Mentor Alton Brown checking in on Finalist Rodney Henry cooking… (Eddy Chen / Food Network )
Welcome to the third episode of "Food Network Star."
Absent: Giada De Laurentiis, who was off taping in New York City; the focus group, and the sinister dials the use to deliver real-time impressions on (but not mild electric shocks to) the contestants. They’ll all be back next week – Giada, the focus group and the dials.
Also absent: Andres Guillama, who played his former-fatty card too late, and was booted off on episode 2. He won’t be back.
Present: Bobby Flay, Alton Brown and the show’s basic mentor challenge/star challenge format, which was kind of messed with in the first two episodes as though everyone had forgotten how the show worked.
Also present: the unforgiving wheel of fortune, which gave Nikki Dinki and Russell Jackson another wild spin, putting them back right where they were after the end of episode 1. Oh crazy wheel of fortune.
This week's mentor challenge asked each contestant to convey mastery of a weird ingredient, and the star challenge was an extended promotion for "Chopped," another show on the Food Network.
It was the best episode of the season. By keeping the contestants in the studio and the focus on cooking, the show managed to capture the kind of surprises and emotion that seldom happen when reality shows go out on location.
It's counter-intuitive but true. Stay in the studio. There's no way this episode's moving, season-changing moment with Chris Hodgson - he revealed a substance abuse history - would have happened out of the studio.
Suddenly, Chris made sense. Now, we all knew what he was trying to say, but couldn't, in his rambling episode 1 pitch tape, when he talked vaguely about helping people through cooking.
It was good TV. Flay and Brown conveyed compassion without being maudlin.
It was an excellent week for Baltimore's Rodney "the Pie Guy" Henry and Damaris Phillips, who each did so well in the mentor challenge that they were not only excused from the star challenge and granted episode immunity but were also invited to join Bobby Flay and Alton Brown at the judges table, along with brand new Iron Chef America (and is it just me, or also super buzzkill?) Alexandra "Alex" Guarnaschelli.
Rodney continues to seem perfectly at ease in his "Pie Guy" persona, and winning a share of the Mentor Challenge seemed to calm him down. And, now the judges have decided that Rodney has "pie style" even when he's not making a pie. It's like "pie style" is already a thing, and it's only episode 3.
Seated at the table with the other judges, Rodney looked comfortable and confident. Damaris did too, but she also seemed like an entirely different person when she was acting as judge -- the other contestants noticed this, and didn't like it.
It was a great week for Chad Rosenthal, who hasn't had a bad week, and for Nikki, who needed one after boring the focus group blind last on episode 2 with her "semi-vegetarian" philosophy.
It was a breakthrough week for Chris, and another fairly good week for Viet Pham, whose cooking skills are so far compensating for his shyness,.
Poised Stacey Poon-Kinney had an off week, though. She appeared to be not feeling well, although no one mentioned it in the final edit. And she botched her "Chopped"-style star challenge.
“Lovely” Jackson continued to annoy the judges by making her food too sweet and by not being recognizably human. They think she's smooth but scripted.
Russell and Danushka ended up at the bottom this week, but Russell really didn't seem to have done badly enough in the Star Challenge to get kicked off.
Danushka, who is beautiful, weird and goofy in the interviews but who comes across as indifferent and callous in her presentations, could be an amazing "Food Network Star" -- and the show kept her around as long as it could -- but she deserved to go home. The competition is about connecting, and she wasn't.
So, headed into Week 4, these are developing stories.
Viet and "Lovely" have clearly defined personality issues to overcome. He's dull, she's fakey.
Was charming Chad's weird mispronunciation of the word "salsify" a an ominous sign that the "Barbecue Jew" doesn't have a wide enough food background to make it as a "Food Network" star? Or ... can Chad not read?
Russell and Nikki are strapped, forever, onto the wheel of fortune.