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'Next Food Network Star' recap: 'O sole no-no!

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“Aarti, Aarti, Aarti!” You could practically hear that Jan Brady-style whine last night from the five Next Food Network Star contestants whose names don’t rhyme with “party.” And who could blame them? Whether she’s winning over the judges by combining such barf-inducing ingredients as quinoa and All-Bran or dazzling a crowd of foodies by not completely losing her nerve and/or serving them garbage on a plate, Aarti continues to dominate the competition like a rottweiler against a pack of teacup poodles. If she’d just stop serving those massive wedges of I’m-so-humble pie — this week’s gasping exhalation of “oh thank God!” after Bobby said he liked her green chicken curry was particularly irksome — I’d design a Team Aarti t-shirt and sell it over at cafepress.

Then again, if not Aarti, who else is there left to root for? I had to suppress a guffaw last night toward the end of the episode when Aria declared that “being good is not good enough.” Um, actually, it kind of is. Which is exactly why Brad was declared first runner-up in the star challenge despite telling the crowd that his culinary point of view was “you cook good food, um, and everybody will kind of enjoy everything you bring to the table.” Well, at least his eyes are dark and dreamy, and his lamb on a white-bean ragout was delicious, and his cap…actually, that cap has to be getting a little manky after so many sessions over a hot stove, no? Brad also dropped the most alarming and unintentional double entendre when he told the assembled diners that it’s “a lot of fun when you’ve got the bone sticking up.” As Susie said, it’s inexcusable that seven weeks into the competition, dude has yet to find a marketable point-of-view. (Brad, if you’re reading this, feel free to run with the idea I pitched for you in last week’s recap!)

Speaking of last week, a bunch of you pointed out in the comments section that Brianna’s ouster proved that in the selection committee’s mind, an appealing on-air persona is quite possibly more important than actual culinary skill, and that point was driven home again this week when Serena got booted over Herb and Tom. I mean, seriously, the judges pointed out that Herb’s flan was “universally rejected by every chef at the table,” but his sudden decision to present a portion of his bland anecdotes in Spanish means he has a “bold, bright confident personality”? Phooey! I don’t know why Herb is allowed to make excuses for his dreadful food — “I couldn’t afford the proper pans!” “I was so busy helping the other chefs!” — and I don’t know what part of his penchant for wearing hideous t-shirts or displaying wild mood swings makes him fit to share a network with the Barefoot Contessa, but I’m so over it I’m not even going to complete this sentence.

Tom, meanwhile, is starting to prove why he’s labeled as “unemployed chef,” by virtue of his haphazard cooking style. Last week he forgot to oil up the grill and slaughtered his lobster meat; this week he dumped gallons of soy sauce into his dish, then essentially slapped his hands to his face, Home Alone-style, and said “Oops! This might be a little too salty!” What show can this guy convincingly pitch us? Big Chef Goes Back to Culinary School?

Then again, at least Tom would never regale us with a wretched, overwrought rendition of “‘O Sole Mio.” Show of hands: How many of you knew Serena was a goner the minute she started belting that number during the camera challenge? Yes, even if her pasta alla norma was decent, she was way too cringe-inducing to make the final five. Any parting words from the Italian lawyer-turned-home-cook?

“HelloMyNameIsSerenaInItalyWeFryEverything(EvenThoughWeActuallyDon’t) [Gasp] ButSometimesIJustPullWordsOutOfTheAirLikeSpaghettiFromABoilingPotOfWater [Gasp] LookIMadePastaAgainDoYouThinkGiadaIsJealousOfMySilkyHairAndCartoonEyes? [Gasp] OkayThisWasNotSoFunInTheEnd. Ciao.”

What did you think of this week’s episode? Did the right person go home? Who else felt their mouth watering when the one dinner guest/judge was labeled as the proprietor of something called “The Grilled Cheese Truck“? Did anyone else think Interruption-Gate was blown entirely out of proportion? (I actually had to rewind the episode to make sure Aria hadn’t merely hiccuped during Aarti’s intro, instead of creating “unncessary confusion,” as Susie put it.) And who’s going to join Aarti in the final three? (I’m picking Brad and…um…Aria?)

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