How do you cook the single worst dish in Next Food Network Star history yet sail into the final three without even the threat of elimination? Well, it sure helps if your opponent’s idea of cutting-edge cuisine involves making the saddest piece of pale French toast in the history of the stove-top range. But more on this week’s brilliant Iron Chef challenge in a moment. I’d like to take just a second to ask why, during last week’s episode (sorry I didn’t recap…I got sucked into a whirlpool of Idol news!), Food Network was running ads for a new series called Family Style? Yes, Family Style, which was the proposed title for the series pitched by aggressively chirpy Aria over the last nine weeks. (Although that concept was never as good as her initial pitch to travel to specialty farms, cheese-makers, and wineries, then whip up recipes using their local ingredients.)

Okay, yes, I realize that the winner of Next Food Network Star doesn’t always end up hosting the exact series he or she proposes (otherwise Melissa D’Arabian wouldn’t be the star of Cooking on a Budget of Spare Change Shaken Out from the Barefoot Contessa’s Couch Cushions), but to me, the Family Style ads were a massive spoiler letting us know things were inevitably going to get boiled down to Aarti, Tom, and Herb. Well, unless Food Network changes course and decides it wants to hire this week’s booted contestant because my proposed show title, Aria Speedwagon, is simply too delicioso to ignore.

But I digress, like Aria looking at a butterflied shrimp and spouting off about its “poop chute.” And I have to say, even though this was pretty much a suspense-free episode — you knew Aria was going home the second she couldn’t answer Alton’s “what’s paprika?” query — I still have to applaud the show’s producers for forcing the final four out of their comfort zones and into the Iron Chef arena.

In my mind, Aarti pretty much sealed her season 6 victory when she received the unanimous approval of a team of Iron Chefs. What better way to upgrade yourself from mere “food blogger” status than by having Bobby Flay and Cat Cora telling you they want to team up and open an Indian restaurant with you? Aarti’s coconut-milk-infused gazpacho seemed to embrace the spirit of Iron Chef more than her other two dishes, but let’s be honest: When it comes time to sit down and watch a personality-driven show on Food Network, delicious is going to beat daring pretty much every time, no?

Then again, maybe there’s some kind of crazy concept for Tom where he can experiment with extreme flavor combos in the kitchen — to see which ones work, and which ones falter. Seriously, at this point in the season, “Big Chef” has had almost as many disasters as he’s had triumphs — and that makes him a hard sell as the next Ina Garten or Bobby Flay. But how could you not love the enthusiasm he brought to his bacon crabcake (minus the crab), bacon steak, and bacon French toast with clam and chorizo sauce? Let me reiterate: French toast. With clams. (“I don’t think I’m gonna try that,” gulped Ms. Cora, hearing for the first time what was about to be set in front of her.) On paper, it’s perhaps a little ridiculous Tom didn’t go home for the single worst dish Bob Tuschman has had in the history of Next Food Network Star, especially when he delivered a second dish that had Bobby flay delivering this stinging critique: “The bacon steak, when Susie was trying to cut hers, it seriously sounded like she was trying to cut a boot.”

But hey, at least he tried for greatness in Kitchen Arena. I seriously had to hit the rewind button on my DVR when Aria was dashing around, shrieking, and trying to plate her food, and the camera zoomed in on that pathetic slice of french toast. “Diner food,” sniffed Iron Chef Morimoto, even before the panel had to clutch its collective pearls when Aria listed “bacon” as the last ingredient in her Waldorf salad. Le gasp!

I’m not sure exactly why Herb was so convinced he’d be this week’s booted contestant — unless, of course, there wasn’t enough Muscle Milk and Red Bull in the Kitchen Stadium fridge to keep him in his typically frenetic, fist-pumping, chest-bumping, rage-and-glee mode. (I wanted to vom when he got reteamed with dreadful Paul and shouted, “Salt and pepper to taste, baby!”) Why the selection committee continues to spout the fiction that Herb is “fun to watch” in the kitchen is beyond me. Even Alton Brown described the dude as pacing like “a caged critter,” and it seems like any time Herb steps away from the most standard of fare, he fails. Didn’t you inherently know the minute he said “mousse-stuffed colossal shrimp” that the judges would declare it tasted like garbage?

Anyway, enough kvetching from me. There is now a Team Aarti t-shirt on CafePress, and I have to head into next week’s finale believing she’s taking home the crown. Anyone disagree? Or are any of you (blasphemy!) rooting against Aarti (Party)? Share your thoughts and observations in the comments, and to get all my pop-culture bouillabaisse, follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak.

The Next Food Network Star
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