Wolfgang Puck.

Jeff Wins! Food Network Star 7 – Season in Review

Well now that the dust has settled and we know that the newest winner of Food Network Star is Jeff Mauro it’s time to take a look back at the best and worst we saw.  Be forewarned – there wasn’t much “best” but there was a whole crap load of “worst.”

This was easily the most talented group that Food Network has put together.  This was also, by far, the worst season of Food Network Star ever.  I don’t know that Jeff stands much of a chance of being a genuine star – at least not in the Guy Fieri sense.  I would like nothing more than for my first meal prepared for me by Jeff to be my own words, or more accurately my own words between two buns.

You could make the argument that Jeff should have been eliminated in the first week or two but you can say the same for Vic and Susie.  Vic failed to plate any food in the first two challenges and three different times Susie had the worst performance of an episode but wasn’t sent home.  Jeff was only on the bottom once.  He won and I hope him a happy and successful career.  He may be the next Guy or the next Amy.  Who knows?

I do have to say that I love Jeff’s POV, the Sandwich King.  The sandwich is one of the great inventions of humanity – a complete meal that fits neatly between two slices of bread, no sides needed.  Hmm, that sounds like a great title for a cookbook.  And though it may be true that the best sandwiches are probably being conceived by high-end chefs you certainly don’t have to be a high-end chef to make a great sandwich.  Jeff can make this show interesting.

If I might make one suggestion however, the name of Jeff’s show should be the Earl of Sandwiches as a tribute to John Montague.  The English lord is credited with inventing the modern sandwich and it’s name comes from his title.  Lord Montague was the Fourth Earl of Sandwich.  BOOM! Food knowledge!

Now, Food Network, why would you ever think anyone would want to watch Chris or Penny?  The schtick with those two brought Star to the seediest levels of TV, like VH1 sleazy, The View sleazy, Operation Repo sleazy.  It was obvious that neither was ever going to get their own show but were there simply because you wanted people to tune in just to hate them.  That’s disgusting.

In the post-elimination e-mail that Chris sent out (he ditched the press conference) he said that we would see him again.  Judging from the multitude of negative reviews of his restaurant Cafe Naploi he could be right.  It looks like he is a prime candidate for Restaurant: Impossible.  Even though it has been revealed that Penny was actually an actress at least she could cook, albeit her range was quite limited.

Of all the contestants only Juba, Justin B. and Whitney were truly great chefs.  From a professional standpoint the others were all fair cooks with Susie and Vic being better than average.  From a cooking standpoint Justin B. was most likely the best but it would be close between him and Whitney with Juba right in the mix.  As far as personality goes Jyll was clearly the best.  She walked on set TV-ready and showed more professionalism than anyone.  Whitney and Orchid were the contestants who had the most genuine promise in both categories.  Whitney was a slam dunk.  Whitney should have won just as Kelsey Nixon should have won season four.

I get the feeling that Food Network has washed its hands of integrity in regards to Star.  In past seasons cast members were kept muzzled, unable to speak their minds or make deals for future jobs until the finale aired.  Not so this year.  I knew Howie wouldn’t win before the season ever started because he was already shooting another show.  I knew Whitney didn’t win because she had taken a position with Ruth Reichl’s new venture Gilt Taste.  Then there was Penny boldly announcing her newest acting gig during her exit interview.

Jeff Mauro Leaked PhotoWeeks ago the Wall Street Journal summized that Jeff had won saying, “… it’s starting to feel less like a competition and more like a showcase for Mauro to test some of his ideas before he hosts his own Food Network program.”  I’m guessing a press photo (right) released by the network’s parent company Scripps on June 17th was part of their deduction process.  In the picture Scripps’ Senior Vice President Tammy Franklin is being honored for an award and she is surrounded by her boss Scripps President John Lansing (left), lobbyist David Porter (far right) and the last two winners of Food Network Star.  It’s like Food Network doesn’t even care, like they are taking the viewer for granted.

This is also the second year in a row that the Rachael Ray footage was published online and uncut leaving little doubt that the judges were disingenuous in their assessments of the RaRay Challenge.  If you watch Jyll’s performance on the Rachael Ray Show you’ll see that she was great.  That coupled with winning the first challenge of that episode (which somehow escaped the final edit) made it clear that she, not Jeff, had the best performance that day, though it was pretty close.  It was also obvious that Susie had the worst performance that day.

There were other indicators of how things would pan out that made the ending to this season even less climactic than season four – the year the Food Network web site “accidentally” announced Aaron as the winner four days before the finale or last year when Aarti was added to the list of chefs on the web site a week early.  Just like in season four I think the winner of this season was determined before the first challenge and that is why rules kept changing and the judges critiques seemed so disconnected.  I get it, Jeff is a born entertainer.

