By Michael Slezak
Updated June 08, 2009 at 10:06 PM EDT

With American Idol off the air till next January, and Project Runway not slated to return till August, I’ve been looking for a reality TV competition to keep me in an air-conditioned, catatonic state at least once a week during these early days of summer. And since I’d rather eat a hair-clog casserole than get acquainted with that omnipresent jungle creature Speidi on NBC’s I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here — seriously, I refuse, with the conviction of 1,000 burning suns to tune in to that mess — I had to dig deeper into my basic-cable roster last night with the season premiere of The Next Food Network Star. So what if it doesn’t feature future rock stars delivering potent covers of “Hot Stuff,” “Heartless,” or “Mad World”? TNFNS has mango-jicama slaw, red citrus chili mushrooms with grilled zucchini, and chunks of store-bought angel food cake topped with splattered something (chocolate? jam?) and torn-up mint leaves.

Okay, scratch that last-named culinary disaster. (More on it in a minute.) What I enjoyed about TNFNS is that its contestants (or most of ’em) appear to have some legitimate kitchen skills, and that the prize up for grabs (becoming the host of a new Food Network series) leaves us viewers with a sense that the winner will have at least an outside shot at a career that is more than casting fodder for I’m a Celebrity…‘s inevitable fifth season.

Last night’s premiere split the 10 contestants into two teams, gave them $1,200 apiece, and asked them to cater a 16th birthday celebration for the Food Network attended by 75 people (including a bunch of the network’s on-air personalities). And while I wished we’d gotten a more in-depth look at the ingredients and recipes in question, and while I could’ve done without milquetoast-y comments like “the person who did the least well this week will unfortunately be going home” (courtesy of judge Bob Tuschman), I still found myself setting a series recording on my DVR by episode’s end. Here’s a breakdown on my three early favorites:

Michael: Ted Allen and Barefoot Contessa’s dining posse aside, The Food Network is a little light on gay fabulousness, and with his big tattoos and even bigger sense of humor, Michael might be one to fill the void. He’s already proven he can distill his cooking philosophy into TV-ready catchphrases (“global-a-go-go,” “Bed-Stuy to Bangkok”) and his tenderloin impressed the judges.

Debbie: Okay, so she lied about coming in under budget, and as Michael noted, there was not method to her madness, only madness, when she shopped for her team at Whole Foods. Oh, and then there was the improvised “dessert” for which she tried to share the blame. (I loved how judges Susie Fogelson looked at it and sniffed “my daughter could’ve made that, and she’s three.”). Still, unlike most of her competitors, Debbie seems to have a fully formed culinary point of view (Southern comfort foods meet Asian spices) and she’s telegenic to boot. Or maybe I was just craving crab cakes?

Jeffrey: He’s the most high-minded from a culinary standpoint. Or, in other words, the key (and eventually missing) ingredient in his zucchini dish was something that I’d never heard of. But even though he ended up with “a distant, dry, miserable cousin” to the spice he wanted, his dish looked pretty tasty. And on a show that will likely test its combatants under less-than-ideal contestants, it’s nice to see a guy who can successfully improvise.

Which TNFNS contestants did you like best? Anyone else want Brett to stop discussing the looks of his female competitors right in front of their faces? Who died inside when Ace of Cakes‘ Duff laid eyes on the Red Team’s dessert? And was I the only one who thought Melissa’s apple tarts looked a little bit busted? Holla back!