Film and TV

Food Network Star Turns Former Judges into Competitors

At my house, the DVR is always set to record Food Network Star (née The Next Food Network Star). The only Food Network mega-star to emerge from the show was Season Two winner Guy Fieri, although other contestants have developed lasting concepts that continue to air on Food Network. I think one of the things my husband and I like best about the show is that it doesn't churn out another Guy Fieri every year. Can you imagine seven Guy Fieris (Fieries?) screaming WINNER, WINNER CHICKEN DINNER! at you every week?

Work schedules and houseguests meant that the first few episodes Food Network Star season 8 landed on our DVR without our even noticing, so we settled in last weekend to watch a three-episode marathon. Imagine our surprise upon discovering that the format had completely changed.

Gone was the host/judges' panel concept, and in its place were teams with established Food Network star mentors competing against one another in weekly challenges. At the end of each episode, the bottom two -- and sometimes three -- contestants would battle in a 30-minute, Iron Chef-style throwdown, with a one-minute camera presentation.

Senior Vice President of Marketing Susie Fogelson and Senior Vice President/General Manager of Food Network Bob Tuschman remain as the sole judges, while various chefs and Food Network stars make guest appearances on each episode. Oh, and apparently viewers will get to vote on the winner come finale time.

Building a competition-within-a competition into the show, this year the contestants are split into three teams, led by mentors (and former judges) Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis and former show host Alton Brown. In the opening segments of episode one we got a quick look at the team selection process, after which my husband turned to me and said, "They all picked versions of themselves."

That sentiment was echoed by Susie Fogelson when the judges got the first look at their teams -- my husband could totally be a Food Network VP! Alton's team is funky and quirky; there are bow ties, boys wearing tinted lip balm and a girl obsessed with the 1950s to the point where she is always dressed like an edgy June Cleaver. Bobby's team is full of big, boisterous personalities -- Team Alton's Emily (the '50s chick) describes them as "jocks," which seems kind of apt -- while Giada's team has a lot of upbeat, peppy folks with big, toothy grins. A few standouts from each team:

Team Alton: 1950s Emily has a very distinctive look, and a cool point of view (updated classics); the tinted-lip-balm guy is a really young chef named Justin whose weirdness will be either unwatchable or fascinating; Judson wears bow ties and lost more than 100 pounds. • Team Bobby: Eric is a chef at a California winery who quit his job to do the show, and prides himself on handcrafted foods; Nikki won Bobby over in auditions with her "Girl on Grill" point of view, a phrase that makes my husband do a double take every time she says it. • Team Giada: Constant Josh is a sushi chef who sings in a rock band and who can barely give an on-camera interview without using the words "rock and roll," and, yes, that is annoying; Ippy is a Hawaiian-born-and-raised chef who is also half-Italian, completely adorable and very laid-back.

Most episodes are crafted around an existing Food Network show format or concept. In Episode one, Chef Robert Irvine (Restaurant Impossible) is the guest judge-ish, mentor-ish person, and the teams are challenged to build a restaurant from the ground up. Irvine's presence implies this is sort of a riff on his show, but frankly it's a lot more like the short-lived Chef Scott Conant show, 24 Hour Restaurant Battle. Whatever, I guess. In this episode we start to get to know the contestants. Sushi chef/rock star Josh decides calling himself the rock-and-roll chef isn't enough, and does an awkward somersault onto a stage before a big presentation ('cause rockers are great tumblers?) while tinted-lip-balm Justin starts showing us that his weird vibe is more warm than off-putting.

Episode two gets the contestants out of the studio and onto a New York City tour bus. Each team is assigned a neighborhood (Giada gets Little Italy, and Alton complains bitterly behind her back about it) and each contestant has to visit one culinary destination, craft a dish based on that destination and give a two-minute presentation to the tourists about it. Eating and talking on a moving bus seems horrible to me, and to Emily, who gets carsick in the middle of her presentation. Josh gives a rambling story about Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro that has no relevance to his neighborhood or his food.

In episode three, the contestants move back to the studio for a Chopped-inspired episode. No Ted Allen, though -- boo! Even though Scott Conant and Alex Guarnaschelli go super-easy on the contestants, it's still fun to watch them get thrown into the fire.

Perhaps even more interesting than the contestants at this point is seeing the former judges-turned-mentors compete against each other. If you follow Alton Brown on Twitter, it might not surprise you that he's kind of a prickly dude. After seeing the judges' teams, I thought maybe the new format would fall flat -- after all, the network already has a Bobby, and an Alton, and a Giada -- but I really enjoy the added level of competition between the three (okay, I enjoy Alton's temper tantrums and huffiness) as well as the team atmosphere among the contestants.

On previous seasons, when the contestants competed individually there was always a lot of moaning and groaning during team challenges; having them start on teams seems like a good way to get them to focus on working together while allowing the judges and the audience to determine each contestant's strengths and weaknesses. And while the contestants do reflect their mentors' general style, they are emerging as individuals who have their own strong points of view. I like this new format much more than I anticipated.

Notice how I didn't give you any details about who has been eliminated so far? That's because we are early enough in the season, and the new format is compelling enough, that if you aren't watching the show, I think you should consider picking it up. The Food Network reruns the previous episode each week in the time slot before the new episode, or you can catch up with full episodes online. For extra Food Network Star fun, follow mentors Giada De Laurentiis, Alton Brown and Bobby Flay on Twitter.

Food Network Star airs on the Food Network Sunday at 8 p.m. (CT).

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Christina Uticone