10 Thoughts On The Next Food Network Star [Season 5, Episode 4]

1) The opening challenge is to create a burger representing a state in the union and to give a 30-second camera presentation as to how, exactly, that burger represents the given state. The winner of the challenge will have their burger featured on the menu at Bobby Flay’s new Bobby’s Burger Palace in Connecticut. They weren’t really clear on whether the states were pre-selected or not. I’m guessing no because it seemed like each contestant got to create what they wanted. These challenges are my favorite type because they really show who “gets it.” Who does — Michael nailed this challenge. A Mulberry Street NYC burger. A patty stuffed with mozzarella cheese and a couple of green toppings on a garlic bread (!!!!) roll with a side of marinara sauce. That is a Bobby Flay burger. Melissa — A burger with Vermont Cheddar cheese and a scoop of turkey chili. Nailed. On top of that, she is one of maybe two finalists who “got” the camera presentation. It’s one of the advantages that a middle-aged home cook has over the chefs. She actually has stories about where recipes came from. These contestants have a hard time differentiating which challenges are about the food and which are about the presentation. This burger is going on Bobby Flay’s menu. The challenge is entirely about the food. A contestant could have stumbled and drooled through the challenge and still won if the burger was good enough.

2) Who doesn’t. If you’ve watched Food Network enough, you know what Bobby Flay wants on a burger. He wants the meat to be the star, thus Teddy’s burger with nine million toppers was no good. He’s not going to serve an extra hunk of sausage on a burger, so Jamika’s was out. Katie’s decision to use turkey burgers was wrong on too many levels to count. First off, given the 20-minute time limit, there was a zero-point-zero percent chance of getting her burger cooked to temperature in time. Second, it’s nearly impossible to serve a turkey burger that isn’t dry and gross. Third, unless it’s overspiced, it’s a bland pile of bleh that Bobby Flay isn’t going to serve in a restaurant. She had a much better chance using ground chicken (which better takes on flavor, can cook on four minutes a side, and is a little more forgiving before it dries out) or some kind of salmon or crabcake burger. My arch-nemesis Korean makes a Cal-Asian burger — thoroughly ignoring the challenge as “Asian” does not represent a state. Susie Fogelson loves her Superasian presentation in which she speaks Korean. You know, because an Asian burger presented by a Korean raised in the south represents California like seafood represents a Dakota.

3) Conversely, the second challenge – presenting to soldiers and families on the USS Intrepid – is moderately about food and entirely about personality. Each of the finalists were given a state with a specific few ingredients and had to make an “All-American signature dish” representing the sate with those ingredients. Guy Fieri is your host. The winner of the challenge will be featured on the cover of USA Weekend magazine – which apparently has 49 million. I presumed Michael was either going to get to choose his own basket or assign the baskets out, but nope – just straight up assigned.

4) Jeffrey/Maine — Somehow, Jeffrey gets flustered with his Maine ingredients of lobster, sea salt, and blueberry. The blueberries totally knock him off his game and he just doesn’t recover. He decides on a lobster pot pie, which is a home run, but lack of perfect equipment and his aforementioned fluster kills him. He delivers a terrible looking chowder pot pie which Susie calls “disgusting”. Another thing home-cooks seem to excel at: improvising with less than stellar equipment. He doesn’t recover for his presentation. He seemed totally put off his game at the suggestion of combining lobster and blueberries. Here’s what I don’t understand: two weeks ago he had no problem just blowing off the rules and presenting a dish completely unrelated to his holiday. Why wouldn’t he make a lobster dish and throw together some blueberry soda?

5) Jamika/Wisconsin — cheddar, beer, and sausage. She also complains about the equipment. She decides to combine all the ingredients in to a casserole with potatoes. Really? For Wisconsin? A casserole? Really? She can’t get her potatoes to cook through as apparently even the stove-top knows this is a bad idea. She decides to throw them in the food processor???? She then puts the potatoes over her beer and sausage sauté and drizzles the cheddar over the top before baking it off. For Wisconsin? Really? The idea of either boiling the Brats in beer or creating some beer/cheddar cheese sauce doesn’t occur to her? For Wisconsin? Really? The casserole comes out looking like gluey slop. She made a fantastic presentation and probably would have won this challenge if she’d turned in even a mediocre food. Sometimes the pros need to not overthink their dishes so much. Look at the host of this challenge and ask yourself — What Would Guy Do? He would have probably would have chopped up the brats and fried it with onions, peppers, and spices — then put it on a bun with cheese and beer sauce to make a wacky version of sausage and peppers. And it would have been awesome.

