Compared with some of the tougher challenges of this season, this week was fairly straightforward. This is not to say there weren’t a few surprise twists and last-minute kitchen hysterics, but overall the contestants seem to be improving their culinary execution and presentation skills as the search for the next Food Network Star whittles down.

Star Challenge: Iron Chef Food Court
After congratulating the 10 remaining finalists on making it past the halfway mark, the team leaders announce this week’s challenge: reinventing the lowly food court. Each team will get its own kiosk centered around a specific cuisine at the South Street Seaport. Team Bobby gets American, Team Giada gets Mexican (everyone is thrilled, because they have “Mama Mexico” on their team) and Team Alton gets Italian.

From menu planning to the kitchen, there are a handful of FNS hopefuls who seem in danger of going home this week. First, Linkie seems completely lost when it comes to Mexican food and questions Martita about every aspect of making her churros and Mexican hot chocolate (a dessert she’s never made before). Then Michele is forced to buy fresh clams for her New England clam chowder, which means a lot of time spent preparing the clams and less time to cook. Once again Martie is lagging in the kitchen, and when she’s surrounded by six pots of still-pink ground meat (for her breaded and fried rice balls), Alton silently mouths “I’m doomed!” to the camera.

But of course cooking cuisine-specific food is too simple a challenge, and a surprise twist comes in the form of Geoffrey Zakarian, the newest Iron Chef, who’s dressed a lot like Alton. Geoffrey calls for “the dome,” and in an Iron Chef-like manner, he announces the secret ingredient: chicken livers! But they’re not cruel (imagine churros with chicken livers), so only one person from each team has to incorporate the livers. Yvan and Justin, the earnest and youthful ones, both eagerly volunteer, while Bobby suggests Michele adds a chicken liver crouton (interesting) to her chowder.

Team Bobby: Seafood Kiosk (“American Sand Bar”)
Thanks to Michele’s rallying, Team Bobby gets it together for the network and Geoffrey. Michele‘s chowder and chicken liver crouton was a hit, as was her leadership in seizing the judges’ attention. Malcolm provided a delicious crab cake, but his quiet side took over the charismatic persona they’ve only seen glimmers of (and “glimmers aren’t enough,” according to Bobby). Nikki made the wrong move by listing off the many ingredients in her fish tacos instead of leading with her Southern California route 66 story.

Team Giada: Mexican Kiosk
Everyone but Linkie wows the judges with their food – Ippy‘s chipotle chili, Yvan’s smart use of the chicken liver tacos and Martita’s superb chicken poblano tortilla soup were all delectable. But on the presentation side, Martita, who was given an easy win given her POV, was virtually silent, being unable to handle the high stakes in the moment. Linkie was also timid and the fact that her churros were “tough” and flavorless didn’t help her case. The guys, however, both improved in the network’s eyes, particularly Yvan, who gave his “very best.”

Team Alton: Italian Kiosk (“Littler Italy”)
Though they faltered last week in their group presentation (recall the Halloween special failure with Guy), Justin, Martie and Emily overcome their loss with a seamless and amusing dialogue. Furthermore, Justin‘s fritto misto (a mixture of deep-fried meat/seafood) caused Geoffrey to “really see a star” in him; Martie perfectly fused her culinary POV (Southern entertaining) with Italian food; and Emily‘s apple fontina dessert panini sends Bob into a string of compliments.

Producer Challenge: Extraordinary Chicken
It’s no surprise Team Alton earns the win this week (thankfully Martie and Justin’s earlier fryer time fiasco was a false alarm). This means Linkie from Team Giada (but Martita better step it up next week) and Nikki (same goes for Malcolm) from Team Bobby are the bottom two. The Producer Challenge is to make the commonplace chicken “extraordinary.”

Nikki automatically thinks Greece (a tzatziki sauce with grilled chicken breasts) and Linkie starts on her spiced rum sauteed chicken with basil and tomatoes – possibly her first non-dessert dish of the season. Both dishes come out looking amazing, but we know the Producer Challenge always comes down to the one minute segment. Nikki starts hers off with “The Grill Next Door”; apparently she’s changed her show idea to put forth a more welcoming image (we’ll be sad to see you go, “Girl on Grill”). Giada advises Linkie “just be yourself!” but then proceeds to give her a lot of information to incorporate, sending Linkie into a mental flurry.

The Pitch Room
Both girls’ dishes end up tasting just as flavorful as they look, so it’s down to their star potential. Susie inquires about Nikki’s tough girl attitude and she admits she’s had to be independent from a very young age, a fact she wears proudly like a badge of honor. Bob likes her fighting spirit, but worries the camera is picking up on it in an unpleasant way. Linkie, on the other hand, is so naturally warm and inviting, but her talking points didn’t cohesively come together.

In the end, the person being eliminated is… Linkie! I was a bit surprised by this one, as this decision reminded me of all the times Martie has been in the Pitch Room and won out due to her warmth and likable personality. Yes, Nikki’s culinary POV is more solid and unique than Linkie’s “artful desserts,” but her harsh demeanor seems so off-putting. Perhaps the fact that Giada’s team had four (to Bobby and Alton’s three) had something to do with it — what do you all think? Should Linkie have gone home?

(Image courtesy of Food Network)

Jenn Lee

Staff Writer, BuddyTV

Jenn grew up in Ohio before moving to Seoul, Korea, where she attended international school and failed to learn Korean. From there she went on to earn a BA in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania before settling in Seattle, where she now spends too much time pondering the power of narrative in TV shows and novels. While she loves a good smart comedy (a la Community or Parks and Recreation), her favorite current show is Breaking Bad; all-time mentions include Arrested DevelopmentLost and Friends. When she’s not consuming television or literature, she’s savoring pastries and searching for the city’s ultimate sandwich.