There were some great moments this season like when Alicia was breaking down in episode one and Alton Brown turned her around and as a result she had a great performance.  Whitney nailing a croque en bouche in the dessert challenge was possibly the greatest accomplishment the series has ever produced.  I’m still wowed by that.  Jyll’s handling of Wolfgate was the very embodiment of grace under pressure.  Jeff’s impressions were a cold stone hoot.  Vic’s improvement from episode one through about episode eight was a fun ride.  However, after episode nine there really wasn’t much of a reason to watch the show as it was glaringly obvious that Jeff had been anointed the winner.

Food Network Star must undergo an overhaul to be considered “reality TV” since this season read more like a cheap work of fiction.  This show needs help to remain relevant.  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Only accept applicants who have cooked professionally.
  2. Rather than taking someone because they have personality and hoping they can cook try getting a bunch of cooks and find the best personality.
  3. Have challenges that are actually relevant to the job.  Making something savory out of cereal has never been a big part of a Food Network show other than Star.
  4. Psychological profiles!
  5. Never, ever accept someone who has applied for a non-food reality show.
  6. Stop the editing BS – show what actually happens.
  7. No more 2 hour episodes.  That’s just too much back-biting for one night.
  8. Stop revealing the winner.  Gosh.
  9. Please, please, please let this show be about finding a new star and not solely about ratings.
  10. Dare to be better.

Finally, if Food Network wants to renew viewers’ faith in the show then they’ll put me on next year’s season – not as a contestant, but as a judge.  Oh, and without a gag order.  I get to speak my mind without the seven figure penalty they strap contestants with.  Don’t do that and there really isn’t any reason to watch this show ever again.  I mean, I will; I just won’t have a reason to.

If you agree drop by the Food Network contact page and send them this message, “Make Stuart Reb Donald a judge on Food Network Star.

Be sure to check my exclusive interview with the newest Food Network star, Jeff Mauro HERE.  Now check out the season finale poll question.  Vote your conscience.

[polldaddy poll=5328147]

The Sandwich King premieres this Sunday at 11:30AM on the Food Network.

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Food Network Star 7 EP 10 Recap

Iron Chef

The Iron Chef showdown returns to the competition, along with the pressure it brings to bear on the finalists. Alton Brown will provide criticism from his usual commentator’s spot, and Michael Symon will join the judging panel.

Last week we saw:

Whitney Chen of Food Network Star. . . the elimination of the only remaining contestant I was confident can be credible hosting a cooking show, Whitney.  That’s the second week in a row that the person with the best performance was booted.  Don’t worry Jyll and Whitney, it worked out alright for Kelsey Nixon.

At this point it’s two pretty good cooks with descent personalities against two average cooks – one with an iffy personality and the other who is nothing but personality.  I believe this to be the weakest final four in the show’s history.

Personality is important but I don’t care how friendly you are on camera if you cannot cook no one will watch the show.  To me Mary Beth’s POV is a little to much like Sunny Anderson’s.  Susie and Vic can cook pretty good but of the two Vic is the only one who brings anything new.  There are at any time a half dozen shows on with Susie’s exact POV.  Of the four Jeff has the freshest POV – I love the king of sandwiches I just wish I had more confidence in his cooking.

I saw a bit on the Wall Street Journal where they summized that Food Network had chosen Jeff Mauro as the winner early on and then had to make it happen.  This was a good line from them, “After this week, it’s starting to feel less like a competition and more like a showcase for Mauro to test some of his ideas before he hosts his own Food Network program.”  I don’t know if that is the case but I do know this, they’ve done it before.

One thing is for sure, they had to get rid of the real cooking talent before this week’s Iron Chef challenge because there is no way Mary Beth, Jeff or even Susie would have stood a chance against Whitney, Juba or Justin B. in Kitchen Stadium.  It’s the one place remaining on Food Network where you actually have to be a serious cook.  I hate that we are being robbed of a chance of watching a truly exceptional cook in this challenge.  Vic, I think is the only one left who has the chops for Iron Chef although I wouldn’t put it past Susie to make me eat my words.

With all viable contestants removed from the contest all that’s left in season 7 is trying to figure out which of the remaining four will be the next Aaron McCargo Jr.  That means their name will one day be inserted into this conversation:

PERSON1 Whatever happened to _____ who won Food Network Star?
PERSON2 Their show’s still on the air.
PERSON1  I’ve never seen it.
PERSON2 No one has.

Let’s get this over with.

