Cupcakes

SEASON 5 GETS COOKING: L.A. is well-represented this time around with contestants Jeffrey Saad, left, Debbie Lee and Eddie Gilbert in the mix. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The winner of "Top Chef" gets a kiss from Padma and $100,000 to open a new restaurant. The chef who can withstand the heat in "Hell's Kitchen" gets a $250,000-a-year job as executive chef under the tutelage of chef Gordon Ramsay.

On "The Next Food Network Star," the prize is without parallel: The winner gets his or her very own TV show, a golden ticket to a seemingly endless buffet of opportunity.

It might as well be called the search for "The Next Food Network Brand" because if the Food Network has its way, the show will be just the beginning: a weekly platform from which to launch cookbooks, pots and pans, housewares and, who knows, perhaps even dog food, all reinforcing the Food Network brand.

"A whole career is at stake," says Food Network star Bobby Flay. "It's like Disney World. There are so many things now that revolve around food."

That's a lesson the Food Network learned after watching arguably its biggest star -- the perennially perky Rachael Ray -- go on to craft deals for spinoffs including her phenomenally successful line of 30- minute-meal cookbooks, linens, knives and, yes, even canine kibble.

All of those deals add up to a reported $18 million a year for Ray, but the Food Network gets not a dime. (For the record, proceeds from Ray's Nutrish dog food line go to her Rachael's Rescue charity.)

It's hard to imagine such a thing happening today, given the game-changing rise of "360 deals" in the entertainment world. They became a mainstay in the recording industry -- perhaps most notably after concert promoter Live Nation struck deals with Madonna and Jay-Z giving them millions upfront in exchange for far-reaching rights -- and have drifted elsewhere.

These days, Food Network is making sure it gets a piece of the action.

The network will not discuss contractual details. But winners of the reality competition, now entering its fifth season, as well as the also-rans, will find themselves partnered with the network should they find a way to leverage their role on "The Next Food Network Star."

"We are much more proactive and calculated about how we use our assets, particularly our talent," says Susie Fogelson, vice president of marketing and brand strategy for the network. As for the winner of the competition, "We're partners in everything."

And that's just fine with Eddie Gilbert, 30, one of three Los Angeles competitors who will be on the show, which begins Sunday.

In fact, he's gambling on the very same outcome.

"This will help me figure out ways to brand myself," says Gilbert, who adds that a partnership with the Food Network will help him open doors that might otherwise be shut to someone who switched careers to cooking just a few years ago and is essentially self-taught.

Gilbert, who rocks a faux-hawk and specializes in easy, guy-friendly cooking, is launching a catering business aimed at soon-to-be-newlyweds who want to enjoy one last night of "freedom" with a party that revolves around sophisticated, multicourse tasting menus. His website is called Foods4Dudes (but he stresses that bachelorettes as well as bachelors are welcome).

The two other local contestants are: Jeffrey Saad, 42, who owns a Bel-Air real estate brokerage business but has a background in food, including launching several restaurants; and Debbie Lee, 39, a restaurant consultant who is preparing to open her own "concept" restaurant in L.A.

Charisma quotient

"The Next Food Network Star" is like one long job interview. And knife skills aren't the only qualification.

Bob Tuschman, the network's senior vice president of programming and production, says the network is looking for that intangible something that might best be described as star quality.

"You can be the best cook in the world but also be a person that no one wants to see again," Tuschman says. "You have to have a personality where people would want to invite you back into their homes, their living rooms, week after week."