For the past few weeks, enterprising Herb Mesa has been hosting weekly viewing parties for “Next Food Network Star.” I decided to stop by the one held last night at Room at Twelve near downtown Atlanta.
Both local contestants, including caterer Brianna Jenkins, attended the party Sunday night screening with friends and family. Unfortunately, both contestants struggled during the episode and landed in the bottom three.
In the end, Brianna was eliminated after failing yet again to engage the audience or the judges, especially when the camera was rolling.
“To relive it is just emotional,” Brianna told the crowd moments after the elimination.”If you see Herb and I shed a tear, I’m sorry. The experience taught me so much about myself, to knock out those walls, to open up and share with people even the darkest moments of my life and connect with that. That was what was tough for me. Bobby [Flay] was right. I was worried about what people thought of me and how they judged me. That’s human. I learned so much about myself and it was wonderful.”
Later, in a separate interview, she said she might need therapy after going through “Next Food Network Star.” And she was only semi-joking. She also said she’s working on a book but was vague about other plans.
Here are video interviews with Brianna and Herb before the episode aired last night:
Brianna’s saving grace? The judges week in and week out loved her food. That kept her in the competition as long as she did. In fact, it almost makes you think she should have tried out for “Top Chef,” though as a caterer, she isn’t a chef.
But she was unable to translate her love of food or quality of her dishes to the audience. She struggled to come up with engaging anecdotes to tie in with her food. And her whole “party/entertaining” angle didn’t seem to click. Last night, she accidentally burned the breadcrumbs on her modern take on tuna casserole and proceeded to tell the judges. She admitted she was feeling negative and let it out and that may have sealed the deal for her.
During the party, Mesa was his usual energetic self, serving a version of the beef stroganoff he got castigated for on the show last night. The judges dubbed his dish unfocused and missed out on an opportunity for him to incorporate his Latin roots. (He said he tends to run away from it and doesn’t want to get pigeon-holed that way. He wants to be the energetic healthy chef.).
Mesa is on a short leash. The judges gave him another chance last night because he’s a fundamentally likable guy. But he has been incredibly inconsistent. Sometimes, he’s on. Sometimes, he gets flustered and his brain freezes up and he looks lost on camera. Sometimes, he is over eager and makes people feel uncomfortable.
Among the six remaining contestants, the top 3 right now appear to be:
- Aarti Sequeira. She’s been the front runner from day one, providing tasty Indian fare with a down-to-earth approach. The Food Network execs like her uniqueness. She’s perky, sweet and comfortable in front of the camera. But she does have self doubts and lets those seep into her head. In fact, she tried to play defense by “not losing” last night and landed at the bottom as a result. (But there was no way they were going to ax her for a single offense.)
- Tom Pizzica. He’s a dude’s dude, laid back and goofy. He’d make a great sidekick in a Judd Apatow movie. It’s a persona not often seen on Food Network and with the proper show topic, he could do well. Though prone to rambling, he’s improved as the series has gone on and the judges have generally liked his food.
- Brad Sorenson. He considers himself the most “expert” person on the show but he has not been able to consistently generate great food and until last night, he’s been a dud in front of the camera. He finally relaxed enough to land on top last night. I’m still not clear what type of show would work with him, though.
Here are interviews I did with both Herb and Brianna before last night’s episode: