In 2005, the Food Network launched a reality competition show called The Next Food Network Star, with pretty self-explanatory goals. The show was created with the goal of finding the next Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, or Robert Irvine. It became the American Idol of cooking shows and is currently airing its 11th season on Sunday nights. Just like Idol, the show creating stars became a bona fide hit.
The real question is, do its stars fare the same as many Idol finalists, with the starmaker outweighing the stardom? The best way to answer this question is to chronicle each season’s winner and how he/she has fared since. Without further ado…
Season One – Winner: Dan Smith & Steve McDonagh
In the debut season of The Next Food Network Star, a tag team won the title. Smith and McDonagh were the first and only tag team in the show’s history. They earned a six episode original run, which led to 32 episodes of their show Party Line with The Hearty Boys in 2005 and 2006.
What is most interesting about the team is that they are business and life partners, something ahead of the game a decade ago. Their bio is still available on the Food Network website and the pair still uses the Hearty Boys name for their catering business. I’m also surprised that the Food Network has yet to air a pairs season of Star.
Other Competitors of Note: This season’s runner up, Deborah Fewell, hosted a Food Network special in 2006, but that was the only other FN follow-up from any of these competitors.
Season Two – Winner: Guy Fieri
If The Next Food Network Star claims to be a starmaker, Guy Fieri shines the brightest. Fieri began with Guy’s Big Bite in 2006 before adding Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives in 2007. Between the two, Food Network has aired over 400 episodes of his bleached hair.
That’s not all, as Fieri hosted other FN shows, such as Ultimate Recipe Showdown and Rachel vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off. That doesn’t even include the game show Minute to Win It on NBC or his new competition show, Guy’s Grocery Games, which has already aired four seasons since it began in 2013. As Fieri’s tenure with the Food Network concludes its first decade, it seems like the chef’s spot on the network’s Mount Rushmore should start being chiseled.
Other Competitors of Note: Nathan Lyon, who finished in fourth place, hosted a show on Discovery Health called A Lyon in the Kitchen in 2007.
Season Three – Winner: Amy Finley
This season switched up the competitor prerequisites slightly, as a handful of the contestants lacked culinary backgrounds. It also changed the process, with Marc Summers only hosting the finale and Food Network executives Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson having an on-camera presence. Bobby Flay ended up a much bigger part of the show, a role that would continue and grow as the seasons progressed.
The first female winner of Star, Finley’s show ran for its six-episode first season and did not return. The decision was solely her choice, even though she had been begged by Tuschman himself. Finley and her family relocated to France. She has lived a low-key lifestyle since her six episodes aired, only returning to cable television once, on a 2012 Chopped episode featuring Food Network Star veterans.
Other Competitors of Note: Colombe Jacobsen, who appeared in two of the three Mighty Ducks movies, also competed during this season, being eliminated in week three. Joshua Adam “JAG” Garcia had a spot in the finale but he lied on his resume. He was replaced in the finale by Finley, who ended up winning the competition. Only Robert Irvine can do that and get away with it.
Season Four – Winner: Aaron McCargo, Jr.
Arguably the second-most successful winner, McCargo’s show, Big Daddy’s House, ran for six seasons. It just happened that a minority contestant won Star as the network was pushing for more diversity on air. McCargo’s show debuted in August 2008, just months after Down Home with the Neelys found its way to the airwaves. These shows, along with the work of Sunny Anderson (and later on, Marcela Valladolid), were an attempt by the Food Network to appeal to minorities.
Ratings did not last forever, and McCargo and the Neelys are off the air, while Anderson and Valladolid can only be found on one show, The Kitchen, where they are just two of the five voices on the show. Back to McCargo, his 77 episodes are an impressive total. He has since made some appearances on Bar Rescue, though his summer has been pretty quiet.
Other Competitors of Note: Adam Gertler was a runner-up but got some work after his elimination. Both of his shows, Will Work for Food and Kid in a Candy Store, lasted one season. Gertler can now be found on FX’s eponymous FX Movie Download. Kelsey Nixon, who was eliminated in this season’s penultimate episode, ended up hosting Kelsey’s Essentials on the Cooking Channel (FN’s sister station) for four seasons.
Season Five – Winner: Melissa d’Arabian
If season four was a relative peak, then season five was comparatively downhill. When d’Arabian’s show began, Ten Dollar Dinners made a lot of sense. The Great Recession had just ended and people were still fearful and trying desperately to save pennies. That niche began to shrink over the next year, and d’Arabian’s show was off the air after three seasons. She had another short-lived show on the Cooking Channel in 2012 and continues to save money by cooking and coming up with inexpensive recipes.
Other Competitors of Note: Jeffrey Saad finished second and ended up hosting United Tastes of America on the Cooking Channel for a 39-episode run. Jamika Pessoa has also been seen as an expert on Bar Rescue.