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'Next Food Network Star' recap: 'Not about delivering pain, but rather, joy.'

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No one can accuse last night’s Next Food Network Star of being suspenseful, but at least the show’s judges continue to eliminate the weakest links, with little or no regard for reality-show shenanigans like keeping around the crazies and the incompetents for sheer entertainment value. Indeed, from the minute Das got schooled by a Whole Foods sales clerk about his choice of ingredients for a dish to impress star chef Eric Greenspan– “We don’t carry Velveeta.” — you knew the dude was on his way out the door. There were other signs and signals pointing to Das’ demise, too: His unfortunate attempt to coin the phrase “triberry”; his unfortunate decision to use said berries as a topping for “prime steak”; even his inability to correctly identify what exactly “prime steak” is. (Given a second chance to offer a definition to Bobby Flay, I half expected Das to shrug his shoulders and say “the most expensive one I could find at Whole Foods?”)

It seemed like every culinary and verbal decision was a misfire for Das. I winced when he avoided any kind of personal storytelling in presenting his dish to the panel, instead opting for a statement that was at once bland and bizarrely overconfident: “I love mac & cheese and steak, so I couldn’t go wrong.” Um, actually, dude… Perhaps most telling of all, though, was that Das (along with Herb) was featured prominently in the “previously on” show intro — which has consistently been a tell by the producers to signify which contestants are going to have trouble in the episode that’s about to unspool.

Speaking of Herb (AKA the man who veers wildly between nauseatingly energetic and discomfitingly lethargic), he finally trotted out the old “no one believed in me as a child” defense (a popular favorite among reality TV contestants). Look, I’m not saying the man’s pain isn’t genuine — even tough cookie Susie Fogelson got a little misty when Herb (pictured, crying) told the panel his wife was the first person in his life to ever tell him he was special — but this is no excuse for burning balsamic vinegar in front of Bobby, nor for pushing the concept of Mood Swings and Push-Ups With Ripped Trainer Dude as a Food Network series. Does. Not. Want. Or as Susie put it in her new-agey-but-chiding style I have come to adore: “Our next star is not about delivering pain, but rather, joy.” And later, “We’re feeling those emotions rather than feeling all of the warmth, magic, and information you have to share.”

Yes, exactly.

On the positive side, Brianna continued her pretty much spotless record of delivering tasty food, and managed to not be totally unlikeable (that’s a compliment, BTW) when relating her story of reconnecting with her hardscrabble dad in the kitchen. (Side note, was anyone looking for a disclaimer like “on Monday, December 9, 2013, from 3:30-4:30 a.m.” after Bobby said the winning dish in the hot-pepper challenge would wind up “on my specials list at Mesa Grill in all three of its locations.”) But really, this is looking more and more like Aarti’s party to lose. She gets culinary superstars like Jonathan Waxman to use phrases like “accomplished dish”! She cries winningly (yet not messily) when the judges praise her concoctions! She even makes her own pomegranate molasses!

Brad, meanwhile, shakes so hard in front of the camera that his fork rattles against his plate. (Awww.) Serena, for her part, seems to have lost the backing of her grandmotherly spirit guide. And Paul can’t even pick up a piece of scallop on a fork. (Would it be too mean to make a joke about his food being as slippery as his personality?)

What did you think of last night’s Next Food Network Star? And who would you predict for the final three? (I’m gonna guess Aarti, Brad, and Brianna.)