Michael Slezak
June 14, 2010 AT 06:30 PM EDT

Image Credit: Food NetworkLast night’s episode of The Next Food Network Star reminded me a little of that old Avril Lavigne lyric: “Why’d ya have to go and make things so complicated?” From Noreen’s baffling culinary viewpoint to Dzintra’s schizophrenic party plate to adorable Brad’s peanut-roasted debacle, it seemed like contestants were tripping over their own self-erected obstacles at every turn. Except for Das, of course, who realized sometimes a lemon-pepper chicken wing is all a crowd of 100 partygoers really wants to eat. And Aarti (picured), whose ricotta pancake and winning personality scored a last-minute triumph over her irritating self-doubt. Let’s hope she leaves the latter trait behind, like Aria did with the extra tray of meatballs that got abandoned in the oven. (Was anyone else obsessed with finding out whether those bite-sized treats caught fire and found new lives as charcoal briquettes?)

Anyhow…on to this week’s shenanigans! The camera challenge found the remaining contestants divvying up duties and making Giada’s 11-step vegetable lasagna, which was pretty uneventful but for three noteworthy moments: Giada using the phrase “brutalizing the spinach” to describe Das’ water-removal technique; Paul exclaiming “Well, hello!” like he was auditioning for a murderous role in the next Saw sequel; and Paul making me loathe him even harder by mocking Aria’s second-grade art-teacher intonations. And in the aftermath, we found Aarti crying to her cohorts: “I never thought I was good at anything!” Congrats, doll! Now you’re good at being The One With Confidence Issues on a reality show!

For the elimination challenge, Duff from Ace of Cakes and Zoltar arrived on the scene and told the Food Network Star wannbes that they needed to make savory party bites inspired by sweet items. Aarti, who revealed a tragic backstory when she explained that she’d never tasted a funnel cake, decided to make a ricotta pancake with tandoori BBQ chicken that ended up dazzling the judges and the audience. Serena made an interesting case for a Ghost HuntersEveryday Italian mashup by invoking a deceased relative to serve as her marinara totem. “Let the spirit of my grandmother assist me with this!” she shouted to the heavens, and damn if it didn’t work!

At the party, Paul ensured himself a bottom-three ranking by leering “Hello, lay-dees!” at his female guests and loudly pointing out that Asian people were returning for seconds of his Asian-ish appetizer. (I say “ish” because I’m not sure any particular ethnic group wants to take credit for candy corn as a chicken-wrap garnish.) Dzintra earned herself a similar disgrace by talking loudly to herself while failing to complete her food prep, drawing disdain from the guests (“she was super slow and really awkward,” sighed one woman) and rebuke from judge Bob Tuschman (“We need you to finish plating!”) who was hilariously bitchy this week.

But it was Doreen who earned the boot by failing to claim a culinary point of view for the second week running. “I wanna cook food that people can appreciate,” she said, dimly. Susie Fogelson, whose peach-bottomed blouse made it look like she had a dangerously exposed midriff, described the effort to get Doreen to describe what kind of show she wanted to produce as “the most bizarre and confusing exercise.” Bob, meanwhile, could do nothing but groan: “Simply Complex: There’s a show we’re not gonna do!”

Not everyone was horrible this week, though. Brianna’s sweet chili Asian meatballs looked amazing, and amazingly like candy apples, too, even if she couldn’t be bothered to speak to any of the partygoers. Das’ chicken looked simple and tasty. Herb was 30 percent less annoying than during the season premiere. (Or in other words, his energy was less “oppressive” this week, said Bob.) And Brad’s brown eyes continued to invoke melted chocolate, adorable puppies, and 1,000 other dreamy comparisons.

Who were you digging this week? Did the right contestant go home? And is it just me, or are Paul-Serena-Dzintra (in no particular order) clearly poised as the next three evictees?

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