This week:

Battle Iron Chef – need I say more?

After 10 episodes here are my thoughts on each remaining contestant:

Alicia Sanchez – Eliminated week 3.

Chris Nirschel – Eliminated week 7.

Howie Drummond – Eliminated week 1.

Jeff Mauro – It’s a good thing he’s likable.  Jeff, by virtue of last week’s wins(?) got to chose his opponent.  He chose Susie.  In a fair fight, he’s a goner but he also got to choose Whitney as his sous chef.  Jeff’s commentary was pretty good – more personality than substances but still good.  Theme ingredient was lobster.  Jeff made three sandwiches.  I know he’s the king of sandwiches but three sandwiches for Iron Chef.  I’ve got to take off majorly for that and the judges concurred.  They also banged him for not making his own mayo.

Juba Kali – Eliminated week 2.

Justin Balmes – Eliminated week 4.

Justin Davis – Eliminated week 5.

Jyll Everman – Eliminated week 8.

Katy Clark – Eliminated week 2.

Mary Beth Albright – I’m convinced this is her last week.  She doesn’t inspire confidence with her cooking and her personality is starting to let her down.  How lucky was Mary Beth to have gotten Penny as one of her sous chefs?  I wonder if there was any other name in the hat.  Theme ingredient was lamb, her opponent was Vic.  This is a battle between arguably the weakest cook left against arguably the best cook left.  Penny sabotaging Mary Beth didn’t help.  Honestly Food Network – that was just a little too obvious.  It looks more and more like Mary Beth’s ouster was just in the script cards.  In judging Vic’s food her critiques were not in harmony with the judges at least according to what we saw.  The overwhelming judgement from each judge on her food was, “not bad.”  Her commentary was like her whole season – up and down.

Orchid Paulmeier –  Eliminated week 6.

Penny Davidi – Eliminated week 7.

Susie Jimenez – She’s cute and her food is pretty good but her POV is not very original.  Susie got a bad break in having Chris as her sous chef but it could have been worse; it could have been Penny.  Her commentary was not very good.  Theme ingredient was lobster.  As it turns out, Chris was more interested in showing off for the cameras than helping Susie.  That’s curious – Chris and Penny both hindering their chefs.  Her judging was not great but her food was amazing.  I can’t see her losing to three sandwiches not matter how good they were.

Vic “Vegas” Moea – The best of what remains.  Vic drew the weakest cook of the four for his opponent, Mary Beth.  Jyll was his sous chef in battle lamb.  His menu was inventive.  The judges seemed to like it at all.  When judging Vic sounded like he’d been there before.  His commentary was similar to Jeff’s in that he used humor to bail out of sticky situation.  Vic was the clear winner but he should win – he had all the break and he took advantage of them.  Vic was, in my opinion, clearly the best tonight – the past two weeks that got you booted.

Whitney Chen – Eliminated week 9.

Be sure to check out the WTVC Food Network Star Polls – six categories for contestants who best embody the spirit of former Food Network Star competitors HERE.  Don’t forget to follow the live Tweeting there you’ll get to chat with people who know this season has been a waste of time.

Top Tweets:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/hstone4/status/100373891658166272″]

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/lynfrancisco/status/100373213883805696″]

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/roadtohell/status/100374788706533379″]

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/MDMRN/status/100376128635670529″]


“In it to Win it” type quotes – 0.

Number of people crying – 1.

Number of WTF moments – Mary Beth getting Penny as her sous chef.  Really?!?!? I’m supposed to believe that wasn’t rigged?

Who should have won: Whitney

Who will win based on what we’ve seen in the past: Jeff or Susie

Winner(s) first week: Lobster challenge: Susie. Lamb challenge: Vic.

The finalist(s) who will be going home is . . .

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Mary Beth

Food Network Star Exit Interview: Whitney Chen

For the second week in a row the person who had the best overall performance got eliminated.  Whitney Chen, who’s resume is so good they should have canceled the show this year, rocked the judges’ table with both flavor and personality.  The moral of this story?  Don’t you dare have a better day than the preordained winner.

Whitney Chen Food Network StarThis is all anyone should need to know as to whether Whitney was the best candidate this year, she worked at Per Se.  Don’t know what that means?  It’s knowledge dropping time.

Depending on your school of thought there are two men that at any given time are considered the best chef on the planet today, Ferran Adria of Spain and Thomas Keller of America.  Some will throw around a handful of other names but if you ask chefs, critics and restauranteurs from around the world those are the two names that come up most of the time.

