Hagerstown native Justin Warner is just one step away from turning the culinary world on its side.
Sunday night, the 28-year-old "Next Food Network Star" was named one of four finalists who were greenlighted to shoot a pilot in the hopes of being picked up by the network.
The biggest secret is that Warner has known for months he was a finalist, after wrapping up shooting the series earlier this year. Although his girlfriend and mom knew, Warner said keeping a secret wasn't too hard.
"All and all, suspense is my favorite ingredient," he said during a telephone interview from his Brooklyn, N.Y., home. "I got a kick out of fake Twittering that would imply my destruction and doom, and watching everybody freak out. I think suspense is awesome."
And keeping his mouth shut also kept him in good with the Food Network.
"I think this is kinda a gigantic job interview and by following all the rules it would get me closer to getting to the job," he said.
When the show premiered in May, 15 contestants were separated into three teams with celebrity Food Network chefs — Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis and Alton Brown — as their mentors. Warner was aptly paired with Brown who is known for his distinctive approach in the kitchen.
At 9 p.m. Sunday, July 22, TV viewers will find out if Warner will indeed be able to call the network his employer.
The winner will receive his or her own show on the Food Network produced by his or her mentor, a feature in Food Network magazine and a featured spot at the New York Wine & Food Festival.
Voting ended Tuesday. Fans voted by phone and online.
Joining Warner at the finale are his teammate and show "BFF" Martie Duncan, Michele Ragussis from Team Bobby and Yvan Lemoine from Team Giada.
Originally the six remaining contestants, which also included Philip "Ippy" Aiona from Team Giada and Nikki Martin from Team Bobby, were told three contestants would be cut.
However, the chatter behind the scenes had the contestants telling each other that only one person from each team would have been selected.
But Warner said he instinctively thought there might be another twist.
"I kept saying to myself and kept saying to Martie, 'Look, if there's any justice in this world as long as you knock it out of the park — as I know you're going to do — we'll both be going to be safe. And we're both going to be able to shoot the pilot.' Everybody else was saying, 'No, no, no, it's going to be one from each team.'"
Duncan was selected as the fourth contestant.
"I was overjoyed because I kind of called it in my head," he said with a laugh. "They didn't show that obviously on the show, but behind the scenes I had a feeling something great was going to happen. She's truly a remarkable person. And from the get-go, I've maintained that she's the most intelligent person from the show."
What makes "The Next Food Network Star" different from other cooking competitions is that it's not just about the food — it's about being TV savvy.
Many of the other contestants were hung up when it came to timing, specifically for something that included a countdown. For Warner, timing was something he was confident in.
"I filmed the promo without any timed cues," Warner said. "Alton recognized in me that I did worse with time cues because I have an internal clock that knows when 30 seconds, knows when a minute is. I just need a basic 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 at the end. I don't know why it is. Maybe playing video games?"
For a show where anything can happen, being able to think on your feet is a talent that can't be taught.
"I think I'm pretty good at editing my speech on the fly. So if a hand cue comes up I know how to put a period on my sentence, a period on my paragraph," he said. "It's just like being in AP English. If you find yourself running out of space on the paper, you better restate your opening paragraph as quickly as possible and put a period on it."
Timing aside, judges have been attracted to Warner's off-center personality and his own unusual culinary approach. His pilot's title even reflects that: "Rebel with a Culinary Cause."
Warner, who runs his own successful restaurant, Do or Dine, in Brooklyn, has had no formal culinary training. That, however, hasn't stopped him from dishing up innovative and creative dishes week after week on the show.
During the 10 episodes on "The Next Food Network Star," Warner has introduced the TV audience to his quirky approach in the kitchen, serving up such dishes fish bones that are fried up and meant to be eaten as grilled chicken Caesar salad where the dressing is served in a gelatinous square.
It's his unusual approach that kept him safe during several competitions. And in the third episode, Warner walked away with a Discover card loaded with $10,000, after wooing judges with his dessert, Delores' No Bake Moon Rock Cookie.
