I don’t know about you guys, but after last night’s season finale of The Next Food Network Star, I’m ready to make “four-step chicken” a part of my culinary repertoire, give harissa a whirl, and ban Alton Brown from coming up with titles for any and all future Food Network programs. Most importantly, though, I’m eager to check out the new series from this year’s winner — spoilers ahead, DVR users — Ten Dollar Dinners with Melissa D’Arabian. Sure, Melissa’s a little manic — and grinned like a loon throughout last night’s telecast — but her pilot presentation (the dully dubbed Kitchen Survival Guide, which, granted, was better than Cuisine Copine) was the easiest kind of sell, with an eye on helping stressed-out home cooks shave minutes (and dollars) off their menus without sacrificing flavor. The four-step chicken — dredge and sauté; add aromatics; add liquid; finish the sauce with a pat of butter — was ingenious, especially as Melissa pointed out that you can substitute any ingredient within her parameters and cook up hundreds of tasty meals. The woman has kitchen credibility, not just because she’s a mother of four, but because week after week, she’s plated interesting, delicious-looking dishes that have impressed a wide and impressive array of critics. Plus, Bobby Flay was right: Melissa’s Rustic Lemon-Onion Chicken looked downright mouth-watering.
Of course, where Melissa succeeds in the practical, runner-up Jeffrey Saad excelled in the exotic. His hideously named pilot — Ingredient Smuggler — was based on the premise of discovering a delicious and little-known food or spice while traveling, then bringing it back home and using it in an everyday dish. I had to agree with Bob Tuschman that no one brings food to life like Jeffrey; anyone else find their mouth watering when he described that mayonnaise with mint, sun-dried tomatoes, and harissa? But given the fact that both Melissa and Jeffrey came off as excellent cooks with likable personalities and an innate ability to translate their ideas into easy-to-understand tidbits, I can’t blame the “selection committee” for choosing the finalist whose series idea had greater breakout potential. In fact, if Food Network plays its cards right, I can see Melissa becoming its next “breakout brand.” I just hope that Melissa’s success won’t stop the network from also giving a timeslot over to Jeffrey (and perhaps even second runner-up Debbie Lee). Call me a softie, but I’d be open to DVRing all of the above!
Now before we get to the comments section (and your thoughts on the season 5 conclusion) a few observations about the finale: I thought there was a decided lack of Debbie in the season’s personality highlights reel; I was slightly taken aback by the tone of Jeffrey’s quote about Melissa (“I thought she’d be gone first episode.”); and I howled when quote-machine Michael teased Melissa with “Oh my God, I would set you on fire if you were my mother.” What did you think of last night’s season finale? Did the right person win? Will you watch Melissa’s new series? And which (if any) other finalists deserve their own show on Food Network? (Also: Follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak!)