hour, the Sith hopefuls performed their much-rehearsed two minute presentations before the assembly of 120-150 eager diners – which included Rock n’ Roll Josh doing a cartwheel described by some guests as simply ‘too much’ but which got a wide-eyed Susie Fogelson all sticky in her girl parts – and then they individually served each of their own contributions to the overall meal rather laboriously to ‘The Network’ and their mentors.
The end result of this hour was the revelation that black-eyed pea dip should be more ‘liquidy’ in order to be called a proper soup, Darth Giada believes ‘you want to be with Yvan,’ Emily brought a smile to the brain of Bob T in a creepy sort of way I didn’t care to explore further, and Cristie would be the first Sith Apprentice to be eliminated. Not because her pea and cabbage purée wasn’t really a proper soup – because it wasn’t – but because the careful editing strategy telegraphed her departure large enough to be seen from orbit and cunningly depicted her as a bumbling fool. For example, when it comes to the critical issue of childhood obesity and the general lack of healthy eating in this country, Cristie, portrayed as defensive and joyless, said she wanted to use the word ‘fed up.’ Which is two words.
Although Not Necessarily The Next Food Network Star appears to be so radically different to The Original Series in design and structure and, as such, is almost wholly unrecognisable, there were subtle elements included in it which fondly recalled the early days. For example, after the overlong ‘food service’ segment the young Sith Apprentices and their mentors assembled in the familiar Council Chambers of Food Network’s Los Angeles Bureau to listen to the emphatic music appropriated from SyFy Channel’s tiresome Face Off series and to glance awkwardly at each other.
Suddenly, whilst the music thundered to a crescendo, all eyes were on an enormous section of brick wall on the other side of the room which, in an electrifying twist I would never have predicted, actually slid apart revealing that it was, in fact, not a brick wall with ‘Food Network Star’ painted on it at all – but a giant cartoon door! And before you hastily jump to conclusions, this was clearly unlike the giant cartoon doors used on Who Wants To Be The Next I-ron Chef or Sweet Genius because they obviously didn’t have the Food Network Star logo painted on them. So it was very different. And they were made to look like brick.
Rather than sit at a cloth-lined dais in pompous judgement of competitors as in years past, Bob T and Susie Fogelson strode out from the giant cartoon doors and stood before the Sith Apprentices and explained to them what they’d done in the previous hour and twenty-seven minutes in case they hadn’t been paying close attention. It was also noted that Susie enjoyed Judson’s ‘total package,’ and Bob T wanted more Ippy. And really, who could blame him?
The team headed by Dark Lord Flay had the favourite restaurant with the stupidest name and were safe from elimination, whereupon they filed slowly out of the Council Chambers in gloating fashion to the chagrin of their adversaries.
Some other things happened too. They weren’t very important. I’d filled my glass with more malt whiskey, though. That was important. And then Cristie and young Rock n’ Roll Josh (he has a band) were up for elimination. Mostly because Josh was told he couldn’t just rely on tricks to mask his culinary inabilities and he was wearing a scarf. Cristie, on the other hand, had been touched by the Stark Fist of Removal from the very beginning and was undaunted by the fact that ‘fed up’ was two words.
In what was perhaps the most surprising declaration of the evening, however, and a bewildering spin which blind-sided me by its sheer innovation, Bob T explained that the two Sith Apprentices would have ‘one last chance’ to save themselves by being set against each other in a culinary combat he called a ‘Producer Challenge.’ This would be something very like a ‘sudden death cook-off’ of sorts in which the Sith Apprentices would have just 30 minutes to prepare one dish. Whomever created the superior dish would overcome their competitor, seal their fate and their advancement towards The Dark Side would be complete.
But this New & Improved segment, I soon realised, would be absolutely nothing like other cook-off bits we’ve ever seen on Food Network, for example in Who Wants To Be The Next I-ron Chef or the more recent Rachael v Guy: Celebrity Shaka Zulu. In those programmes, two I-ron Chef hopefuls or two nominal celebrities, each of whom had been considered the least effective at their various tasks, were given one half of an hour to compete in a one-on-one trial, often beneath the intense scrutiny of their companions, in which the victory of one competitor would be based entirely on the judgement of their final offerings.
And this was called the Producer Challenge. So it was very different.
But wait! There’s more! After the Sith Apprentices have cooked their potentially last meal under the duress of the ever-watchful gaze of their teammates, they would have to videotape a one-minute presentation ‘to camera’ in which they would introduce their dish through a personal story – in this case a tale and dish suited to a Mother’s Day brunch. The unmitigated newness of this idea – the massive brazenness of it – has no analogue to anything viewers have ever seen on the Food Network before.
And the final New & Improved twist was that these brief, personalised introductory segments, forged with fifteen minutes of aid from the mentors, would be ‘screened’ – industry-speak for ‘viewed’ – in The Pitch Room where, we are ominously told, ‘the fate of shows and talent’ is decided. Oddly, the ominous nature is quickly dispelled when you realise it’s just a painfully sparse room reminiscent of an embarrassing downmarket attempt at the conference room in the overbridge on The Death Star, with a few chairs positioned round a plain rectangular table whose centre has been carved out so a white light shaped much like the Eye of Sauron can shine through an opaque Perspex insert.
Rock n’ Roll Josh made a frittata and, in The Pitch Room, noted that, amongst other things, he used herbs, goat cheese, olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, and onion. Bob T was duly impressed and noted that, amongst other things, there were herbs, goat cheese, garlic and onions in the frittata and that he kept getting ‘happy surprises’ from it. You and I would call that ‘gas.’
Cristie made a Scotch Egg and her assessment that ‘you can’t go wrong with an egg’ was immediately disproved by the confused ending to her personal story which, to the studied eye of Bob T, lacked the joy and excitement to excite a nation and thus the Stark Fist of Removal came down as was prophesied.
Her exit was made in an understated, completely realistic and absolutely not staged in any fashion tracking shot which began as she entered alone into the dimly lighted Council Chambers from an unseen anteroom and crossed towards a large proscenium at the back of the room in a wide arc. As she passed through the proscenium, the large cartoon doors cunningly disguised as a brick wall closed behind her and a spotlight shone brightly on the Food Network Star logo. This was completely unlike the dark and lonely perp walk often seen on HGTV’s Design Star where an ousted competitor would be forced to exit down a darkened hall and out through an obviously artificial iron door made of cheap plywood and grey paint. This was something totally New & Improved.
According to teasers in the opening montage, we get to see Sith Master Alton cry at some point this year. Probably not before I do, though…