If you have ever heard of Yountville, CA it is because Thomas Keller opened a restaurant there, The French Laundry, which makes it to virtually every “Top 10 Restaurants in the World” list worth reading.  Per Se is Keller’s, “urban interpretation of The French Laundry.”

Ferran Adria closed his restaurant El Bulli just this past weekend.  Prior to that he received over 3,000 applications a year from chefs willing to work for free at El Bulli.  Thomas Keller has nine world class restaurants so one can only imagine how many applications he gets for folks so willing to work for him that they’d do it for free.  Whitney worked for Keller and got paid.

Contest over.

Or at least it should have been anyway.  But let’s not forget that Food Network is not looking for someone to draw great ratings on a weekly show; they are looking for someone to draw ratings to this one show.  If the winner turns out to be another Guy or Aarti then great but they are perfectly happy if the winner is another Aaron or Amy.

One thing that is clear when speaking with Whitney is how damned smart she is.  Her intellect is stunning.  Listening to her handle the cleverly worded questions from a gaggle of food writers was like watching Bo Jackson running the football or Yo Yo Ma manipulating the strings of his cello.  If she decides to run for politics Washington had better watch out because she’s a lot brighter than anyone in DC.

Observe how deftly she handled a question about the notoriously deceptive editing on the show, “Interesting things happen,” she understated. “. . . and I think it’s just too bad that everyone can’t see the whole thing and how everything works behind the scenes because it’s pretty cool.”

“In terms of the editing, they’ve got to tell story lines and we totally get how it works.  But there were times where I felt like I was really happy and my personality was totally shining and then it didn’t get on.  But it is what it is.”  One of the things she regrets from the editing room was in the Cupcake challenge with guest judge Ina Garten.  Whitney actually made three different cupcakes that represented her evolution as a cook.  Read about them in her column for the Hinsdale-Clarendon Hills Patch HERE.

What one moment best defines your experience on the show?

The show to me really did ebb and flow.  I think the Fourth of July episode and being on stage there was really a great moment for me.  I think I was really comfortable perhaps because I had a couple of beers before I went out.  I was really comfortable; I was spontaneous.  I was having a good time.  I got to talk to people and be around people which is what I love doing.  So I think that one moment for me was a highpoint.

Since the purpose of the show is to find someone who can inspire the home cook do you think more emphasis should be put on a contestant’s ability to actually cook something?

I think the Food Network knows what they’re doing.  It’s a really successful network.  I learned a lot in this experience about what you have to do and what you need to make a successful TV show.

Of course I think there are people who probably watch the Network to see people who focus on the food more.  I think there are also people who watch the Network that probably want to see people are more there to entertain people.  I am certainly in the previous category.

For me the food is of the utmost importance.  That’s why I’m doing this.  That’s why I left my job before.  It’s what I love.  It’s my passion.  Although that (cooking ability) wasn’t the focus of this season maybe, and it’s not what the Network is looking for right now there’s certainly a place for it in the future.

What is your current project?

My current project is just to enjoy the rest of the summer and spend time in the heat and sunshine with my family and friends.  I feel like I’ve kind of been off the grid with them.  We couldn’t tell them anything about the show.  I’ve been very secretive so I’m going to take a few weeks off and enjoy that.

I’m really excited; I’ve got a lot of stuff going on in the fall.  I’m going to be writing new recipes, a contributing editor at Gilt Taste (Ruth Reichl’s new venture) which is great because I love to write.  I’m excited to do that.  I’m just going to continue to pursue the passion and to learn about food.

I’m still not counting the possibility of me having a cooking show out.  I’m still going to continue to go after that.


I for one look forward to that show more than any other that might emerge from this season.

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Food Network Star 7 EP 9 Recap

Comedy Roast

Thinking on the fly is tonight’s skill as the finalists try their hands at a segment of the Best Thing I Ever Ate. Then they must brace themselves and shore up their sensitive sides, because some legendary comics are putting on a roast and the topic is the finalists’ menus.

Last week we saw:

Jeff MauroJyll put in the best overall performance of the week but she got eliminated anyway.  Shades of Kelsey Nixon.  Though the Network left it out of the final edit she won the 1st challenge.  Thanks to creative editing what was tied with Jeff for the best performance of the 2nd challenge didn’t look that good.  I am officially calling shenanigans on this season.  Susie had by far the worst performance of the week but she was protected by the judges.  Look for this trend to continue.  It has been rumored and confirmed that Penny Davidi is not a chef but an actress (who happens to cook really well).

At this point I have to say that I wish the best for the winner of this season (which I believe will be either Jeff or Susie) but I cannot believe this was ever an actual contest.

