Written By Rick
Ellis, Sunday, July 27th, 2008
In some serious culinary circles, the Food Network prompts a lot of
sneers and complaints. Critics whine that the network's stars are often
lightweight or more concerned with being a TV personality than being
an inventive chef.
While I understand the complaints, I don't generally agree with them.
It's unrealistic to expect people who host television shows to not being
as comfortable in front of the camera as they are behind a stove. And
I don't think that every show on the Food Network needs to be a ponderous
look at the history of French cafe cooking.
Most viewers of the Food Network probably are a lot like me. We don't
work full-time in a kitchen somewhere. We may not even consider ourselves
"foodies." We're just people who like to cook, who are looking
for ideas and a bit of entertainment along the way.
That's one of the reasons I've enjoyed "The Next Food Network Star"
during its four-season run. Yes, it's interesting to see the contestants
battle to win their own Food Network show. But it's also easy to watch
the show and imagine that, given a slightly different life, we could
be competing on the show.
When it comes to creating a Food Network "star," the track
record of the show is a modest one. Season Two winner Guy Fieri has
rapidly become an institution at the network. But season one winners
Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh never seemed to gain traction with audiences.
Season three winner Amy Finley originally finished third, before returning
to the show to ultimately win after Joshua Adam "Jag" Garcia "withdrew"
from the show. Finley's often-awkward series "The Gourmet Next
Door" lasted six episodes before she reportedly decided she wasn't
comfortable being on television.
All of this turmoil prompted changes to the show in season four, and
while the moves were understandable, the results weren't always a net
positive. Producers wanted to make sure they ended up with a winner
who was both comfortable on camera and wanted to be a "star."
So they chose a number of contestants who certainly wanted to be on
camera. But their cooking skills were often not equal to their ambitions
to be a star.
On the upside, all of the added emphasis on camera skills did ultimately
result in some finalists capable of putting together a solid TV show.
And by removing the public vote from the final decision (instead, the
winner was decided by Food Network executives), the network also insured
they would get the winner who best matched their requirements. And by
premiering the winner's show the week following the finale, they could
capitalize on the viewer interest from the competition.
This season's last episode came down to a battle between three finalists:
Aaron McCargo, Jr., Lisa Garza and Adam Gertler. Each was paired with
veteran producer Gordon Elliott and asked to create a four-and-a-half
minute pilot for their proposed show.
Elliott showed why he is such a successful producer for the network.
As he worked with each finalist, he quickly got down to the core of
who they are on camera. He helped them define their pitch and directed
them throughout the process. The fact that they all cranked out solid
pilots is a testament to his skills.
Ultimately, each pilot really showed the strengths of the participants.
And that probably was the reason why Lisa Garza didn't win. Her show
was informative and nicely paced. But she still has this edge to her
personality that is unsettling to watch. While that isn't necessarily
her fault, it's still enough to convince me that I wouldn't want to
watch her every week.
Adam Gertler's pilot combined webcam questions for a viewer with a recipe
in a way that can best be described as a hipper, high-tech version of
Sara Moulton's old live Food Network show from a few years back. He
was confident and entertaining and if the network was smart, they would
move that show instantly to their web site.
Aaron McCargo, Jr.'s show was called "Big Daddy's Kitchen,"
and it seemed to be an extension of what viewer's had seen the previous
week. McCargo had shot a promo with Bobby Flay in a Las Vegas casino,
and the big, bold personality that came out during that photo shoot
was in evidence during the pilot. While he was still tentative at times,
McCargo was still a larger-than-life personality. And given the fact
that in that way he has a lot in common with Guy Fieri, I can see why
the Food Network would find a show hosted by him to be a certain winner.
Watching the finale did leave me with some unsettled questions however.
The judges unexpectedly brought McCargo back for the finale despite
a lackluster performance during the previous week's Las Vegas challenges.
Which makes me more than a little suspicious about whether they wanted
him back because he deserved it that week. Or whether it was because
he was the person they were hoping would give a strong enough performance
to be chosen the winner.
The announcement of the winner itself was a bit awkward. The only explanation
given for the judges decision was they were picking the person who was
"ready tomorrow" to begin working on a show. Although it appeared
that the finale was taped awhile ago. Otherwise, why would host Bobby
Flay tease his show with the generic "It'll premiere next week."
I realize they had to cram a lot into one hour. But maybe this was one
time when a little extra exposition would have been helpful.
I also wish that the network was more transparent with their decision
making on this show. Given some of the PR challenges they've had, shedding
a little more light on some of the behind-the-scenes details would do
the Food Network and the participants of "The Next Food Network
Star" a lot of good.
Still, I'm a fan of the show and of the Food Network. I might not always
agree with their decisions, but I'm certainly never bored. And hey,
I've learned a few cooking tips along the way.