If there is the glory that is Top Chef, there is its trashy cousin The Next Food Network Star. Of course, the show sadly is not that trashy – and it is interesting in its way. However, to say its ambitions are a bit, ahem, lower than that of Bravo’s competition program is not at all inaccurate. While Bravo is trying to (in theory) identify the best new culinary superstar, the Food Network is merely trying to fill a job opening and identify a TV personality. Since Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee are TV personalities – I am not especially heartened. In retrospect, the two shows do not differentiate as a matter of trashiness so much as … well the difference between steak at Smith and Wollensky and a Five Guys burger. Both are good, one is different.
One of the big problems with The Next Food Network Star is that really the stuff that differentiates the contestants has happened before the finale. Obviously there is a difference between the three candidates standing, but the final episode does not offer a whole lot that is differentiating – it is more an act of loving television network masturbation, a victory lap for Food Network to celebrate its personalities and its relentless pursuit of easy preparation of slightly decent meals. The three contestants were all nice stories to follow: Herb, the personal trainer, has a good camera personality, but was wildly uneven and often paralyzed on screen … Aarti, a total Indian sweetheart who yeah – does have presence, albeit without a ton of self confidence … and Tom, the large daring, charismatic train wreck of a man – sort of your John Kruk before he put on glasses and suit on ESPN. Indeed their roles are neatly carved out – Herb the personality with the raw material, Aarti with the food, Tom with the charm. They all were pretty clearly the best choices to get to the finale.
However, like every finale for this show, they have to put together their pilot and it gets shown to the selection committee (Bobby Flay and a couple marketing types) and a focus group (predictably inane). Rachael Ray comes in to help direct the pilot. Unfortunately, this sort of episode while educational (you actually get to see what they might look like in a rehearsed show), kills a lot of suspense. It’s hard for the contestants to put a pilot together, but do you think the network would let them die – not put their best foot forward? Of course not! So we get three nice pilots, that show the contestants at their best … there is no chance for a shocking twist, we’re sort of congratulating them for their effort. As the show concluded, Bobby Flay announces the winner. They had a set he called the “Food Network Hall of Fame” with – get this – paintings of each of the network’s personalities. Yeah, like they do with the Heisman Trophy. Sure, I totally believe this. Of course they have the covered painting with the new star (hey, where is the Aaron McCargo painting?). Ultimately, the network (and they are honest about this) is looking for a possible brand star. The choice was both good an obvious – Aarti will be a good host, and they needed that sort of diversity on the staff. But as television, riveting it was not.