Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Phil Traini's Gets its Groove Back - Next Food Network Star Season 9 Episode 9

This week's episode began with the final five on their way to Food Network studios - and as they chit chatted in the limos about, well, each other, I marveled once again that they're still so sane composed. Put me into that kind of pressure cooker and I'd be ready for the rubber room quicker than you can say "Whatever happened to Amy Finley?"

Meanwhile, the Mentor's challenge was right up my Kitchen Witch alley because the finalists were challenged with cooking from the pantry. According to Alton Brown, the Next Food Network Star is going to have to be an "imaginative problem solver."

Using ingredients from the pantry, and a variety of products made by the good people at Special K, Demaris and Rodney would be whipping up breakfast, Nikki was on lunch, and Russell and Stacey would be cookin up some dinner to culminate in "a whole days worth of deliciousness" prepared by them. At the end of the challenge they would each have one minute on camera to describe what they made, how they came up with the idea, and give one tip for using their pantry ingredient in a creative way.

While the finalists cooked Alton came around and gave them feedback. Nikki was told she needs to work on having more authority, Rodney was reminded to give viewers useful information, Damaris (who I think Alton is a little sweet on), was encouraged to teach, Stacey was advised to be less guarded, and Russell - who came up with a cool idea for oven roasted smashed potatoes with a crunchy salt and vinegar topping - was encouraged to finish as strongly as he started.

When it came time to present, Rodney did an okay job, but his breakfast pie with blue crab and eggs just didn't appeal to me.

Damaris was as wonderful as always, but it was her conversation with Alton afterward that I just loved. Right before he was about to take a big bite of her splendiferous looking French toast, she whispered "Don't eat it," and then threw her head back and laughingly and said "JK" (this means "just kidding" to the non texters out there).

It was just so Damaris - so, because I love her (and badly need to get a life), here is a picture I took of my TV screen (yes, I am that big a food nerd), so that you too can drool over that gorgeous French toast!

Alton's response: "Damaris, this is really good."

Despite having a disaster during the cooking portion of the challenge (Nikki burnt her croutons and had to switch gears at the 11th hour), I was really impressed by how well she recovered and thought her tip for using up the last bit of cereal left in the bag as a salad topping was fun.

Stacey came across as much more at ease and her cereal coated chicken looked delicious. Ditto for Russell's plate - he just has to be careful because when he starts trying to remember what he wants to say next, he looks away from the camera. At the end of the day, though, I find his stories about being a chef and working late nights really interesting and I hope he's going to continue weaving those things into his point of view.

You know, along with the bourbon.

Because everything goes better with it. (Even Special K)

In the end, though, only one could emerge victorious and that person was Stacey - which would give her a big advantage during the Star Challenge. To be able to take feedback and bounce back stronger is a personality trait I admire, so good on her - especially since Robert Irvine, was a guest mentor this episode. Prior to coming onto Food Network Star, Stacey's diner was featured in an episode of Restaurant Impossible, so winning that first challenge probably meant a lot to her.

As an aside, I'm going to take a moment to toot my own Robert Irvine horn. Several months ago I entered a contest on his Facebook page and came in second for, what else? Another winning pork tenderloin recipe - and won this t-shirt!

So as an official member of Team Robert, I was excited to see him. I was also excited about the challenge because the finalists got to do something that would be a dream for me: re-interpret classic dishes from the restaurant Phil Traini's  in Long Beach California.

And because Stacey had the advantage this round, not only did she get to pick what dish she would re-imagine, she also got to select what the other finalists would be creating.

The Star Challenge Dishes

In an effort to be strategic, Stacey assigned dishes based on the strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes of her fellow finalists and this is how it panned out:

Rodney, the pie man, was going to have to put a brand new spin on Chicken Cacciatore with Pasta, Damaris, who is not a big steak lover, got Tournados of Beef with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Stacey kept Crab Stuffed Halibut with a Baked Potato, Nikki - who dislikes salmon - was given Salmon with Rice Pilaf, and Russell was left with Stuffed Chicken.

