A week from today, The Next Food Network Star‘s seventh season will premiere. This season, strangely known as just Food Network Star (I guess Food Network can’t afford the Next in the title anymore?), features the usual stable of FNS contestants: home cooks looking to break into food television, professionals with something to prove and a handful of trying-too-hard bad boys with checkered pasts. If past seasons of FNS have taught me anything, it’s that each and every one of these contestants, no matter how likable or endearing, will be unbearable to watch by the end of the season (and that the winner’s show will most likely be terrible).

But hey, it’s not about the destination — it’s all about the journey! So let’s meet our prospective stars, shall we?

alicia s.jpgAlicia Sanchez

Her Story: Alicia is a 33-year-old “Midwest girl at heart.” A former model, Alicia put herself through culinary school and now lives in New York. She once owned her own high-end cake/cupcake business (uh-oh), and now works as a chef instructor.

Initial Thoughts: I’ll admit, Alicia has got some serious credentials. She’s been through culinary school, and she’s already worked as a professional chef in New York. She’s also a teacher, so she’s used to explaining method and technique clearly and concisely. And as a former model, she’s got to be pretty comfortable in front of the camera. Beyond this, she’s pretty, and has a really nice smile. (What? It’s important!) But I can already tell that her voice (which is smoker flavor with valley girl cadence) is going to grate on me after a while, and it seems like she doesn’t really handle stress all that well — strange, considering she used to own a high-end cake business.

chris n.jpgChris Nirschel

His Story: Chris is a 28-year-old culinary “bad boy” (oh lord, here we go) hailing from New Jersey. Chris has a checkered past, which I’m sure will be revealed eventually — most likely accompanied by manly, bad boy tears. He saved himself by attending the French Culinary Institute and has been working as a professional chef ever since. He apparently doesn’t like recipes, and tends to create his meals on the fly.

Initial Thoughts: While I’m intrigued by Chris’ no-recipe strategy, he already annoys the crap out of me. Blame Guy Fieri for forever turning me off of so-called culinary bad boys, but man. Even in the previews, Chris is way too cocky and high-energy for me. And he’s probably got some awful catchphrases holstered and ready to go. He seems well intentioned, he just needs to tone it down and lighten up if he’s going to win me over this season. You know who is an actual, honest culinary bad boy? Anthony Bourdain. You know why? Because he never feels the need to bring attention to the fact that he’s a bad boy — he just is. Channel your inner Bourdain, Chris, and you’ll go far.

howie d.jpgHowie Drummond

His Story: Howie is a 40-year-old morning radio host from Colorado. He worked in the restaurant business for seven years before going into radio, which he’s been doing for 15 years. His main cooking outlet now is cooking for his wife and three daughters. He doesn’t have any culinary school under his belt, but considers himself a good cook without it.

Initial Thoughts: I like Howie quite a bit. He seems real and personable, which is more than I can say for a lot of the horrific caricatures hosting Food Network shows at the moment (Guy Fieri, Sandra Lee — I’m looking at you guys). He’s got a good, strong voice from working in radio, and seems extremely at ease in front of the camera. With his lack of professional experience, Howie could be an early underdog for season 7.

jeff m.jpgJeff Mauro

His Story: Jeff is a 32-year-old former comedian and family man from Illinois. He currently works as a private corporate chef. Jeff describes himself as a master of sandwiches, having made hundreds of sandwiches a day at his job working the corporate cafe. His culinary specialty seems to be Italian food (and sandwiches, obviously).

Initial Thoughts: Now here’s a contestant I can get behind. Fun-loving, charismatic and totally down-to-earth, Jeff seems like he could go the distance in this competition with his combination of comedic mentality and serious kitchen skills. Jeff, like Howie, has a good voice and seems very comfortable in front of the camera. And personally, sandwiches are my favorite food. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a cooking show focused on making really awesome, unique sandwiches and sides? It could be called Jeff, Make Me a Sandwich.

juba k.jpgJuba Kali

His Story: Juba is a 29-year-old research chef from New Orleans. Growing up impoverished, Juba had to improvise his meals with whatever ingredients he could find, and soon grew to love the science of cooking. He thinks of his kitchen as a chemistry lab — he’s equal parts science and creativity. He also has an adorable daughter named Luna.

