Why Justin Warner gets my vote as “The Next Food Network Star”

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Food Network’s reality series The Next Food Network Star isn’t one of my favorites (especially as so few of the winners really DO end up becoming “stars” of any merit), but I confess I got rather caught up in it this season. For once there were a few contestants I really liked (namely Justin, Ippy and Eric) along with those I really couldn’t stand at all (I’ll be nice and not name names.) Last night saw the final six come down to hour as Ippy and Nikki went home (yay for Nikki going away, boo for Ippy. I predict he still will get a tv series SOMEWHERE as he’s just too adorable and I’d love to see more about Hawaiian food on tv.)

The remaining 4 contestants – Martie, Michele, Justin and Yvan all got to make 3-minute “pilots” for their prospective series. This season, it’s now up to decide who will actually get a series based on viewer votes through tomorrow. Here’s my thoughts on each – and why Justin Warner got my vote. Yes, he was one of my favorites from the beginning but I wasn’t sure I’d want to watch his show. Now I am, and here’s why.

I liked Yvan throughout the competition, but I was thoroughly underwhelmed by the food he prepared for his pilot “Family Style”. I mean, throwing a can of creamed corn into Mac and Cheese? Really?! I know part of his premise is making tasty food for a family on a limited budget, but we’ve already got Sandra Lee for food-from-a-box-or-can, and “Ten Dollar Dinners” for another budget cooking show on Food Network (of dubious quality for sure). I wanted to see something creative done here, because there ARE great and creative things you can do to feed a large group or family without spending a fortune or needing exotic ingredients. To me this was a badly missed opportunity on Yvan’s part.

Michele’s “My New England” didn’t wow me either. I like Michele, but does she ever cook anything besides clams? Isn’t there a lot more to New England cooking than that? The idea of traveling and visiting restaurants, fishermen, etc then going home to recreate dishes for an audience is okay (although isn’t that already what last season’s “Sandwich King” does?) But all she did was order chowder, say hi to the restaurant owner, then made something entirely different with clams completely. Why not show her at least asking ONE question of the restaurant owner, talk about what makes New England chowder so good, and THEN actually make something that looks like a chowder? Another disappointment.

I distinctly did not like Martie at first during the competition, but she had grown on me by the end. Her “Martie at the Party” video, however, was not what I was hoping for. Part of the problem I’ve always found with cooking for a party is making dishes so that you DON’T end up isolated in the kitchen, cooking while everyone else is having fun. Yet that seemed to be exactly what she was doing here. I also still could do less with her unrelated stories and babbling and more actual techniques and talk about the FOOD.

Last up was Justin’s pilot, “Rebel with a Culinary Cause”, and if one had any doubt that Justin was Alton Brown’s protege, well, surely those doubts should be gone after watching this pilot. It was the only one in my opinion that had a truly unique (if Alton-esque) visual style and appeal. But it still had Justin’s own sense of slightly snarky humor, which I like, and presented the only dish from the 4 pilots I’m curious to try on my own. Yes, I know some people thought the Ceasar-salad-dressing-in-aspic sounded “gross” or “disgusting”, but to me it seemed like a brilliant idea, especially plating it on top of hot grilled romaine to allow the aspic to melt and “dress” the salad in the moment. Justin is smart, creative, and someone I would absolutely watch just to see what crazy idea he’d try to tempt me to cook at home next.

Anyway, such are my thoughts on the competition. I really think it’s going to come down to either Martie or Justin, depending on if viewers want to go with the “safe” or the “subversive”. I’ve given my pitch for the latter. But if you haven’t yet, watch those videos linked about and cast your vote before time runs out. The winner will be announced next Sunday night.

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