Just like season 4 with Aaron McCargo Jr., I believe the winner was determined before the contest ever started and each week they have tweaked things to make that happen.  It’s a shame, too, this was by far the best group of talent they have put together and then they refused to let them actually compete.  And just when the last two seasons had restored my faith in the show, too.

To all of those single moms who have had to resort to stripping to pay the bills, I empathize with you.  I get the same shameful feeling in the pit of my stomach every week watching Food Network Star.

This week:

1st. challenge –  Contestants did a segment for a mock version of the Food Network’s popular “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

2nd. challenge – Cook a dinner for a bunch of B list comedians.  How odd is it that we have a panel of judges who are stand up comedians judging when one of their own is competing – it a real contest someone would have to recuse themselves.

After nine episodes here are my thoughts on each remaining contestant:

Alicia Sanchez – Eliminated week 3.

Chris Nirschel – Eliminated week 7.

Howie Drummond – Eliminated week 1.

Jeff Mauro – Had a terrible 1st challenge last week but won the 2nd.  Still his cooking is his vulnerability.  1st challenge – since there was no cooking involved Jeff shined. 2nd challenge – Jeff copped out on the second challenge by making an Italian roast beef sandwich.  A roast beef sandwich?  And one of the easiest sandwiches to do know less.  I know it’s Jeff’s POV but roast beef, gravy and some vegetables?  At least he did make it with top notch ingredients.  Still it was pretty weak.  It didn’t help that he totally bombed the personality part.

Juba Kali – Eliminated week 2.

Justin Balmes – Eliminated week 4.

Justin Davis – Eliminated week 5.

Jyll Everman – Eliminated week 8.

Katy Clark – Eliminated week 2.

Mary Beth Albright – Another up and down week but this deep in the cooking has got to be an issue.  1st challenge – meh.  2nd challenge – she doesn’t know how to roast a duck and had to ask the butcher.  That right there means an immediate exit.  Bounce anyone from this episode but Mary Beth and the contest is meaningless.

Orchid Paulmeier –  Eliminated week 6.

Penny Davidi – Eliminated week 7.

Susie Jimenez – She had easily the weakest performance last week.  Only scripting saved her from elimination.  1st challenge – bombed. 2nd challenge – she was moody and a little unlikable.  That’s odd for Susie.  Her food is good but not new; half a dozen Food Network Stars have her exact POV and each does it better so she has got to bring the “happy.”  Her presentation seemed nervous and clumsy. . . again.  Once again Susie’s performance was weak enough to send her packing.  She did better chatting with the judges.

Vic “Vegas” Moea – A few weeks ago I was convinced Vic was the winner.  Now I’m not so sure. 1st challenge – Pretty good.  2nd challenge – Vic knocked out a beautiful prime rib but for some reason people whined about it being too big – Prime Rib is all about excess if you don’t get that you are not qualified to determine what foodies want to watch.  Her dish was really good.

Whitney Chen – A quick study of the body language of each judge reveals that even they don’t believe their critiques of her on-camera performances.  Perhaps they should get acting lessons from Penny.  It also adds suspicion when Susie says something like, “Whitney hasn’t been cooking very long.    I’m not sure we can be confident in her knowledge of herself or food.”  That is without a doubt the dumbest thing ever said in the history of this show.  I was happy when Bobby reprimanded Susie, “We know one thing, Whitney can cook.”  1st challenge – Not bad considering Mary Beth had picked the exact same vendor which sounds awfully fishy to me.  2nd challenge – A home run!  Best food and best presentation.  If history holds that means she done.

Be sure to check out the WTVC Food Network Star Polls – six categories for contestants who best embody the spirit of former Food Network Star competitors HERE.  Don’t forget to follow the live Tweeting with Serena, Bobby, Giada, myself and who ever else stops by.  Last week we had drive-by Tweets from Aarti Sequeira, Orchid Paulmeier and Jeff Mauro.

Top Tweets:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/whittybites/status/95848387861159936″]

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/docsaico/status/97853902921285633″]

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/lynfrancisco/status/97836188240580608″]


“In it to Win it” type quotes – 0.

Number of people crying – I lost track – let’s say everyone.  Susie talking about her background.  Whitney taking abuse from the judges table.  And on and on and on including millions watching at home who cried “foul” at this week’s decision.

Number of WTF moments – Mary Beth making it this far on Food Network Star without really knowing how to cook a duck.

Who should win based on what we’ve seen so far: Whitney

Who will win based on what we’ve seen in the past: Jeff or Susie

Winner(s) first week: 1st challenge: Jeff. 2nd challenge: Jeff.

The finalist(s) who will be going home is . . .

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Perhaps they should get acting lessons from Penny.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up


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