Food Network Star, Food Network’s long-running hit primetime series returns to New York City with fifteen talented hopefuls and completely new twists for season eight – this year, returning stars Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis move from behind the judge’s table to square off with culinary favorite Alton Brown for a three-way team competition to find the next Food Network Star. The three “Star” mentors each hand-select a team of five finalists, who they will produce and counsel through the ‘Star’ experience to find one winner who possesses personality and kitchen chops.
Over the years I’ve developed a pretty good format for breaking down each episode. Then Food Network went and reworked the show so now I’m just going to have to wing it.
Tonight’s episode: In the much-anticipated two-hour season premiere, fifteen hopefuls arrive in the Food Network Star kitchens to meet their mentors, Bobby Flay, Alton Brown and Giada De Laurentiis. The mentors gather their teams of five before they face their very first challenge. Special guest Robert Irvine (Restaurant: Impossible) explains they must create their own pop-up restaurant from the ground up—with an extremely limited budget and very little time. Robert also throws the contestants a curve ball by revealing they must perform a live presentation to drive customers to their restaurant.
I did a pop-up at Bay City Grill in Satsuma, AL for Valentine’s Day. It took months of planning and a week to execute the menu and it still had it’s snags (I prepared three entrees but 82% of out guests got the same one). I can’t wait to see them pull it off in one day.
Here is this year’s cast:
Eric Lee, 44, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and UCLA, where he studied sociology. He currently lives in Petaluma, CA and has served as the executive chef for a winery for the past ten years. Eric loves to deconstruct and recreate classic dishes. TEAM BOBBY
Kara Sigle, 31, began her catering business in Chicago while attending college, but her love for food began years earlier as she watched her mother cook. An avid fitness guru, Kara puts her healthy spin on favorite tried-and-true dishes. TEAM BOBBY
Malcolm Mitchell, 41, pursued a culinary arts degree after spending four years in the Navy. He then realized that he could build a career doing what he loved. Malcolm lives in Waldorf, Md. and puts a healthy twist on his soulful recipes for private clients. TEAM BOBBY
Michele Ragussis, 42, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. but fell in love with seafood and New England cuisine when she moved to Rhode Island for college. For the past eight years, she’s worked as an executive chef in restaurants throughout the East Coast. Michele and I have traded a few pleasantries via social media and she comes across as genuine and quirky. That’s my kind of mix. TEAM BOBBY
Nikki Martin, 31, was exposed to the restaurant world as a child attending food shows with her mom, where she sampled the food and learned about the industry. Nikki now owns a Los Angeles catering company focused on globally inspired dishes made with seasonal ingredients. TEAM BOBBY
After spending years in a rock band, Josh Lyons, 42, decided to go to culinary school to fuel his other passion: food. He worked at every level of the restaurant industry including waiter, busser, bartender, manager and line cook and now owns a sushi catering business in Jupiter, Fla. TEAM GIADA
Linkie Marais, 28, immigrated with her family from South Africa when she was 16 and now lives in North Attleborough, Mass. As a teen, she worked for a cake decorator, and after culinary school, she began working as a pastry chef. Linkie uses her heritage as a launching pad for her recipes. She and I have chatted a little on Facebook and she is an absolute sweetheart. TEAM GIADA
Martita Jara, 35, began working in her family’s restaurants at a young age and cultivated a passion for Mexican food from her mother’s home cooking. Self-taught plus two semesters at culinary school, Martita lives in San Diego and cooks with loads of Latin flavor and lots of love. TEAM GIADA
Phillip “Ippy” Aiona, 23, is the executive chef for his family’s Italian restaurant in Hawaii. After growing up in the restaurant business, attending culinary school was a natural fit for the laid-back, yet still competitive Hawaiian native. Ippy injects Pacific ingredients into traditional European cuisine. TEAM GIADA
Yvan Lemoine, 30, moved to the U.S. from Venezuela when he was 13 years old. He started a culinary arts internship through a program at his high school and was hooked. He now cooks for the French Consulate and creates out-of-the-box cocktails at a New York hotspot. TEAM GIADA
Cristie Schoen, 35, grew up in a military family and often cooked for her brothers after school. During college, she studied abroad in Germany and discovered a love for European cooking. Now living in Marina Del Rey, Calif., Cristie loves to put a healthy spin on comfort food classics. TEAM ALTON
Emily Ellyn, 29, grew up on a farm in Ohio, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and then moved to Paris. She is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in hospitality management in Orlando, Fla. Emily loves using fresh, local and culturally intriguing ingredients. Em and I have chatted a little; she’s a doll. TEAM ALTON
Judson Allen, 30, a self-taught and restaurant-trained chef, recently changed his life and eating habits and lost more than 100 pounds. His Chicago catering company is focused on healthy food and nutrition counseling. Inspired by his grandfather, Judson also loves to cook with Creole flavors. Judson and I met up for dinner at Lou Malnati’s on my last trip to Chicago and it was a foodie free-for-all. As likable and earnest a person as I have met in some time. He has the soul of a Southerner. TEAM ALTON
Justin Warner, 27, a self-taught cook, is chef-owner of a hip Brooklyn, N.Y. restaurant that he built from the ground up. Justin began working in restaurants at just 13 years old and his approach to food reflects his personality: edgy, intense, passionate and witty. TEAM ALTON
Martie Duncan, “slightly over 30?, has always loved to cook and entertain, but her varied career includes stints as a police officer, wedding expert and web content developer. She eventually found her true calling and currently runs her own party-planning business in Birmingham, Ala. Martie and I have only briefly chatted but we share a common friend in former Good Eats cinematographer Marion Laney. Marion has had good things to say about Martie which is good enough for me. Plus she’s from Alabama. TEAM ALTON
My favorites so far: Emily, Judson, Michele and Yven.
Dark horse: Ippy, Linkie
Most unforgettable performance: Judson’s shrimp dish was the most stunning dish of the night. His presentation was just as good. He just edges out Emily.
Most forgettable performance: Kara. Every time she was on camera I kept thinking, “Who is she? I don’t remember her.” But the judges like her so she’s got promise.
Producer’s Challenge: Josh vs Cristie.
The next Food Network Star will not be. . .
To read my exclusive exit interview with her go HERE.