Let's face it: Reality TV in no way actually constitutes "reality". The first season of any new reality show is generally the most honest, I think, but, as time goes on, you can see the "types" begin to creep in...the manufactured drama, the camera cuts edited in to support the storyline(s) the producers want to tell, et cetera.
I like "The Next Food Network Star" because there is at least some talent involved - at least initially. As more seasons have come and gone, food and food knowledge has been left largely behind in place of "personalities" and contestants made up of people with acting resumes and multiple reality TV appearances. While there is a need to find a mix of the ability to cook, the ability to teach, and the ability not to stare into a camera like a deer in the headlights, this season's crop of contestants - minus a few - have pretty much sounded the death knell of my interest in this show. To go over everyone would take too long so I'm just going to highlight the few who have (a) made an impression or (b) made me roll my eyes so hard that I have been able to map the back of my skull:
Nikki Dinki - I liked Nikki. She had an interesting POV that is rarely ever given any support by the Food Network. IOW, the vegetarians never make it to the end. I do agree with Alton that her ability to cook outstripped her overall food knowledge but that is something I think they could have worked with. Heck, give her to Alton for a month or two! He'll make sure she knows her stuff.
She also had good camera presence. She looked very natural in the field assignment for the donut place and she can *ahem* speak coherently unlike some other contestants. She's personable and doesn't beat you over the head with shtick. Her plating for Sunday night's challenge was definitely a misstep (hello, ocean of rice!) and I can see where she was not able to consistently display the food "authority" the judges kept claiming they were looking for. But I do think those are things that can be fixed and she could work on.
I would have watched her show. Vegetables are food and Food Network sorely neglects them other than a quick nod to them as a side dish. I would have liked to see much more of her.
Rodney Henry - He claims a point of view called "Pie Style" or, as he mumbles it, "Pah Stl". When asked what pie style is, he can formulate neither an informative nor comprehensive answer. Apparently, it's a "way of life". Really? For who? Aging hipsters who stole Vince Vaughn's Swingers-era shtick and refuse to give it back? Everything he makes is a pie. Everything. They already have a show like this where the guy makes everything into a sandwich and I don't watch it. Why would I want to watch a guy try to cram everything into a pie shell?
He cannot talk coherently about food unless you allow him liberal use of the words "super", "awesome", "cool", "delicious". He does not explain what he does or why he does it and he mumbles like a failed Demosthenes. Alton and company keep talking about food authority and I see none in him. For a guy who claims to be a pie expert, IIRC, only ONE of his pies has even been judged to be edible by the judges (as in they would want to eat more of it).
Last night's episode was just appalling. In his remake of chicken cacciatore, he forced it into a pie crust and then deep-fried it. While an interesting idea, what the camera showed was a total abomination - burst crust, filling spilling out, and (as Alton commented upon eating it) raw dough. Yet he moves on based on his "star power" despite the fact all appearances point to the fact that he can't cook or talk about cooking in anything resembling a coherent manner.
*sigh* All hail the second coming of Guy Fieri. Can someone please hide this guy's guitar?
Damaris Phillips - She's a culinary instructor with a Southern POV. While Food Network is currently doing the Southern thing to death (The Shed? Honestly...), I think she is very warm and friendly on camera once she stops being nervous. She has largely dropped the shoulder shimmy and other things that were showing how uncomfortable she was and has grown on camera. I think she explains well and I've wanted to try several of the things she's made on the show.
While she may come across as a little exaggerated sometime, she has a much quieter (and more welcome) presence than many of Food Network's previous Southern hosts for me. Paula Deen became an absolute caricature by the end and the Neelys were annoying right from the start with the stir-and-slap-and-tickle show.
In a way, Damaris reminds me of Sunny Anderson and Aarti Sequiera - not overly loud, not bent on being a big personality, but someone who loves both cooking and eating food and wants to share that and her knowledge with others. I'd watch her show.
Connie "Lovely" Jackson - I'm not sure what her point of view was because she was so obsessed with herself. She also broke the first rule of nicknames as explained by Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory when he was trying to suggest the nickname of "Rocket Man" for himself to the astronauts: You cannot give yourself a nickname. Nicknames must be given to you. When you try to give yourself a nickname, it generally backfires:
It was interesting watching her each week during the judging. She would plaster a smile on her face and try to come across as incredibly gracious when the judges were critiquing her, but the moment they started saying anything negative about her presentation or her food, you could just see the smile come right off her face and be replaced by a rather unLovely look.
I also could never get a handle on her POV. Everything was "glamorous" or "party" or some kind of amped-up version of food. But what was she cooking? What was her background? What styles of cooking was she employing? French? Asian? Contemporary? Meat and potatoes? Roadkill? All I ever really got was that Lovely's idea of a show was that it would be all about Lovely. Anything else - including food - would be secondary.
Stacey Poon-Kinney - Her theme is vintage kitchen or taking classic dishes and giving them a modern twist. I'm not sure exactly how the maple bacon cheesecake fit into that but I digress...
I do agree with the judges that there is something not quite genuine about her. While she is polished and can present well to camera, I find myself sort of mentally skimming what she says - watching the performance more than listening to what she is talking about. In a way, she's another Giada DeLaurentiis for me. I like a fair amount of Giada's food but I find her show(s) to be more of an exercise of "look at me and my glamorous lifestyle". I tend to tune out Giada's descriptions (since there are only so many times that you can describe things as lemony or minty), check the title of the dish she is making and then go to Food Network's web site to read the recipe and see if I want to make it. I can see myself doing the same thing with Stacey. I would look at the titles of her shows on the web site and then go find the recipe I want - but not watch her show. To me, she lacks the ability to...well, make fun of herself the way Damaris can, to laugh at herself and realize that not everything has to come across like a beauty pageant competition. She can let the cracks show.
Russell Jackson - He seems to go between being a "culinary revoluntionary" and "culinary sins". I'm not sure exactly what that entails but I find him interesting. When he first started the show, my immediate thought was total trainwreck. The stammering, the blank looks into the camera...I figured he'd be gone in the first few weeks. Surprisingly, though, he hung on and has greatly improved. You can still hear him pausing slightly when he talks on camera but he's coming across as more coherent and thoughtful and with a greater knowledge of food than I originally thought he had.
I really liked his dish in last night's challenge. He updated a tired, stuffed chicken dish but kept the flavors and kept the ingredients largely the same to appeal to both old and new customers. It looked good and it sounded delicious. Plus, he was able to articulate why he felt he should be on Food Network and do so in a manner that was engaging and pointed to his culinary expertise.
Will he do well under the pressure of trying to complete X number of shows under a strict timeline? That remains to be seen. He's getting better under pressure but he still has a way to go. I'm hoping he doesn't blow it when they present to the network in next week's episode 'cause he's one of the few I'm rooting for. I like his personality. I like him much better on camera now that he's starting to get the hang of it and I think his food has gotten better as he's gone along and learned to relax a little; not so much "Underground Chef!" as knowledgeable and talented chef.
So, to recap:
Would have watched - Nikki
Would watch - Damaris, Russell
Would not watch - Stacey, Lovely
Would throw my TV out the window - Rodney