Initial Thoughts: Now, Food Network already has a resident science guy. His name is Alton Brown, and he should be running the network — that’s how awesome he is. But I think there’s room at the network for a nice guy like Juba and his “science of food” approach. Juba seems really humble and cool, and I’m excited to see what he’s going to bring the table in terms of recipes, especially after hearing him talk about mixing different cultures and techniques. Juba doesn’t seem extremely confident, though, so I worry about him in front of the camera.

justin b.jpgJustin Balmes

His Story: Justin is a 32-year-old professional chef from Atlanta, Georgia. Like Chris, Justin has a dark past, and admits that attending culinary school helped him get his life back on track. He’s very into acquiring a vast array of kitchen skills, working in professional kitchens, as a fishmonger and as an apprentice butcher.

Initial Thoughts: Justin seems very sure of himself, and very snooty. Throughout his interview, he dogs on his mother for making horrible food when he was a child. And I’m just sitting there like, “Justin, dude, this is your mom we’re talking about. She fed you, man!” I’m on the fence about Justin. His great knowledge of all things food is intriguing, but he personally seems very cold and uptight. And did I mention snooty? But he also cares very much about where his ingredients come from, which is something I can get behind. We’ll see if Justin can win me over this season.

justin d.jpgJustin Davis

His Story: The other Justin is a stay-at-home dad, food blogger and passionate home cook. He started getting interested in food (and even cooking shows) at a very young age. He has no professional experience, and draws most of his knowledge from cook books (though he rarely follows a recipe).

Initial Thoughts: Justin seems like a pretty cool dude. When I read “food blogger” I stopped myself just before rolling my eyes. As cool as he seems, he’s really not standing out to me much at all. Dull is an apt word, though I’m hesitant to use it. He seems like the type of guy I would have a pleasant conversation with waiting in line at the bank, not the type of guy I want hosting a Food Network show. His lack of credentials is disconcerting as well. With so many contestants this season having attended culinary school, these home cooks might be getting shipped off earlier than usual.

jyll e.jpgJyll Everman

Her Story: Jyll is a 31-year-old caterer from California. She’s into Wisconsin comfort food, and specializes in appetizers (and casseroles, apparently). She got into cooking to spite her ex-boyfriend (who was a professional), which seems like a really stupid reason to join a profession.

Initial Thoughts: There’s something very off about Jyll. Maybe it’s that she reminds me of a Sandra Lee/Melissa d’Arabian love child. Maybe it’s her manic laughter, or the fact that she got into cooking because she wanted to be better than her ex (obsessive, much?). Or maybe it’s that she spells her name like that. Whatever it is, it’s making me uncomfortable. I don’t see Jyll going very far in this competition — mostly because she considers tuna casserole to be her secret weapon. Yeah, let’s see how that works out for you, hun. I’m sure Bobby Flay will appreciate it (note: he won’t).

katy c.jpgKaty Clark

Her Story: Katy is a 34-year-old food and fitness life coach (oh, come on) from Long Beach, California. She has all the Fs: food, fitness, fashion, fun and family. (Seriously? You’re going with that?) And she draws inspiration from “everything, which is nice.” She refers to herself as Fit Chef Katy and will not. Shut. Up.

Initial Hatred: I really cannot put into words how much I instantly dislike Katy, but to hell with it, I’m going to try. She represents everything that’s wrong with Food Network right now — gimmicky, over-energetic, borderline yelling at the audience. What does a food and fitness life coach do anyways? There can’t possibly be people out there making money doing that, can there? (Don’t tell me that there are. I don’t want to know.) Let’s get real here: Katy is a soccer mom who’s had ten weeks of cooking classes. We already have Sandra Lee, and one of her is already way too many. I hope Katy gets booted right quick, because I’m not sure how many minutes I can stand of her and her Fs.

… oh man, she’s going to win, isn’t she?

mary beth a.jpgMary Beth Albright

Her Story: Mary Beth is a 38-year-old food critic from Washington, D.C. She describes herself as the love child of Ina Garten and Alton Brown. She became passionate about food and cooking while in college (which leads me to believe she will use a lot of beer and ramen noodles in her cuisine). I’m not exactly sure in what capacity she works as a food critic, but I can assure you it means she will act very self-entitled and self-important during the competition. Because critics are always self-important and self-entitled. Oh wait…

Initial Thoughts: Maybe it’s that I’m still using up a good portion of my life energy in hating Katy, but I just don’t feel one way or the other towards Mary Beth. I’m completely indifferent. She seems boring and dry, and not even that excited about food or cooking. What’s the deal, Mary Beth? Drink a cup of coffee and buck up, you’re on Food Network Star. Bobby Flay is standing right there.

orchid p.jpgOrchid Paulmeier

Her Story: Orchid is a 38-year-old restaurant owner from South Carolina who prides herself on her top-notch barbeque. At her first job in the kitchen, she burned her bangs off on the grill, but it didn’t deter her. She describes herself as enthusiastic and relatable, and has no formal culinary training.

