I admit, I'm a Top Chef person, not a The Next Food Network Star person. Like millions of others I was addicted to Bravo's reality show about professional chefs with immense cooking talent and even more immense egos, and looked forward every week to watching them accept some bizarre food challenge and whip up something incredible. Sure, I loved the Food Network and everything it brought me-- Giada! Rachael! Ina! Bobby!-- but it never occurred to me to want to watch that particular TV chef sausage get made.
Being challenged to both cook well and appear competent on television is kind of insane at first glance, but Food Network is such a hit that it'sspinning off a whole new network; clearly there's something about watching someone chop an onion and talk to you that appeals to us. The Next Food Network Star basically assembles a bunch of talented chefs in order to tell them over and over "This is not as easy as it looks." Especially in the first episode (which Food Network provided to me in advance), you see otherwise competent and engaging people completely fall apart in front of the camera, cracking terrible jokes, waving their hands wildly, and worst of all, falling completely silent.
I've got to tell you-- it's totally compelling, and not just in a schadenfreude way. The challenges of Top Chef will test the contestants' cooperation and time management, but none of them require the kind of personality and cool nerves that the Next Food Network Star contenders must demonstrate in spades. Each chef walks into the house with their whole on-camera personality ready to go-- Alexis is the hipster farm guy, Brianna the seductive party girl, Paul the comedian good-time guy-- and then the minute they go on camera, nearly all of them start to doubt it. With Giada De Laurentiis watching from behind the camera as celebrity mentor, you can almost hear the contestants saying to themselves "Giada can do this, and so can I!" What we learn over and over again in the first episode is, no they can't. But that's what makes a challenge fun, right?
Some clear frontrunners emerge in the early episodes, two chefs highly capable of letting their personality shine through on camera and, nearly as important, actually finish the dishes they set out to make. But what's remarkable is how nearly all of them are disasters in some way, from trying to make complicated gnocchi in an allotted 30 minute time to, as one chef does in the second episode, making jokes so bad they actually turn off customers. The learning curve for being a TV star is incredibly steep, even for the group of experienced chefs they've cast here, and it makes them all more sympathetic and entertaining than the egomaniacal hotheads on Top Chef (much as I love them).
After watching the premiere episode I went to the Food Network offices to talk to two of the show's judges, Senior VP of Programming and Production Bob Tuschman and Senior VP of Marketing, Creative Services and Brand Strategy Susie Fogelson. The two are experienced Food Network Star judges, and teased a little of what we should expect from the new season-- drama from the ladies more than the men, more focus on the cooking skills, and an effort to find the Next Star who isn't just a talented chef, but is a person they actually want to work with in the future.
The Next Food Network Star's new season debuts this Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Food Network. WIth its bright colors, engaging personalities and genuinely challenging challenges, it's pretty much the ideal summer programming for those of us with kitchens too hot to cook. I can't promise I won't be visiting my first love Top Chef, but I'm happy to add Food Network Star to the lineup.