The Foolishness of “The Next Food Network Star”

One of the first things you need to understand about the Food Network Star competition is that cooking ability is the least important of the qualities the Food Network seeks from its contestants.


Television’s Food Network, which The Curmudgeon generally enjoys even though he has the palate of a six-year-old boy, launches an annual and highly artificial competition to attempt to create its own new “star.” There’s nothing wrong with the program or the concept – except that the contestants are flawed, the challenges are flawed, the judging is flawed, and the results, because of all those flaws, are ridiculous.

The contestants are seriously flawed. Have you seen any great chefs – or even any particularly good chefs – compete for the distinction of becoming the next Food Network “star”? Have you seen any chefs who would last even two weeks on Bravo’s Top Chef? Any chefs whose food you’d be willing to drive twenty miles for if they opened a restaurant two towns down from you? The Curmudgeon thinks not.

So if it’s not about the cooking, what’s it about? Personality. On the Food Network, the emphasis is on personality, not cooking skills. Despite this, have you seen any interesting personalities compete on Food Network Star? (Hint: obnoxious is not the same as interesting. Nor is quirky. Nor is weird.) No again.

The challenges are flawed as well. Actually, they’re more like stunts – cheap stunts that have nothing to do with identifying either a cooking or a television talent. Winning these competitions is by no means an indicator of someone’s likelihood of succeeding as a Food Network “personality.” Most of the contests ask participants to cook and present things in ways they would never, ever do if they had their own Food Network program. It’s sort of like asking actors auditioning for roles in Romeo & Juliet to prove they can sing and dance. It’s nice if the performers have those talents but there’s not a whole lot of singing and dancing going on among the Capulets and the Montagues.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Food Network Star is the judging – starting with the premise that the people doing the judging are qualified to determine who would be good on television. Let us start with The Curmudgeon’s least-favorite judge: Food Network executive Bob Tuschman. This is an easy one: if Tuschman was such an expert on what makes for good television he would never, ever allow himself to be an on-air judge. He must be a Food Network boss, though – a boss whose subordinates are too weak, too inept, or too subservient to tell him he has no business on television, that seeing him and listening to him must surely drive people to their remotes in search of a nice and safe Law & Order rerun. Is there any less appealing person on television today – anywhere? (Okay, maybe Sean Hannity.) Only one person benefits from his participation on this program: his co-judge, Susie Fogelson, who is no slouch in the obnoxious department herself but who, compared to The Tusch (and yes, The Curmudgeon is aware of the other use of this term, and yes, he believes it applies quite wonderfully in this case), is practically Mother Teresa.

A twist in this year’s competition is that the contestants are divided into groups coached by current Food Network “stars.” The only actual chef among those coaches is Bobby Flay, who has restaurants around the country and presumably once earned his living in the kitchen instead of in the board room and on television. Flay has a new venture, Bobby’s Burger Palace, that suggests that neither quality nor service matter much to this particular celebrity; the food is perhaps a half-step above that of McDonald’s and the service would benefit from a few lessons from Mickey D’s. The second celebrity coach is Alton Brown, who made his Food Network bones on his show Good Eats. Brown was terrific on that show, and he’s very good on Iron Chef, too. So how is it that a guy who’s so good on two shows is such a complete and utter tool on everything else into which the Food Network tries so awkwardly to wedge him? It’s not enough for him to judge; he seems determined to do so with a grim sense of self-importance and self-righteousness that sends The Curmudgeon running for his remote. The third celebrity coach is Giada DeLaurentiis, another performer cruelly forced on the viewing public by the Food Network. Let’s be honest: if she wasn’t adorable, wasn’t willing to show her cleavage, and didn’t have a mouth that looked like it was made to hold something the size and shape of a large cucumber, she wouldn’t have a television show. She’s certainly not employed by the Food Network for her culinary expertise.

The result of this great mess is…a great mess. The program has produced one legitimate star: Guy Fieri, whose Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, one of The Curmudgeon’s favorite programs on television, seems to constitute most of the Food Network’s prime time schedule these days.

But the other “next” stars? For people who are supposed to be very special, they’ve proven to be very ordinary. Here’s a list of the other (non-Fieri) “next star” winners:

Jeff Mauro
Aarti Sequeira
Melissa d’Arabian
Aaron McCargo, Jr.
Amy Finley
The Hearty Boys

See any “stars” on this list? The Curmudgeon doesn’t. See people who even still have programs on the Food Network? The Curmudgeon sees a few, but don’t you think they all, if they’re such stars, should have their own Food Network program? Of those few who still have programs, do you see any who have prime-time programs? Or are they all relegated to Saturday morning and other times when the network draws about eight viewers?

The reality is that the Food Network is staging a contest for potential “stars” of the very kinds of programs it doesn’t want to air anymore: shows where someone stands behind a stove and demonstrates how to cook. Gone is Emeril Lagasse, who could be a bit of a clown but who also could cook up a storm. Gone is Mario Batali, who probably knows more about cooking and food than anyone who’s ever been on the Food Network. Gone is the oh-so-serious but oh-so-skilled Sara Moulton. Gone are Jamie Oliver and Tyler Florence, replaced – especially in the network’s prime-time schedule – by contests (Iron Chef, the cupcake sissy, Chopped, Food Network Star, and the extraordinarily obnoxious Sweet Genius); the insufferable Robert Irvine, speaking badly to and about people and pretending that failure is imminent even though every viewer knows failure is not possible; and Guy Fieri’s wonderful Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.

Meanwhile, programs that show people how to cook are relegated to Saturday morning and weekday mornings and afternoons – when we’re all asleep or at work. There you’ll find Rachael Ray, who never appealed very much to The Curmudgeon but who now looks better and better, in comparison to other Food Network fare, with every passing year; the phony-as-a-three-dollar-bill Paula Deen; and of course, the wonderful Ina Garten. This is where the next Food Network star will end up – but not for very long, because history suggests that the next Food Network star will quickly become an unemployed former Food Network star. Of course, at the Food Network, The Tusch would probably declare Jacques Pepin to be unemployable.

Maybe the math suggests that producing one Guy Fieri in eight years makes it all worthwhile. But if it doesn’t, then the Food Network is guilty of deceiving viewers into thinking it’s going to do something substantial with its new “stars” and then relegating them to middle-of-the-night time slots before tossing them aside like yesterday’s news. Last year’s “star,” Jeff Mauro, hosts one of the worst programs the Food Network has aired since it parted ways with Robin Leach: a show about – can you believe this? – cooking hamburgers! The only reasonable explanation for this waste of time is that The Tusch and Susie came to realize what an abysmal choice they made and are now distancing themselves from poor Jeff, who’s probably a few months away from working the line at a T.G.I. Friday’s – or maybe Bobby’s Burger Palace.

The premise of Food Network Star is that it’s a competition between (typically) young cooks with personality, the assumption being that if they’re great cooks and have great personalities, you have the makings of a Food Network star. The reality, though, is that it presents no great chefs and no great personalities and no one with a meaningful chance of becoming a future Food Network star. Instead, the network is suckering those poor contestants into thinking they might one day grow up to be a Bobby Flay or a Guy Fieri – or, if the curves work out right, a Giada DeLaurentiis – and they’re suckering Food Network viewers into watching a contest in which the winner wins nothing at all.