As the finalists got cooking, I was concerned about Rodney's chicken cacciatori pie concoction and wondered if it might have been a good idea this challenge to do as Russell did and leave his point of view behind. If I was assigned this dish, I would stuff beautifully seasoned chicken, cheese, and fresh herbs into billowy pillows of ravioli, and then top it with a simple and incredibly fresh sauce made with heirloom tomatoes. Hmmm... I smell a brand new Kitchen Witch dish coming in the very near future...

Damaris, who's filets looked amazing despite her aversion to them, had a bit of a crisis with her smashed potatoes but in a move even McGyver would be proud of, she saved the day with a pinch of ingenuity and a large sieve.

If I had to re-imagine this dish I would probably do a version of my New York Strip with Sherried Mushrooms and Gruyere Mashed Potatoes.

When it came time to present, the judges were underwhelmed by Rodney's underbaked pies. Nikki's Salmon was cooked well but when she described rice pilaf as being "Rice that has stuff in it," she lost credibility with the judges, and though Stacey's crab cakes were tasty, once again the judges weren't feeling a connection with her.

There was, however, this magic moment when Robert Irvine said to Damaris "I detect an accent, where are you from?" and Damaris dead panned "New York."

Alton looked positively ga ga as he gazed across the table at her.

And yes, I've been taking more pictures of my TV screen.

Don't judge.

Love notwithstanding, the dish everyone wanted more of came from Russell.

As he served his tender looking chicken breasts lovingly wrapped in spinach and poached in an onion and vermouth broth, Russell said: "This won't be something to alienate your old client base but will definitely give your new client base something to bite into."

With that one line and his response to a question from Robert Irvine over why he should be the Next Food Network Star:  "I'm the old dog with a lot of new tricks. I know an awful lot and I'm capable of teaching that," Russell shot  into the top two for me along with Damaris. I watch cooking shows because I want to learn how to be the best possible cook I can be - and both Damaris and Russell bring that to the table for me. 

On the other hand, I truly like Stacey and, from my couch, find her engaging and approachable; it's just that I already know how to be an excellent home cook and did the whole retro cooking thing for years. Remember, I'm the nutty collector who has over 75 pieces of vintage Corningware and a retro cookbook collection that could rival a library. I can also coat a chicken breast 8 ways past Sunday.

Crunchy Coated Chicken with Mushroom Cream Sauce
Rodney is interesting - and I do still LOVE his pie kit idea - it's just that I find he may have put himself into a box with the pie style idea. What do I know, though? The rest of the world loves Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives.

Sadly Nikki, to whom I was subscribed on Youtube long before she ever came onto the show, was sent home and I was crushed for her.

Onward and upward Nikki! Not only did you get onto a huge national television show - you made it to the final 5 and I can't wait to see what you do next!


If you enjoy reading food related fiction, pop by and check out my hilarious new web series "Starring Samantha."

Samantha Wentworth's catering business goes belly up along with her marriage to cut throat divorce attorney Alan Wentworth. To recoup her losses she applies to be on a reality TV show, falls in love with the married producer, just about kills the pompous chef host, and gets herself into all kinds of other interesting predicaments. 

Stay tuned Saturdays for this brand new serial on The Kitchen Witch! I'll be basing the characters off of well known food world celebs to keep you guessing! Each installment will come with a signature cocktail, recipes, and a fun question and answer to include you in the plot twists - so be sure to bookmark The Kitchen Witch and come along for a fun, food related, romantic romp through the world of reality TV!

Click here to read Episode 1: Samantha Drowns her Sorrows in a Vodka Gimlet 



Lyndsay Wells is a professional trainer, writer, and program developer with a passion for food and cooking. She is an award winning recipe developer, and a website ambassador for Kraft Foods Canada. Lyndsay believes cooking should be approachable and easy and has great tips and ideas for putting together sophisticated looking dishes that cooks of all levels can accomplish.

Visit her daily on her blog, The Kitchen Witch or on her YouTube Channel, CHARMED With The Kitchen Witch.

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