What It’s Like to Judge on 'Food Network Star'

Courtesy of The Food Network
THR Staff during 'Food Network Star'

THR guests on an episode of the talent-scouting competition, which airs Sunday, July 21.

Everyone’s a critic. Rarely do you get to play one on TV. Food Network Star invited me -- in my capacity as THR’s dining writer -- as well as my colleague, (former) reality-TV reporter Leslie Bruce and our editorial director Janice Min to judge this Sunday’s midseason episode of Season 9 (9pm/8c).

Of course, this being pretaped well in advance, they invited us in the morning before Valentine’s Day. We were fluffed and powdered at the venerable Culver Studios, where everything from Gone with the Wind to Citizen Kane has been shot, before our close-up in its DeMille Screening Room. There the series’ standing mentors -- Alton Brown, Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis -- joined us in our row of plush seats.

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What do you spend several hours’ worth of intermittent downtime discussing with real Food Network stars? The kibitz quotient leans a little toward haberdashery (Brown), a little toward jet lag (Flay), but mostly, of course, about dining: where to go, what to order and how to get a table at one of the hottest restaurants in town.

Yes, apparently even Food Network stars have trouble landing a reservation at Gjelina in Venice. When Brown admitted he couldn’t secure a two-top at a decent hour, De Laurentiis asked if he’d bothered to perform the simple line-cutting act of dropping his own famous name -- or if he’d been inexplicably humble again and attempted to make a reservation under an assumed moniker. Of course he had done the latter, he said. After all, “You can’t do the drop!” She just sighed.

So, the whole judging thing: It’s hard. No, wait, it’s not. In Sunday night’s episode, one of the contestants, Damaris Phillips, says, “Please, God, don’t have them say anything mean!” Of course we would. That’s the whole fun of it.

The remaining contestants, divided into two teams of three apiece, were sent out to shoot competing segments at beloved local Southern California roadside food landmarks -- The Donut Man in Glendora and Vito’s Pizza in West Hollywood. We were to appraise on-screen presence, personality and delivery: the ingredients that make up star quality.

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It’s true that a few are born with it. It’s also true that it can be, very occasionally, picked up -- or, really, brought out. But in most cases, it’s just, painfully, not there. Which is the cruel, fundamental lesson of the show, and the talent competition genre in general.

As for Sunday evening’s episode: There are entirely unintentional, eminently entertaining cringe-comedy moments of awkwardness in the performances. And then there are the mind-blowing amateur-hour missteps in the produced segments. (How do you visit a pizzeria known for its 500-year-old yeast starter, or a donut spot famous for its sui generis use of potato flour, and fail to talk about them?). All of which means that Flay is right when he tells the contestants, in a foreboding quick-cut before the final commercial break, “You did not have a good day with the critics.”