Visually, Whole Foods fishmonger and butcher Justin Balmes is a stand-out on “Food Network Star.” He’s tall, with big huge loops in his ears and arms packed with tattoos.
But place a camera in front of him and the Marietta native wilts. Despite cooking mostly stellar food, Balmes was axed from the show last night, the fifth person out. The judges found him stilted and dull. The few glimmers of personality he showed simply weren’t enough.
In retrospect, he probably should have gone on “Top Chef,” where good food is more important than a stellar on-camera presence (though that never hurts on any TV show.)
“People who know me,” Balmes said today in a post-mortem interview, “say I can be borderline obnoxious. I went on the show and went into a personality coma. I wanted to focus on the kitchen and make the best food.”
Balmes was really steamed when the judges found his fish and couscous dish last night wanting. “I think footage of the crowd reaction would speak differently,” he said. He really thought his food could save him.
Of the remaining contestants, he personally liked Orchid Paulmeier and the other Justin Davis the best, as well as his team partner Sunday night, Jeff Mauro (who has a solid shot at the finals). But the villain on the show Penny Davida? “I’ll be as tactful as can be and just say the portrayal is very very accurate,” he said.
She comes across as cold, calculating and kind of mean-spirited. Until last night, when she was among the bottom four, the judges actually liked her and her food. Balmes believes her comments to the judges last night about not knowing her mac and cheese was burned were fake, fake, fake.”There was no question she scorched the cheese,” he said. “The dishwashers afterwards had to throw that pot away.”
How did Balmes feel when the judges last night deemed him awkward on TV? “I’ve got to watch my tongue,” he said. “One of the most challenging pieces of all of this is I’m not able to voice what’s going on inside. A comment like that was more irritating to me than hurtful. Whatever.” (Yes, he said “whatever” in that dismissive tone on the TV screen multiple times, then did it again with me.)
His feelings about the judges themselves? “I plead the fifth,” he said.
As for Balmes’ future, he’d like to find some work on TV, even if his performance on the show wasn’t exactly a great audition tape for other gigs. He also wants to write books and do more charity work.
Going back to a high-end restaurant, though, is not in the cards: “I’m a competitive cyclist, too, so I can’t be bound 80 hours a week in a kitchen. It’s not something I want to do now.”
He wishes the show revealed more of his warm side, especially when he interacted with audiences and not a static camera. “I’ve performed in front of large audiences and I’m comfortable and natural,” he said.
“Food Network Star,” 9 p.m. Sundays Food Network
By Rodney Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org, AJCRadioTV blog