The ninth cycle kicked off with a premiere episode that was mostly as bland as some of the potatoes the contestants whipped up for the Star Challenge.
Still, a front-runner emerged, as did a potential villainess. And three contestants were, very satisfyingly, informed that their mission statements were gobbledygook.
Was Baltimore's Rodney "the pie guy" Henry one of them? Henry, a rock musician turned pie-shop owner, is among the group of 12 competing for the big prize of a Food Network show. Did Rodney's pitch tape and personal potato statement land him in the premiere episode's top three, middle six or bottom three?
Returning mentors Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis and Alton Brown had not much to do in this episode. But Flay and Brown both made convincing argument for the three-piece suit, Flay in pinstripes, Brown in windowpane. Flay, De Laurentiis and Brown are judges, too. They're mentors, and they're judges.
Also returning, as additional judges, but not mentors, were Food Network executives Susie Fogelson and Bob Tuschman. In this week's Mentor Challenge, the contestants had to get the execs' attention with a 30-second pitch tape. The mentors were there to help.
This season introduces a new wrinkle — a focus group, who will deliver real-time impressions on (but not mild electric shocks to) the contestants during the Star Challenge via a sinister hand-held contraption.
The contestants, in the order they first walked onto the Food Network stage, are:
Nikki Dinki (New York City), who really wants this. Nikki Dinki wants to teach people how to prepare food in a style she calls "semi-vegetarian." Her catchphrase is "meat on the side." She nailed her pitch tape with no help from the mentors. The Food Network execs liked the simple message she's delivering, and the panel liked her potato-cauliflower parsnip soup. Tuschman told Nikki Dinki she may be "a little cutesy." Nikki Dinki, cutesy?
Rodney Henry (Baltimore) was next. He said he's rough around the edges and a cool cat. "That's my deal," Henry said. Nikki Dinki said she likes his hat. Rodney sailed like a pro through the taping of his pitch tape. Basically, Rodney has arrived at "Food Network Star" as a fully created character named Rodney Henry, which gives him an opening-round advantage. The execs loved his pitch tape, which gets audible chuckles from the focus group, and the panel liked his potato, cheese and blue crab pie even though it isn't a pie.
StaceyPoon-Kinney (San Diego) is a put-together, poised restaurant-owning mom, who's cooking angle is "vintage made modern." She stumbled and stammered with her pitch tape, until Alton Brown told her to ignore everything except the little people on the other side of the camera. The advice took, and Stacey got the job done. The execs admired the "natural warmth" she conveys in the pitch tape, but told her she might have to ratchet it up a bit. The panel really loved her fried potato balls.
Chris Hodgson (Cleveland) is confident, not cocky. In the first take for his pitch tape, Chris said he wants to help kids, take viewers on a culinary adventure and combine passion with compassion. The mentors had no idea what he's talking about and told him so. It's a great TV moment, a victory of sense over sentimentality. When the mentors pressed for specifics, Chris said he wants to help people. The execs said his "cuisine with a cause" message is confusing, and the panel found his stuffed-potato pierogi bland. Stuffed potato pierogi, bland?
Daniela Perez-Reyes (Haleiwa, Hawaii) wants to take viewers on a culinary journey to Peru. She struggled badly with her pitch tape, which the execs told her was a wreck. The panel did like the heat in her Papa a la Huancaina, a traditional Peruvian potato salad.
Russell Jackson (San Francisco) runs an underground restaurant, sports a mohawk and says he's unconventional. In his pitch tape, Russell said he's a "dissident chef" and "an anarchist" who wants to lead a food revolution. The mentors had no idea what he's talking about and told him so. It's another great TV moment, a contestant's empty posturing exposed right out of the gate. The execs told him the message in his pitch tape is unclear, and the panel said his "potato tasting trio" is a great idea, badly executed.
Damaris Phillips (Louisville, Ky.) is wacky Southern girl who's wacky. Her first go at the pitch tape was bad wacky. Flay told Damaris she should try being naturally wacky, instead of weird coquettish wacky. She didn't get much better, and Tuschman declared her tape to be "the oddest 30 seconds" he'd ever seen. But, fortunately for Damaris, her presence at the judge's table was good wacky, and the panel liked her roasted potato salad with bourbon-mustard vinaigrette.
Andres Guillama (Waynesville, N.C.) was formerly obese. Now, he wants to help the average guy. His specialty is Cuban food. The execs told him he looked "closed-down" in his pitch tape and that he was hard to think of as the star of his own show. The panel thinks his Spanish omelet is bland.
Connie "Lovely" Jackson (Los Angeles) says she is in the house and that she's over the top and wants to glam out the kitchen with glam by glamming things up with glam. The mentors had no idea what she's talking about and told her so. It is an awesome TV moment. Asked to explain "glam" in her pitch tape, "Lovely" said that glam might be edible flowers. "Lovely" does tone down the "glam" a bit but not enough. The execs hate it whe "Lovely" says "glam," too, and they tell her to be authentic with no poses.
Chad Rosenthal (Ambler, Pa.) looks like a TV star. A self-described "barbecue Jew from Philly," he's presented in the premiere as a poised and likable instant front-runner. He slam-dunked the making of his pitch tape, which the execs loved and which the focus group actually applauded. The panel liked his potato latke but were hoping he's have brought on more barbecue. Chad said he didn't want to bring on his barbecue all at once.
Danushka Lysek (New York) is a model and private chef, who seemed willing to step into the role of season villainess. Or at least she knows how to accumulate screen time with pithy interview remarks. She executed a hilariously awful pitch tape in which the mentors said she appears angry. "People always say I look angry," Danushka said. The execs said her submitted tape is "bizarre," and the panel said her potato puff is dense. Danushka agreed with all of the criticism. The execs said they could see her as the kind of secondary character that delivers gin-soaked remarks on a scripted TV show but can't fathom her as the host of a Food Network show.
Viet Pham (Salt Lake City) comes in with the most impressive cheffing credentials, having bested Bobby Flay on an episode of "Iron Chef America." Viet said he represents the American dream. But his pitch tape is a wreck, and the execs told him he'll have get more comfortable. But they loved his potato croquette, which had hot soup inside of it. It sounded to me like you'd bite into it and go OWWWWWWWW.