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'The Next Food Network Star' premiere recap: Who are you rooting for?

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Last night’s season premiere of The Next Food Network Star went almost directly into the kitchen without passing go, and without wasting time on drawn-out introduction packages for this season’s competitors. That’s just fine by me, especially since the brief “hellos” were spent in that enviably awesome Hollywood Hills villa where our 12 contestants get to live.

Host Bobby Flay welcomed the show’s new mentor Giada De Laurentiis (clad in a sensational purple dress), then told the dozen hopefuls they needed to fill in the “ultimate culinary blank canvas” by preparing chicken and potatoes in just 45 minutes, then filming a 15-second spot explaining what their dishes said about them. The episode’s elimination challenge followed a similar cook-and-film template, as the chefs were asked to film 15-second promo spots for their dream series, then prepare part of a six-course “California cuisine” meal for the judges and tart-tongued guest Wolfgang Puck. (Sample critique of half-cooked beignets from soon-to-be-eliminated Alexis: “My wife would divorce me if I gave her that to eat!”) Based on these initial outings, I’m going to break down my three early favorites, and the three contestants I’m rooting against:

Delectable:

* Aria: Authentic, adorable, and already exhibiting some solid culinary skills. One episode in, and I’m ready to give her concept — visiting farms nationwide and cooking with the freshest local ingredients — a series-recording setting on my DVR.

* Brad: Cap-clad cutie has possibly has the most raw talent of anyone in the kitchen, and he takes his food seriously, too. (Loved his moral outrage when his team captain brought back once-frozen salmon. The horror!) If he gets a little more life into those intense, brown eyes of his, he could actually live up to the title of this series.

* Tom: The chef hat/life preserver combo was an instant ice-breaker; who doesn’t want the unemployed foodie in their home once-a-week, overly dry apple-cilantro salsa be damned! Got the funniest backhanded compliment from Wolfgang, too: “To me, it looks a little messy. But then it reflects you perfectly.”

Inedible:

* Herb: Personal trainer/chef attacks every moment like a man who’s just downed five cases of Red Bull, and isn’t sure whether he wants to cook you dinner or smash you in the face with the frying pan he’s wielding. “I feel like superman, like I can literally jump out the window and fly!” he exclaimed after performing a variety of super-challenging push-ups for the judges. I’m worried he’ll try to prove his manliness by sticking his fist in an InSinkErator before episode 3 is finished.

* Paul: I loved Susie Fogelson’s total befuddlement when Paul revealed he was a one-time improv comic. Dude hasn’t got a funny bone in his body, and really, who’s excited about a show that demands you throw away your family’s cherished recipes? Minus five additional points for use of “anyhooze.”

* Noreen: Her total panic in the face of a simple poultry-and-potato cook-off was not encouraging. That said, I got the biggest laugh of the night when she went blank for a good 10 seconds, then summed up her entire culinary point-of-view in four words by blurting out “…and I love butter!”

As for the rest of the gang, I was definitely amused by Aarti’s flirty side (“A little bit of ginger juice went directly into his beautiful blue eye!”) but worry that sometimes she’s trying too hard to be cute. And as for Dzintra, I’m not ready to paint her as the season 6 villain just because she went to the hospital to deal with a scratched cornea. I mean, let’s get real, we’re talking about her ability to see, which is kind of important for a TV chef. That said, the disdain she showed for her teammates’ efforts to finish her recipe — “It’s like putting your egg into somebody else’s womb. Then the result that you get is what you get.” — wasn’t exactly the kind of chatter you expect from a future cohort of Ina Garten.

What did you think of the season premiere of Next Food Network Star? Who are you loving and loathing so far? Sound off in the comments below!