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'The Next Food Network Star:' A come-from-behind win

August 2, 2009 |  7:57 pm

Melissa It's mommy Melissa.

Melissa d'Arabian, the mother of four from Texas and the absolute underdog heading into Season 5 of "The Next Food Network Star," won the competition tonight, beating Los Angeles' Jeffrey Saad, the front-runner in this race literally from Day 1. Melissa now stars in her own cooking show, and it starts in just one week.

From the beginning of the reality TV show competition, Melissa stood out from the pack -- and not just because of her sunny smile. She seemed to have little in common with the rest of the nine competitors, many of whom were much younger and presumably hipper. One example: While the other competitors seemed focused on food and winning, she seemed fixated on her lack of cooking school creds and mommyhood. (She was ribbed for frequently talking about breastfeeding her twin girls and foods that aid in lactation.")

But Melissa set out to immediately close that gap between herself and the competitors. Week by week, the audiences tuning in for the food world's version of "American Idol" watched her grow more confident and more authoritative with each challenge. She blossomed before our eyes and charmed everyone along the way.

Jeffrey had much in common with Melissa on the personal front -- a dad of two, Jeffrey and Melissa bonded over their kids. In other ways, the two couldn't have been more different. Melissa is all about helping parents get dinner on the table in record time. (Watch out, Rachael Ray.) Jeffrey is all about exotic ingredients and helping the home chef incorporate them into everyday meals. Jeffrey earned endless kudos for his ability to "bring food to life like no one else."

For their final challenge, both Melissa and Jeffrey delivered mock pilots of their shows, and both excelled. No surprise there. Food Network's Alton Brown helped them put the pilots together, and he warned Food Network execs that they would have their work cut out for them. ("There's a little movie star tucked away in there," he said of Melissa.) It was deemed the hardest decision in five seasons of the show.

In the end, it's hard to say why the selection panel chose Melissa -- they didn't really say. But Melissa clearly has a bigger potential audience -- that would be anyone, man or woman, looking into a bare pantry and trying to slam dinner on the table. That said, it's hard to believe that Jeffrey won't be rewarded in some way for his outstanding talents. Perhaps a show melding travel and food?

But what did you think? Did the right person win?

-- Rene Lynch

[Updated at 9:04 a.m. Monday: An earlier version of this post misspelled Melissa D’Arabian’s name as DeArabian]

Photo credit: Food Network