Friday, June 5
What took you so long, TUSCHELSON?
We sat down to talk about what's new for season 5, how they've changed since the first episodes, and how they, along with fellow judge Bobby Flay, don't let anyone influence their elimination decisions from week to week.
Season 5 of The Next Food Network Star premieres on Sunday, June 7. What most excites you this year?
Bob: I think we had such a high level of culinary competitors this year. We really worked to make sure we raised the bar. We always find great personalities, but this year they had to have the culinary expertise to get through the door.
We flew in the top 28 people in December and they went through a battery of tests, so the level of food we had this year was great. And the truth is, we put these guys through hell. We're pushing them to the limit so [on the show] they're still going to make mistakes. We would never make it easy enough that everyone made beautiful dishes every time. We really push them to wall to see who can stand up.
Did you have any early favorites?
Bob: For me it was much harder to pick who would get through to the finals. I think in most seasons I picked one or two people and thought I think they have a good chance of making it through. I could not have told you from the beginning who would make it and who would fall by the wayside.
Susie: I think I knew who the top four were going to be.
Bob: She's so much smarter than me.
Susie: I think, I don't know, you get a sense of people. The top four did not surprise me.
You both have been with the show since the beginning. We know how it changes the contestants and winners, but we don't hear a lot about how it's changed you both. Are you getting recognized on the street now?
Bob: Yes, my assistant recognizes me now and knows my name. [laughs] And I'm much taller now than I used to be—just thought it'd be better for TV.
It's odd. I watch the first episodes now and think gosh, I wasn't very good on them. As long as I've worked in TV, and I've been in entertainment for almost 30 years I'm very sorry to say, as much as I watch and help other people be great on TV I don't think I was very good at the beginning. Just watching season after season I look at things and think I gotta be better. I have to be more articulate, I have to think about how I'm moving, how I'm acting, how I'm looking, how I'm coming across. Since my job is to be critical it's very easy to be nothing but critical. I thought I was too harsh in many of the episodes. I thought I came across very negatively.
I really want these people to succeed; I really like the people that we have in. And the truth is, both Susie and I, we're really rooting for them. We're not there to try to kick them off, we're trying to get as many people across the finish line that we can. I think I was too hard on people and wasn't mentoring and nurturing enough in the beginning. You wanna be tough, but it's tough love. I think I got the tough part right and forgot the love part.
Do you like how you've come across in the newer episodes?
Bob: I think so. The one thing that doesn't come through is, I think most people I work with would say I'm funny... I never come across as funny in the series at all. High school friends watch me in it--people who've known me most of my life since grade school--and they say they watch with their kids now and they have to tell them, "No, he's really funny and nice! That's not like him." But when I talk to the producers, anything I say that's funny gets cut out. They say it would ruin the dramatic mood. I certainly don't come across as being filled with good humor, and I think most people [in real life] think I am.
Susie: Bob is hysterical. We have so much more fun doing it than what people actually see. When Bob gives you a compliment, the heavens sing--you can see it on the finalists' faces. He's so articulate and so great at communicating points about improving, so when he talks to the finalists they're just on the edge of their seats. It's so great to see how they take that feedback.
A lot of last season's contestants seemed very concerned about getting Bobby Flay's approval, since he's the culinary authority, but it's interesting to hear they all hold Bob's opinion so highly.
Susie: They know he's the guy in the driver's seats. Even though they're in awe of Bobby, I think they know when it comes to the opportunities for a career, it's Bob.
As far as my evolution on the show goes, I feel much more confident about what I'm being asked to do; I really get it now. With Guy Fieri coming out of season two, my job has taken on a new role with a lot more business with the talent.
When I first did the show, it was Gordon Elliott, Bob, and me. Gordon's a producer, Bob leads all programming and development, and I am marketing—and at that time I wasn't actually marketing any of our cooking talent. I knew I worked for whatever [the producers] were looking for, but I didn't really know how I fit in. I was happy to be thrust into it, but wasn't sure what my value was in the show. In the last three years, though, I've gotten much more confident.
Susie's confidence comes, no doubt, from the additional "branding" role her job has taken on. Stars don't just sign on to shoot TV shows, but work together with the network on any cookbook, branded products, and sponsorship deals that come about. Contestants are challenged on their ability to brand themselves and are expected to strive for more than just a weekend TV gig.
Bob: Susie knows what it takes to get a star out into the marketplace and build their brand, and I'm not saying this 'cause she's next to me, but Susie is one of the cleverest marketers that I've ever met. Even if she didn't have this background as a marketer, I think Susie has the personality for TV. She's so creative and instinctual. When she's watching [contestants] she's able to have instant reactions and say something that's interesting and laser-in on something that they're doing. I watch and I know something's not working, but I have to think about what's not working and think about how I want to phrase it. Susie is just on your case in a second, and she's always right.
How much have you really seen before you go into the judging room?
Bob: The producers tell us about everything that goes on, so we are prepped on anything that went on in the house, while they were cooking, behind the scenes, and presenting to us. We hear absolutely everything. But one of the things that was important to us this year was to be more present during their cooking and their challenges, so we're at almost every mini challenge now. We really wanted to have more interaction with them this year.