"I'm not a huge material things person, but I knew I was going to have a place in food culture with my ideas, at that moment," he said. "That dish was bizarre. There's no real excuse for it other than the fact that they told us to go hog wild and I did. So I guess when I won the money, it felt like a ringing endorsement. It was like, 'Justin you're not a lug nut out in the sticks doing your thing. You have a place here.'"
He said he spent the money on a ring for his girlfriend Brooke Sweeten — no, not an engagement ring — and a trip to her hometown.
"It gave me the ability to kind of free up after a month and a half of shooting, after having a restaurant for a year and having worked relentlessly — it felt good to have a reward to blow," he said.
But for Warner, money can't compare to shooting his pilot.
He said they shot the pilot at his restaurant. Although it was nice to be back in familiar surroundings, Warner said it was also nerve-wrecking.
"I wasn't used to being comfortable in my surroundings because every time we did a challenge before, you're in some alien place or alien set. That helped me kind of disconnect my brain a little bit," he said. "But being in my home turf was like a little bit of extra pressure — to make it right, to make it beautiful, to make it perfect because if I was going to make a crappy pilot on my own turf, I would look like an idiot, (and) the restaurant would look like an idiot."
Warner said he thought the pilot "came out swimmingly."
"I couldn't have been more happy," he said. "And to have Alton Brown in my restaurant hanging out and talking about my bourbon selection saying 'I love that, I'm coming back here.' It was nifty. So nifty."
It will be even more nifty for Warner if he's chosen and Brown will be the producer for his show.
Judges have continually told Warner and Brown that they were paired exactly right. Warner said he has "a good weird" relationship with his mentor.
"It's a little bit like paternal, but it's a little bit like you found somebody with the same secret hobby that you have and you can geek-out over the right reasons all the time," Warner said.
He said he's continually amazed by Brown's knowledge, and not just about cooking.
"I think that anything you can possibly bring up Alton Brown would know more, if not something different, about the subject," he said. "He's a real Renaissance man. He's not just limited to food. He can talk to airplanes. He likes to talk about firearms. He likes to talk about everything. Absolutely everything, and that's something that I absolutely dig."
Shortly after graduating from South Hagerstown High School in 2002, Warner said his father passed away, a moment he shared during an episode of the show.
Brown was able to fill in a small void for Warner.
"It was nice to have a coach to say, 'Go, get 'em, son' because I've been fending for myself since I was 17 and that often hasn't been pretty: foreclosed on a house, repoed a car, been to jail .... It felt good to have someone say 'I like where you're going with this. Let's get it. Let's do this and I got your back, kid.'"
And it's because of that relationship, Warner said if he wins the show he's excited to have Brown be his producer. He even goes so far as to call Brown "a genius."
"He started out behind the camera. To me, that's the kind of person you want producing the show," Warner said. "I sometimes say with practice, sometimes the best waiters are the best cooks and visa versa because once you know what's going on behind the scenes, you can represent it better in front of the scenes."
Early on Warner connected with Brown's vision of who the Next Food Network Star would be. Brown said he wanted teachers.
"What people don't understand about food television is that it's instructional. It's not exactly wowwy-zowwy, but you're learning stuff. It's a learning opportunity that you just so happen to be learning visually," he said.
To vote for Warner would be to vote for the best teacher, he said.
"The best teachers I had were a little bit off. The best teachers were bad, when I say bad, I mean they were rebels themselves. They're the ones that said the curriculum is this but I'm going to do this. That's a good teacher to me. ... They're not going by some book that's generic that says this is the way it must be done. I think I can be a good teacher. I also think I have an ability to connect with youth and get youth excited about food"
Because for Warner, his true culinary cause is for people to embrace the fun in food.
"I want people to understand that food is fun and that your kitchen is your lab and you're a mad scientists," he said. "As long as you're prepared to eat a couple failures, you can have fun."
If you watch ...
"The Next Food Network Star," will be shown at 9 p.m. Sunday, July 22, on Food Network.