By Michael Slezak
Updated July 24, 2009 at 08:56 AM EDT

The Next Food Network Star airs the penultimate episode of its fifth season on Sunday night, and much to my delight, the show’s “selection committee” (aka judges) have narrowed down the field to three based on actual hosting/culinary potential, rather than the ability to stir up drama on the set. I’ve got to admit that even before the fabulous Michael’s elimination, I was beginning to root for flinty-yet-sunny homemaker Melissa d’Arabian, and her bitchin’ use of hot peppers during last week’s Red Lobster challenge sealed the deal. Seriously, seafood + heat + Melissa’s righteous argument that she’s not just a great home cook, but a future Food Network megabrand, has me envisioning a show that bridges the gap between Barefoot Contessa’s divine decadence and Rachael Ray’s amped-up practicality. Still, it’s a close horserace for the big prize, and in that vein, I thought it was high time we placed some odds on these ponies. Check out my list of pros and cons for each remaining contestant, then vote in our highly scientific polls below!

Melissa d’Arabian
Pros: The tenacious underdog has more take-home cooking tips than a Taco Bell has guacamole — loved that one about thin-slicing chicken breast while it’s still frozen! — and despite her lack of outside-the-home experience, she’s held her own every week against slicker, more seasoned competitors. At last, Food Network could get its own “Real Housewife,” but unlike Bravo’s bevy of she-beasts, this one won’t make us lose our appetites.
Cons: Occasional “crazy-eye” expressions and manic energy can leave you wanting to reach for a tranquilizer gun.
Odds: 2-1

Jeffrey Saad
Pros: Warm and affable, he’s the kind ofguy you wouldn’t mind inviting into your home, or at least onto your TVset, once a week. Plus, he’s got a refined culinary vocabulary thatbrings food vividly to life — which is a must, considering you can’t tastefood through a TV screen. (Obvs.)
Cons: Judges have been hinting at alack of growth during his tenure on the show — which can be deadly ina reality TV setting — and his last few dishes have faded from my old-man memory bank. Not only that, Jeffrey’s brand of calm-cool-collectedoccasionally plays a little dull.
Odds: 4-1

Debbie Lee
Pros: Not only does she possess the most distinctive culinary point of view among all of this season’s finalists, she’s probably the most consistent performer when it comes to the food she’s plating. Has an easy charm in front of the camera, but never comes off as overly scripted, and that prank-filled demo last week proved she’s an unflappable presence in the kitchen.
Cons: Knee-jerk truth-stretching under pressure makes her the least appealing “personality” in the final three. Would Sandra Lee lie to you about how much she spent on a tablescape?
Odds: 5-1

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