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

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

 
Comments () | Archives (35)

Of note: She WAS from Texas when the show filmed, but recently moved to Washington state, following her husband on a job offer. Nonetheless, we Texans are proud she won!

I like Jeffrey's show concept better than mom's. Haven't you all read "Twist of the Wrist"?

I'm glad Melissa won. I think of the two more of us in the real world will identify with her. Many of us don't have the time always to get the store and look over exotic ingredients and such. We need to get dinner on the table now. Once in a while we can conjur up a fancy meal, but everyday is hectic and we need something right now. But, Jeffrey was great...he can have a show of his own and really do well for the more specialized, less hassled group. Good luck to both of them.

I think Melissa was the right choice. I also believe that the Food Network execs are not fools, they will have Jeffrey on the air in some format. I believe that Jamika and Debbie would have won any other season (sorry Guy, but it's true), so they should find a way to incorporate them as well. Perhaps being guest chefs on other shows.

Anyway, I loved the show and the right person did win. Melissa will be drawing lots of new and more loyal viewers and that's what FN needs.

I didn't think Melissa was that good. She seems phony to me, I won't watch her new show.

I'm not surprised that Melissa won, however, I believe the panel needs to really think about their choice as I don't think the last couple they picked were a hit. Melissa is nice, but I didn't like her down playing those that work. I probably won't watch her show unless she has an attitude change.

Despite her own unending comments about being the "underdog", Melissa's win was entirely predictable. She did a great job and continued to grow throughout the process, while presenting a "culinary point of view", as the show's panel always says, that is precisely aligned with the direction Food Network is all about. That said, I would probably never watch her show, but that's just personal preference. I miss the days when professional chefs cooked inspiring food on FN. Te years ago, I felt like I could gain real knowledge from FN. Now, it's nothing but silly game and reality shows and sunny faces like Melissa's showing me yet another 30 minute easy chicken dish. Yawn. Sorry, Jeffrey....unfortunately, the better competitor doesn't always win.

Yes, the right person won. Jeffery is very talented, but I think more people will relate to Melissa, she will have a bigger audience and will serve a needed market. She is an inspiration to me, an aspiring chef and mother of 7 (almost 8). She deserved to win because she had the fewest professional credentials yet proved herself week after week. Good job!

All I can say is that I feel your perception of your viewers is sadly disappointing. Although Melissa is adorable and relatable, I wish you could have thought more of me your typical viewer. I am melissa and don't not want one more 4 step chicken dinner forced down my throat. I as so many other busy mom's of 4 are so ready to be treated like adults in the culinary world. We want to expose our families to new exotic ingrediants and sophisticated techniques. My children appreciate good meals as much as any adult and for my family i am insulted by this dumbing down of the food you offer with your choice of winner. i was looking forward to learning about new ingrediants I had not seen a million times.

Melissa was an enigma for me, sometimes I liked watching her and sometimes I couldn't stand her. Looking at her food and style, it is very much like I cook now. Similar to Barefoot Contessa, I will probably make recipes on her show, but I don't think I will be tuning in too much.

I would have watched Jeffrey's show about using new ingredients and I am the type of person that would run out and hunt down those new ingredients. So all in all, I think Food Network missed a great opportunity here and I hope Jeffrey will have a spot on Travel Channel or Food Network soon.

Other than Guy Fieri (because of his over the top personality) I think the Next Food Network Star has been a bust. The casting needs to be reevaluated to get higher quality chefs on the show.

I do not think the right person won. Melissa's voice is nothing I want to listen to for a straight half hour, for one. I think Jeffery's dish for his pilot was much more interesting; I don't feel I learned anything by watching someone fry chicken and top it with sauteed onions. Also, while I understand that this last competition was more about camera presence than it was about the recipe alone, it really seems to me that her potatoes-au-gratin-in-a-cup is something that would've earned a derisive snort from the judges earlier in the competition. That thing looked about as appealing on the plate as a brick.

Oh well. At least Debbie didn't win.

I liked both of them. I thought Jeffrey's show concept was more interesting. I enjoy learning about exotic spices, condiments, etc. However, Melissa's may hit home with more people. Who hasn't looked in the fridge/pantry at 6 pm and had no idea what to make from the hodgepodge of ingredients. One thing that bugs me is that she claims she 'invented' her 4 step chicken saute technique. I learned the EXACT same technique (dredge meat, saute; add aromatics; deglaze with liquid; finish sauce) in a cooking class here in Illinois. I even have a huge binder with about 100 'recipe' ideas for the 4 steps (switching out different aromatics, sauces, etc.) But kudos to both of them. Hopefully Jeffrey will land a show somewhere else?

Aaron McCargo Jr. won last season but they also gave a show to the runner-up, Adam Gertler, so it's entirely possible that Food Network isn't done with Jeffrey. As far as Melissa winning, the only other woman to win turned out to be a total fizzle and I see the same thing happening. When Melissa said she had even lived in France just like Amy did, that cinched it for me.

Given the demographic appeal, I think Melissa was the right choice for Food Network. I liked both Melissa and Jeffrey from the very first episode. I was quite happy that they both made it through to the end. I have no doubt at all that Jeffrey will have his own show soon. His appeal was too strong for Food Network to let him go.

We were shocked by the result, We as a family really connected with Jeffrey and his strong family ties. We appreciated the way he talked about his family and the support he received from his wife and kids. He appreciated their support and never failed to thank them. Melissa on the other hand, yes she is likeable but when she talked about cooking with her kids I was picturing them in elementary school (like Jeffrey's) not toddlers all under the age of five. They have no concept of what their mother was doing and what it will now involve. Also, she seems to prefer the company of her girlfriends and not her husband who seems to be raising the girls during this time. She never once mentioned him nor did she thank him for all the support he gave her the last ten weeks. I want to learn new cooking techniques and try new foods on my family (harrissa, never heard of it, am going to find it today), not the same old thing, chicken with onions boring!! I am sorry, but Jeffrey deserved this show "hands down". What were the judges thinking, I give it less than a year, if that.

I agree-Melissa was not only not that good, but she reminded me too much of that stupid "Gourmet Next Door" tripe! And look how long that pampered pet lasted? Another octomom type bragging about being a breeder-yuch! I much preferred Jeffrey-him I would watch! Sigh. I predict 4 and out on this one. Hopefully FN gets smart and gives him a show like they did for Adam!

This pick was a total pandering move by FN. Jeffrey should have won based on his unique show idea. Way too go FN and go with another 30 min meals idea. I can't wait to watch Jeffery's show on the Travel channel, which has the most unique food show out there - Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.

No. The network already has plenty of Melissa's. They needed someone different in Jeffery.

I liked them both, but what got me at the end was I'd actually *make* her recipe. I had no clue what that ingredient was Jefferey introduced. I'm sure I could find in my sophisticated grocery store, but what about the rest of the country? What the heck was that stuff and what was it supposed to taste like? Not knowing left me with zero interest in what he was preparing. Now the individual potato gratins? On my to-do list... I liked his concept, but he should have prefaced with a disclaimer that perhaps not all of his 'secred ingredients' would be available to every family... They'll both have a place on the FN is my call.

I was rooting for Melissa for most of the series and I'm extremely happy that she won. I'll admit, though, that Jeffrey's pilot intrigued me and I hope that Food Network finds an outlet for him. In the meantime, I'm really looking forward to the premiere of Melissa's new show, "Ten Dollar Dinners," next Sunday.

 
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