From emotionally charged elimination rounds to face-offs between celebrity mentors, you may have noticed something different about this season of Food Network Star (which premiered May 13). ''We started the whole show from scratch,'' explains Giada De Laurentiis, who jumped from judging the contestants vying for their own series to mentoring a team (alongside Bobby Flay and Alton Brown). ''I feel like a defense attorney,'' says Flay, who recently tried to persuade judges Bob Tuschman, general manager of Food Network, and Susie Fogelson, senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy, to spare a bubbly contender who landed on the chopping block after an especially weak performance (in that case, the appeal didn't work).
And the competition only promises to heat up in the coming weeks: The TV-chef hopefuls will have to devise an on-air special to impress Food Network star (and Food Network Star alum!) Guy Fieri, and they'll tackle a mystery ingredient in an Iron Chef-inspired challenge. Then on June 24, the remaining finalists will face their toughest (nonfoodie) critics yet: EW's managing editor, Jess Cagle, and assistant managing editor Jill Bernstein, who will join Fogelson and Tuschman (along with Entertainment Tonight's Christina McLarty and Serious Eats' Ed Levine) on the judges' panel. The chefs' challenge: Present a single bite that reflects who you are both in and out of the kitchen. ''You don't really remember the food, you just remember the personalities,'' says Cagle, who also appeared as a guest judge last year. ''There were a lot of people who really did have the potential to be a star.'' Adds Bernstein, ''You have to be able to tell the difference between somebody who's got an amazing presence in the room and someone who would have an amazing presence on screen.''
The contestants who make it past the press-heavy panel will jet to South Beach, where they'll take on another slew of challenges, and those survivors will head to the finale in New York City (airing July 22), at which point the winner chosen by viewers via online voting will be revealed. Predicts Tuschman, ''I know they will choose wisely.''