Initial Thoughts: Orchid seems fun. And she’s right, she is totally relatable, because she makes an effort to be that way. In her interview, she has a couple of funny anecdotes about her cooking career, and both had me smiling (which is more than I can say about the elaborate snooze-fests that Rachel Ray rasps out on any given episode of 30 Minute Meals). I already get a good sense for her personality. Orchid is an early favorite for me.

penny d.jpgPenny Davidi

Her Story: Penny is a 39-year-old restaurateur from L.A. She’s also a private cooking and pantry instructor (here we go again with these ridiculous made-up professions). Penny got into cooking after her divorce, and she used food to connect to her children, whom she had joint-custody of. Her specialty is Middle Eastern cuisine.

Initial Thoughts: Penny struck me as a little rigid at first, but she’s growing on me. For one, she’s Iranian, and specializes in Middle Eastern cuisine. That’s something Food Network is desperately lacking. Is Penny the right person for the task of bringing some Middle Eastern flavor to Food Network? I don’t know yet.

susie j.jpgSusie Jimenez

Her Story: Susie is a 29-year-old private chef from Colorado. She derives her cooking knowledge from the recipes of her mother and grandmother, who both emigrated from Mexico. Susie lost her father earlier in life, instilling in her a passion for making the most of the day-to-day. She caters, she cooks and she seems to have a ton of energy.

Initial Thoughts: Susie is another contestant that I can’t get excited about. But I don’t hate her either. She seems to come at Food Network Star like it’s a job interview, saying she’s able to “work long hours.” I’m waiting for her to describe herself as a punctual go-getter and a self-starter willing to work overtime. I like the fact that she is taking traditional Mexican dishes and trying to make them lighter and healthier without losing flavor, but personality-wise, I’m not too sure about Susie.

vic v.jpgVic “Vegas” Moea

His Story: Vic is a 35-year-old professional Vin Diesel impersonator from, well, Vegas. Alright, he’s not actually an impersonator. He’s an executive chef at a hotel. He’s another one of these self-labeled bad boy chefs (question: if somebody has to inform you that they’re a bad boy, are they really a bad boy?) who plays by his own rules and has had to work his way up.

Initial Thoughts: I’m not unfamiliar with Vic. He’s participated in Food Network Challenge on several occasions, and he’s gotten to me every time. I get a serious Guy Fieri vibe from Vic, and it’s unsettling, to say the least. He’s not the most obnoxious contestant of this season, but he easily could be. To be fair, the guy seems to mean well, but he thinks he’s way cooler than he actually is. Look at that picture. Look at that smug, lopsided face and those rolled-up sleeves (it’s a t-shirt, bro, take it easy). Unfortunately, I see him going far in the competition.

whitney c.jpgWhitney Chen

Her Story: Whitney is a 27-year-old professional chef from New York. She’s a former cubicle rat, having quit her office job to attend culinary school and pursue a career as a line cook. She’s the daughter of a Chinese man and a Swedish woman, so her background in food is already intriguing. Her goal is to “teach and inspire.”

Initial Thoughts: Whitney is another early favorite of mine. It might just be that she’s cute, but she also seems extremely sincere, and is rather frank about how tough it is being a cook on a line. I expect some interesting dishes from her, just based on her background, and she has a ton of professional culinary experience. She seems technique-driven, which is something I like in a TV chef (allowing them to teach method, rather than just ingredients and recipes).

So there you have it! Fifteen chefs vying for the chance to star in their own cooking show on Food Network. To be honest, I’m not too thrilled with the roster this year. It seems really bottom-of-the-barrel, with a few stand-outs here and there.

Early Favorites: Howie Drummond, Jeff Mauro, Juba Kali, Orchid Paulmeier and Whitney Chen.

Too Early to Tell Like: Alicia Sanchez, Justin Balmes, Justin Davis, Penny Davidi and Susie Jimenez.

Dear God, Please Don’t Let Them Win: Chris Nirschel, Jyll Everman, Katy Clark, Mary Beth Albright, and Vic “Vegas” Moea.

Food Network Star premieres next Sunday, June 5, at 9pm. Come to BuddyTV for more articles on this season, and join me back here next week for my recap of the premiere!

(Images courtesy of Food Network)

Matt Click

Staff Writer, BuddyTV