6) Teddy/NY – Teddy gets duck, cream soda, and apples. He decides to create a DLT (duck, lettuce, and tomato) sandwich with a cream soda and apple chutney. And thus comes the smoke-test on whether the food or the presentation matters more as Teddy turns in an absolutely embarrassing and lost presentation. He writes keywords on his hands and forgets where he’s going and winds up rambling. Everyone loves his sandwich but no one can get past just how over-the-top bad he is when he presents. I think if I was to present on television my problem would be mumbling and monotone. I can’t imagine then deciding to overcompensate for that by shouting and being jittery.

7) Melissa/New Mexico — skirt steak, chiles, honey. She decides to taste each chile to gauge the heat. She bravely decides to make tostadas with mango salsa to incorporate the honey and chiles — essentially serving a Bobby Flay dish to Bobby Flay. Proving again that she “gets it” she brings a totally topical presentation about her mother being in the service. Also, correctly, she recognizes that these flavors are in Bobby’s wheelhouse so she’s very careful to put out a great hot/sweet combination. If I’m right and she wins this, it’s because she understands this show better than anyone else.

8) Katie/Georgia – I didn’t catch what her specific ingredients were but I gather they were catfish and squash. She makes an almond and panko encrusted catfish with sweet vidalia onion greens and a molasses and orange butternut squash. She also draws on an Army Ranger family member and fights off tears. Nice touch. NAILS a presentation for the first time. Bobby thinks she’s middle of the road. Doesn’t suck. Isn’t good.

9) Debbie/California — Chicken breast, wine, and almonds. She decides to do a “home-cooked chicken dinner” because home-cooking involves almond-encrusting and braising your chicken in red wine. In the middle of the cooking she gets smashed in the face with a sheet pan as she comes up behind Michael while he’s taking stuff out of the oven. I LOVE MICHAEL!!!!! She spends the rest of the episode scoring sympathy points for her general dumbness. Then comes out and delivers a very level presentation. I don’t understand why the selection committee is down on Jeffrey’s “Zen blandness” but love Debbie for her poise. She consistently delivers bland, monotone presentations but I guess it’s OK because she smiles more? Bob makes excuses for her. Susie has no sympathy. YOU TELL HER SUSIE. I LOVE YOU!

10) Michael/Hawaii — Kampachi, macadamia nuts, pineapple. Macadamia-nut crusted kampachi with pineapple sauce. After becoming my personal hero for smashing Debbie in the face, he mentions that she needs to say “behind” when she comes up behind someone holding stuff. She passive-aggressively apologizes. Then uses her carefully-crafted victim mode to try and throw Michael off his game. Oh, and remember last week I mentioned that Michael was facing his most gay-friendly crowd at Ina Garten’s house? The Intrepid was the exact opposite of that. The Food Network table was on board. Everyone else, not so much. The selection committee loved this presentation. I did not. It seemed a bit over the top for me and not quite enough “know your crowd”. He also said “macadamia nuts” WAY too many times. There is a layup joke here about nuts which I’ll avoid.

In the elimination room, only Teddy has made zero progress with his on-camera ability. The people who blew the second challenge entirely are good on camera. Even Katie, who has been very bad over the last few weeks, made some progress on the Intrepid. So much so that Susie’s complaint fell short. “I don’t want to make you feel worse, but there are basics that you just have to deliver on.” Why? On a show you say. “Make sure this is cooked to 165.” Delivered. Deservedly, Melissa won the second challenge and, I’m sure, got a very nice “All-American Mom” spread in the magazine. I also found Bob’s criticism of Jeffrey’s “Zen Flatness” absurd considering Michael Chiarello’s and Tyler Florence’s continuing employment.

And, to prove again how little food quality actually has to do with the non-food challenges, the girl who turned in raw turkey, the guy who turned in inedible slop, and the girl who turned in a gluey mess all stay and the guy who delivered a smash-hit DLT goes home. Also staying — Korean Victim who successfully turned her own stupidity in to an excuse for a C-plus presentation and a C-minus dish. Keep moving those goal posts forward, guys.