Image Credit: Food NetworkIt was a feel-good season finale of The Next Food Network Star, and not just because the right person took home the crown. While the contestants of the show’s sixth season were often spottier than a herd of Appaloosas, last night found the final three — Herb, Aarti, and Tom — delivering solid pilots under the watchful eye of Rachael Ray. Just as encouraging: Tom’s food seemingly matched his ebullient delivery (at least based on Rachael’s enthusiastic taste-test); Aarti avoided marinating her food (and herself) in a lukewarm bath of self-doubt; and Herb didn’t crush a can of Red Bull over the head of Food Network president Brooke Johnson when he learned he wasn’t the winner. Oh, and can I also take a second to express my relief that our fearless finalists didn’t shoot their pilots clad in the not-so-star-worthy clothes — Herb’s generic black polo, Aarti’s rose-emblazoned grandma top, and Tom’s gray long-sleeved t-shirt from the “rolled out of bed” collection — that they wore to the studio?

But I digress! When the lights finally dimmed and the curtain was dropped to see the cheapest newest portrait on Food Network’s wall of stars (one that, coincidentally, didn’t include last season’s champ Melissa D’Arabian), it was Aarti (or “R.T.,” as Bob Tuschman inexplicably began calling her) whose smiling, spice-spooning visage appeared. And based on the pilots the finalists presented — combined with the work the finalists have done all season — it was the right decision.

Indeed, the Aarti Party pilot was thoroughly engaging and casually informative, while managing to present a dish that looked equal parts unique and delicious. I loved Aarti’s relatable humor (“People will think you’re incredibly fancy,” she cooed, after explaining how to make your own chutney) and the way she wielded her expertise without ever turning her show into a dreary academic lesson. Here’s hoping when her series premieres next Sunday, that we’ll get the low-down on how to make that Indian pizza on a piece of naan, because I do like a little something savory to scarf down with a good book and a glass of wine. (Also: Check back here at PopWatch this afternoon for my Q&A with Aarti!)

Interestingly enough, I thought Tom’s Big Chef pilot was just as entertaining as Aarti Party — and with a tagline that was second to none: “I’m Big Chef. Don’t be scared; it’s your kitchen.” Tom may not be king of the Deeply Moving Personal Anecdote, but he truly excels at bringing the joy of cooking to life. Just as he did with the tale of two tuna, the scruffy dude with the loopy sense of humor put an anthropomorphic twist on his recipe this week, telling his chicken she looked “so beautiful” and declaring her “ready for the big dance” once he’d stuffed her skin with marinated mushrooms and rubbed her down with paprika. Still, given Tom’s lack of consistency this season in delivering big flavor along with his big personality, I felt like the selection committee made the right decision. Plus, even if you happen to be a member of Team Big Chef, there’s no need to fret. Food Network’s press release about Aarti’s victory contains the following sentence: “Runner-up Tom Pizzica will host the new primetime series Outrageous Food, premiering November 2010. Production begins today for this traveling food show featuring out-of-this-world eats.”

Which I suppose makes Herb the second runner-up in this pageant. Now look, if you’ve been following my recaps, then you know I’ve spent the last nine weeks trying to understand the judges’ fascination with Fluctuating Energy Chef, and the mystery continued right to the bitter end of the episode. Seriously, Herb? You wanted to sell an entire TV series based on your ability to make an egg-white frittata and share anecdotes about how your mother’s careless cooking turned you into a self-described chubby kid with issues? Maybe Susie Fogelson could whip up a Cooking con Sabor line of dumbbells and antidepressants to go along with it? Still, at least the muscular man-chef whipped up his dish with only a tablespoon of barely suppressed rage (that outburst of “oh the cheese!” as he chucked his cheddar to the floor) and not a single shake of “bro!” or “dude!” or “baby!” And simple as it was, the end result did indeed look tasty. Mark this one in the “win” column for Herb, and raise a glass of Muscle Milk in his honor!

What did you think of this season of The Next Food Network Star? Were you pleased with Aarti’s win? Will you watch Aarti Party? How about Tom’s Outrageous Food? And were there any other contestants this season for whom you’d green-light a show? Sound off in the comments, and to get all my reality-TV musings, follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak.

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