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'The Next Food Network Star': Be careful what you swap for

August 2, 2010 | 12:17 pm

What is more joyful than the man you love proving himself to be a lout who leaves you and your son to fend for yourselves?

That's Aria's world!

The "Next Food Network Star" hopefuls had to cook to an emotion. Aria ended up with "melancholy." Tough for someone with a megawatt smile, but it would have forced her to stretch and grow, which is what the judges clearly wanted. But Aria wanted the easy way out. So she swapped with Herb, who had "joy." But then, instead of delivering a JOY-ful meal to the judges at Beso -- including the restaurant's chef, Todd English, and owner and actress Eva Longoria -- Aria delivered one that almost moved them to tears. It was a story about how she and the man in her life hit a rough patch and broke up, he left her to care for their son, and how he finally returned to tell her that he would do "anything to rebuild our family." And one of those steps is getting together each Sunday for a family dinner.

Now, technically, you could have totally turned that into a joyful story, right? But she didn't. And that just might be the biggest misstep of the season so far: If Aria had stuck with "melancholy," and explained to the judges why her dish represented that bitter sweet emotion, I think she would have won the week. Her show concept is "family style," and how wonderful would it be to have that conceit embodied by a woman fighting for her family's life. Talk about real. Oooh, what a missed opportunity.

It was enough to land Aria in the bottom three this week, as the field winnowed down from five to four, with the four final contestants heading to New York City to cook as if their lives depend upon it, which they do.

Joining Aria in the bottom was Brad, and -- SHOCKER! -- Aarti.

More shocking: Aarti is on the ropes.

I predicted Aarti would be the one to walk off with this competition, but that is no longer a certainty. The judges are too far into this game to be enchanted by her charm or beauty any longer. It was a fascinating insight into the world of TV to have the Flay-Man and the rest of the judging panel note that the job is too hard and too demanding for a diva who needs an entourage to tell her how great she is and boost her confidence.

The message: Either get it together, Aarti, or get the heck out of here.

What do you think? Will Aarti pull it together? Or, more important: Can she pull it together?

From earlier in the night: Kudos to Herb for taking the swap with Aria in stride. Did he complain about being stuck with melancholy? Nope. He knocked it out of the park with a story about how he always felt sad, and like the odd kid out when his mother made her Latin dishes while all the other kids were eating traditional American foods like hot dogs. He presented one of his mother's dishes, with a healthy twist, and embraced the bittersweet nature of it all. It was perfect. Tom too, has totally found his home. I'm ready to make room on the TiVo for "The Big Kitchen" right now.

And that leaves Brad. Although he was improving week by week, he could never really get comfortable over the presentation part of it, just couldn't get comfortable in front of the camera. Which is weird because, well, he's also in front of a camera when he's not doing presentations, and he's perfectly charming there, right? Same goes for his "confessionals." Once again, it just goes to show how hard all this stuff really is.

And so we bid farewell to Brad and his new, appealing point of view: "Culinary Quest." And, I'll make another prediction. We haven't seen the last of Brad. A little more grooming -- not in looks, but in execution -- and he'll be right at home on the Cooking Channel. I mean, they can't give Adam Gertler everything.

Speaking of Gertler: Have you been watching "After Party?" Where Gertler, Sunny Anderson and Kelsey Nixon break it all down for you?

-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo caption: Brad in the kitchen. Photo credit: Food Network