On a stifling night in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, three chefs wait to see if their lives are about to change dramatically.
It's a week before "Food Network Star" premieres its seventh season, but the winner is selected at the finale, taping tonight. This airs Sunday, Aug. 14, and Zap2it agreed to keep the winner secret until that chef is picked at the show's conclusion.
Three finalists join the 12 eliminated during the season for an unprecedented reunion show, followed by the finale. Another change for this season had Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis join cablenet mainstay Bobby Flay as a judge. Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson, general manager and marketing executive, respectively, round out the panel.
"Everyone tells me they can do this," Flay says during a break. "It's going to be a lot harder than you can imagine. Cooking and talking to the camera at the same time is very difficult to do."
De Laurentiis, who had been on the show before but not as a judge, says, "When they asked me to be a judge, I didn't think I had it in me. Then I realized I could spend a lot of time and see them through a challenge."
By the time cooks reach this show, everyone expects them to know their way around a kitchen and have a distinct point of view.
"It's an interesting group of people," Flay says. "Some are better cooks. Some are better organized. Some are a mess."
The winner's show will be on-air Aug. 21.
"The most important thing for anyone who wants this job is to figure out who you are, if you can," Flay says.Though that may sound like obvious advice, it's very sound reasoning. And far tougher than one would think, De Laurentiis says separately.
"This is a soul-searching journey," she says. "Who you think you are is not who you end up being."
Each finalist is very different.
Susie Jimenez, 31, makes Mexican food. As a child, she moved around with her parents, following the harvest in the incredibly difficult life of a migrant laborer.
When she was in fifth grade, the family settled in a house, and she learned to cook. The sample show she creates for the judges is "Spice It Up With Susie Jiminez," and she makes sopes, a patty filled with different toppings.
"When my mom would make sopes, my dad would come up behind her, and they would do a little dance," she says.
Finalist Vic "Vegas" Moea, 35, also talks about family. He wants to see a show centered on moms and Sunday dinners. Moea comes to Las Vegas by way of Brooklyn and coins his own words, which he calls his "Victionary." During the taping he talks about a "lachanaga" a lasagna chimichanga.
"I'm all over the traditional Italian-American cuisine," he says. "I'm working on reinventing it -- meatballs and lasagna and baked ziti and chicken picatta. I'm going back to the roots."
The third finalist is Jeff Mauro, 32, a private chef from Chicago, who specializes in sandwiches. We're not talking peanut butter and jelly on white bread, but some complicated recipes.
The most difficult part of the contest is "the anxiety of not knowing what is coming next," he says, "having everything in your life mapped out without knowing where you are going."
Meeting second season winner Guy Fieri and Food Network chef Alton Brown were highlights for him. Like any chef, Mauro is no stranger to pressure, but this is different.
"What was hardest for me was the pressure caused by the judges looming over you," he says. "It goes from you cooking the best you can to you cooking and performing correctly for them. You want to make sure your every move is something they would approve of."
Toward the end of the finale, judges eliminate one more chef. Food Network's Fogelson says that she could see working with any of the finalists and that she envisions the contest as an opportunity.
"For me it is that they win a chance to become an enormous star," Fogelson says. "It is a pretty good time to be a celebrity chef. You have the opportunity to be known by your first name. Chefs are as viable as celebrities as anyone else -- rock stars, actors, chefs. They can build a worldwide empire."
As someone who has, Flay knows the power of a popular TV show.
"The greatest thing about this show is that the fans of Food Network will watch," he says. "They will be living with them in their house. I think the reunion show looked great. People want to know what's behind the scenes."