Earlier this month, after weeks of cook-offs and focus groups and pilot pitches, the finale of Food Network Star came down to two fledgling cheftestants. One was lucky to be there, having managed to survive the competition despite flashing questionable culinary skills and failing to demonstrate adequate food authority, presenting repetitive dishes that had more style than substance, lasting from week after week almost entirely due to their charming, fun, magnetic personality, despite a marked absence of ability, professionalism and on-camera talent. And the other finalist was pie-man Rodney Henry.
For the duration of the Food Network’s Star eleven week run, Rodney was the clear odd-man out, in more ways than one. He seemed to either lack the imagination to make anything other than a pie, or unwilling to do so. He also seemed unwilling to take the judges’ advice about presenting his dishes, which included such unreasonable requests as “stay on topic” and “make sense” and “if you’re going to sing – and we suggest you don’t – try not to mumble incomprehensibly.” Instead, he used forty-five seconds of an allotted sixty on a poorly conceived and even more poorly received gastronauts-astronauts joke. When told he couldn’t use words like “delicious” or “tasty” or “mouth-watering,” he instead turned to personal catchphrases like “dynamite,” “killer” and “sucker,” when he wasn’t ceding time to long stretches of dead air and awkward silence. His idea for a product that could be sold in stores was probably the laziest and least creative, but also probably the most resourceful and ambitious, a pie-kit complete with “laundry hanger” handle and pie dough literally gaff taped to a mason jar, a product that the panel of “high-powered brand executives” mocked while also totally digging his confidence and unwittingly becoming Pie Style acolytes. When he somehow – against all odds and all logic – made it to the final three, outlasting other more polished, accomplished and coherent contestants, his final pitch was simple but entirely mind-boggling, presumptuous and audacious: in his very own Food Network show he will literally just go to restaurants and turn their most popular dishes into a pie, which common sense tells you is probably an insult to the chef and the dish. But not to Rodney Henry and not to Pie Style. To him that is culinary genius, and to Pie Style that’s just being Pie Style.
He was singularly the least deserving, least qualified finalist we’ve seen on Food Network Star or any reality competition.
And we perhaps loved him more than any reality game show personality since Survivor’s Tom Westman.
Every time he managed to slip by and bake a pie another day we shook our heads at the unbelievability of it all, knowing that by all legitimate metrics he should have been gone by week three, banished to “Star Salvation,” FNS‘s rip-off of Top Chef‘s “Last Chance Kitchen,” where he likely would have been out-cooked and sent packing by Lovely, whose plate of compound butter and blue cheese and edible flowers would have been found by judge and human bicep Robert Irvine to be overly rich, heavy, and treacly, but still edible enough to best Rodney’s disfigured pile of dough and seafood and Gruyère that he calls “ceviche pie.” But you know what? There’s no stat for Pie Style. And if there was, Rodney would be off the charts, the Anakin Skywalker of Pie Style, his cells overflowing with little pie-shaped midi-cholorians. So every week when Alton and Giada and
Judge Dredd Bobby Flay got together and discussed who should go home (after debating the pronunciation of “spaghetti” for thirty minutes), they no doubt had this conversation:
“Can he cook?”
“Does he demonstrate even the minimal amount of acuity with the camera? Does he reach even the baseline level of skill that a Food Network personality would require?”
“Do his presentations make sense? Are they even on-topic?”
“Not at all.”
“Does he even satisfy the requirements of the challenges? Even if he follows the letter of the law does he respect the spirit?”
“Has he cooked anything other than pie?”
“Does he have some kind of car-crash like appeal, some immeasurable magnetism that, despite his failures in so many areas, renders him more interesting and viable than someone like Stacey Poon-Kinney, who has done nothing but deliver delicious food and flawless presentations?”
And so, defying rational thought and empirical process, Rodney kept on keeping on, never stopping to either feel bad for the people who were slayed by Pie Style or to acknowledge that he, perhaps, was not the most deserving chefstestant left. Instead, he just sat back, smiled, and reminded everyone just how awesome it was to have the opportunity to keeping spreading the gospel of Pie Style. He was either reluctant to or incapable of understanding how silly his success was, and whether it was stubbornness, arrogance, or complete nonchalance, the pie wheel kept rolling, growing bigger and cheesier, and we were on board. Whereas Stacey took every note from the judges as a concussive blow to her soul, clearly cracking behind her iron bars smile even when she was the far and away front-runner, Rodney never seem fazed, legitimately and genuinely happy to be there, grateful for the chance to be criticized and ridiculed. His response upon receiving negative feedback from the judges, both on his food and presentation style: “I had an awesome time.” That’s Pie Style right there.
So when it came down it, Rodney had no right being in the finale. But, at the same time, he earned it more than anyone else, showing beyond a doubt that, really, you don’t need true culinary acumen or a fluid delivery to camera to be a Food Network personality. The judges can talk all they want about perspective and telling stories and producing good-tasting and good-looking food, but it’s not about authority or even or connecting with the camera, it’s about having that unteachable, uncoachable, ineffable “it” factor, it’s about being someone who people want to watch, regardless if we’re laughing with them or at them, unrelated to whether or not they can cook or if they’re able to provide useful tips. If it was about those things, itty bitty Nikki Dinki would be the next Food Network Star. It’s about Pie Style. And, sadly, it’s about Flavortown, the state of mind, not the state of taste.
Yes, ultimately, Rodney didn’t win, and Pie Style didn’t receive what have likely would have been a very brief Sunday morning run, but in choosing Damaris Phillips, Food Network viewers really chose the lesser of two Pie Styles (and, we admit, a more tenable pilot premise). Like Rodney, Damaris was exceedingly lucky have to have made it to the finals, after offering the judges more cocktails than successful dishes, offering more charm than culinary chops, and failing time and time again on-camera, either by being too flirty or too stale. But she also offered something the Food Network suddenly had an opening for, an easy-breezy, drowned in molasses, deep-fried southern cook, and despite her sometimes overly salacious banter, she is something Stacey and Nikki are not, a non-threatening, warm, welcoming female. In short, she’s someone who viewers want to watch, whether or not she connects her cooking to her childhood or soaks her salad in bourbon or gets too suggestive with the camera or with her smashed potatoes. She’s Pie Style, but in a more palatable, manageable, digestible bite.
But what of the King of Pie Style? While we do feel we were deprived of a show of which we would have watched every second, despite providing zero food insight or expertise, we understand that Pie Style is bigger than a cooking show. Pie Style is bigger than all of us. Rodney Henry may have been defeated, but Pie Style will live on. That’s just Pie Style being Pie Style.