Susie: I could take even more. Although we get great information that I think has no bias, I feel like when you're evaluating these people you want to own that information. You don't want to rely on a recollection of an experience, because we're making some really intense decisions based on [that information]. When you have guests come in, they haven't seen the trajectory of certain finalists, so they might have a different feeling than we would, simply because we've seen the finalists for a longer period of time. So being there and coming to our own conclusions is what we think is most fair, because at the end of the day we're either going to keep 'em or not.
Unlike past seasons where guest judges often appeared in only one episode, Season 5's premiere episode features a "Sweet 16" party celebrating Food Network's 16th birthday. In attendance are many Food Network stars, some of whom come back in later episodes to guest judge. The idea is to give the guest judges more opportunity to see improvement, or the lack thereof, in the contestants.
What do you say to the people who claim that buying your own groceries, racing to finish a meal in 5 minutes, and many of the other tasks that are featured on The Next Food Network Star aren't really the kind of tasks a real star on the network would deal with?
Bob: I think you get a sense of grace under pressure. I think there's no more highly pressured job than being a TV food star, and running a restaurant, and having product lines, and having staffs, and writing books, and being natural and care-free in front of the camera. What we look for are the kind of personality traits which you do find out when you put them in a pressure cooker environment. If someone just has a facade of being nice and bubbly, you're going to find out it's just facade, so that's why we design the tasks that way.
Susie: I also feel like you learn a lot about their character. Multitasking is a great skill to have in most professions--it's absolutely critical in this job. When you're working with them in a business situation really closely, knowing their character really matters to me. These challenges put you in a very stressful environment and your true colors come out. If you're a dishonest person, I'd think twice about going into business with you.
Bob will be blogging again this season after each episode; some posts are already up. And somebody must have heard my woebegone cries over Susie's initial decision to not post her video blogs after each episode, 'cause it looks like she will in fact be back on the FN Dish answering viewer questions. Yay!
Bob: I really like writing a blog. We disagreed a lot this year and sometimes it came across on camera and sometimes it didn't. There were a couple of times we disagreed on who should go home, and I was overruled—and really pissed about it.
Is the decision to send someone home a true majority vote between you three, or are there any other outside influencers?
Bob: It's a true democracy. Bobby feels so strongly about his decision and will not allow himself to be swayed. If you're a producer, you tell him what you think at your own risk. He wants to pick who he feels in his heart would be the best person, and the fact that a producer might want to pick someone who'd make a better story doesn't interest Bobby in the least. I think that filters down to us. There have been other years where we didn't let them make a decision, but we definitely heard their point of view and that infuriated Bobby, so we just said we're not going to do that anymore. It will only be the three of us making the decision.
Susie: For a producer to tell us who's the best person to join our family makes no sense.
Bob: The difference between [this show] and every other cooking reality show, most reality shows actually, American Idol excepted, is you'll never see again the person who wins. They had a great 13 weeks, but it doesn't matter who wins. It matters who has the best story. But for us, their career stars when the show ends. So we want a star who will be with us for the long term. So we have a totally different criteria that we're looking at that's different from almost any other reality show.
I have to ask you quickly about Ina Garten, since I'm so excited she's making her first appearance on the show. Did you both get to meet her?
Bob: Yes. Ina was amazing, and when I talk about the talent being so astute she is the primo example of that. She had really great insights into everybody. Ina is such an accomplished businesswoman, and so smart and so creative that she just zeroes in on what people's possibilities were and what their challenges were. The finalists so looked up to her and so wanted to please her.
Susie: I had never met her before the taping, and my sense when I watch her is that she's so warm and that's exactly how she was like in person. You just cannot manufacture that. She has such a giving, generous presence.
Bob: I've known Ina a really long time and we talk on occasion. I went out last summer to her house for a meeting and when I got there she was testing recipes and made the most incredible lunch. We had wine in the garden and I thought Oh my god, I'm in a Barefoot Contessa episode. I'll be the envy of all my friends!
You both know who's going to win. Is it hard keeping that a secret?
Susie: No, it's not a problem at all. I watch the rough cuts just to see how things are coming together, and I don't just throw them in the recycling bin or something. And I won't let my husband watch them because I want him to watch the series. He doesn't want to know, I don't want to talk about it... I don't even tell my little Isabel [Susie's 4 year old daughter].
Bob: I get stopped so many times on the street by people who say, "Come on, just tell me who's going to win." I was coming back from the park last summer and it was pretty close to the end of the season and this large, intimidating guy stands over me and says, [in a deep, booming voice] "You need to tell me" and I was like, "I can't tell you." I actually thought I think he's going to hurt me if I don't tell him.
Susie: People want to know, but they don't really want to know. It's a wild, really great ride this season and how it starts isn't how you think it's going to end.
Thanks so much to Bob and Susie for taking the time to talk to me! I'm looking forward to the Season 5 premiere this Sunday.