Welcome to the sixth episode of this season's "Food Network Star," in which Baltimore's own Rodney "Pie Guy" Henry takes center stage.
Seven of the original 12 contestants were left at the start of this pivotal episode, which called upon the hopefuls to develop a product for their own "brand."
In the first part of the challenge, contestants had one hour to concoct two products for the judges' consideration. After hearing the judges' advice, the contestants would choose one product to take to the marketplace. They'd each work on the product's packaging with a graphic designer, and then pitch their products to real-world marketing executives.
The challenge favored the contestants like Henry, Chad Rosenthal and Russell Jackson who had, at some point in their lives, dreamed of seeing their own products on a supermarket shelf. And it put contestants like Nikki Dinki and Chris Hodgson, whose missions were generalized, at a disadvantage.
All that in a minute, but first:
Absent: The real-people focus group, and the sinister "dials of doom," which they use to deliver real-time impressions on (but not mild electric shocks to) the contestants. Also missing was the show's basic mentor (immunity) challenge/star (elimination) challenge format. This week's episode was another all-in-one mega-challenge.
Also absent: Viet Pham, who was eliminated last week for not having charisma.
It was a good -- but not perfect -- week for three contestants, whom the judges dubbed "the cream of the crop."
Damaris Phillips: The executives like the flavors in her peach-chili jam and they especially liked the labeling and packaging Damaris came up with. But Damaris is still struggling with how to present herself. Should she be appealingly zany or dully authoritative? She can't ever seem to find the right balance, and the mentors don't ever give her the kind of practical help you'd hope to see from, say, a mentor.
Russell Jackson: The executives like Russell's caramelized bacon candy but they don't see how it would work in a retail setting. It's something that would be served in a restaurant, they said. But Russell charmed everyone with his "sinful" sales pitch, which, for the first time this season came across as engaging instead of either mildly threatening or defensive. A very good week for Russell.
Stacey Poon-Kinney: The executives liked Stacey's butterscotch sauce and they liked her "vintage made modern" approach, too. The judges are still trying to get her to loosen up, though. If Stacey can find a cute way to screw something up, she'll be golden.
That left these Rodney, Chad, Nikki and Chris in the bottom four and all in danger of elimination.
Chad: The barbecue specialist keeps making food that tasters find overly sweet. His decision to package his baked beans in a glass jar backfired when the executives didn't like the way the beans looked. And his explanation for the name he gave the product, Big Boys Baked Beans, was confusing and unconvincing.
Nikki: The vegetarian chef came up with a roasted pepper and tomato sauce that failed to excite much interest among the executives, and she was completely unprepared for basic questions about how she saw the product being merchandised.
But Chad and Nikki were saved from elimination, which left just Rodney and Chris on the chopping block.
Chris had trouble pitching his smoked-apple ketchup. He didn't connect with the product or the executives. Only later did it come out that Chris' family operates the largest apple smokehouse in the state of Ohio, which is exactly the kind of detail that would have made him seem authentic, the judges told him.
Rodney was told not to over think his product, an all-in-one quiche kit, and to keep things simple. But he went full-out gonzo on the packaging and did a bad job, the judges said, on explaining to the executives exactly what the product was.
Rodney looked stunned to find himself in danger of elimination. The judges clearly liked his quiche and they really liked his rockabilly pitch, complete with original song.
But the judges told Rodney that charming the executives doesn't matter if they don't buy your product.
You can see their point. The packaging Rodney came up with would never work on a real-world supermarket shelf. And he did do a bad job explaining what the product was.
At the end, Rodney was saved and Chad was sent home.
The episode ended with Rodney, looking into the camera, and saying, "I'm meant to do this ... it's my destiny."