Competition on ‘Food Network Star’ takes on a new edge this season

The knives are drawn.

The first six seasons of Food Network’s megahit, “The Next Food Network Star,” had a sandbox mentality. Everyone played together nicely and cheered each other’s success, with few exceptions.

Season 7 premieres Sunday night with a sleeker name — just “Food Network Star,” thank you very much — and a whole lotta drama. There are tears, “alpha” accusations, threats — “I will literally beat you over the head” — and much of it is due to Penny Davidi, 39, of Los Angeles. “I have a plan to win, and I plan on walking away with the prize,” the Iranian-born restaurateur says with absolute confidence. Her goal is to singlehandedly “bring sexy back into the kitchen” with a show she would call “Stilettos in the Kitchen.”

In other words, the Season 7 spice is a sprinkling of Davidi.


Self-described as a “voluptuous Middle-Eastern woman,” Davidi said she never went out of her way to clash with her fellow competitors — but she certainly wasn’t going to back down from a fight, either. The first challenge is barely underway when Davidi clashes with a fellow contestant, later declaring her “cuckoo” and a “complete mess in the kitchen.” The tension spills over into the second challenge, when Davidi verbally cuts off her nemesis at the knees. Davidi promises: “That’s just a smidgen of what is going to be on this season.”

Host and judge Bobby Flay acknowledged the temperamental shift in the program that awards its winner with his or her very own show on the Food Network. He says that wannabe stars have studied past seasons of the show and arrive thinking they’ve got it all figured out. “They think they know what the deal is, but they have no clue,” Flay said. “We do everything we can to keep them guessing and see what happens.”

No doubt the competitors also arrive well versed in rule No. 1 of reality TV: conflict = TV face time.

Set in and around Hollywood, the new season of “Food Network Star” features its biggest field yet, 15 contestants in all. They’re all vying to follow in the footsteps of spiky-haired Guy Fieri, the Season 2 winner, or Aarti Sequeira, the Los Angeles food blogger who charmed her way to a Season 6 victory, and will make an appearance this season.

The show, which is the network’s answer to “American Idol,” has yet to duplicate Fieri’s phenomenal success, but it nonetheless remains the network’s most popular program because, well, it seems everyone wants to have their own cooking show on the Food Network

In addition to Davidi, there’s finger-food specialist Jyll Everman, 31, of Glendora, and Katy Clark, 34, of Long Beach, a life and fitness coach.

But if the first episode is any indication, Davidi steals the limelight with her brazen determination (Everman aptly describes Davidi’s Day 1 demeanor as “Hi. Hello. I’m here to win.”) and her willingness to position herself as a sexpot to do it.

She earns quite the compliment in the first episode from Food Network’s senior vice president for marketing and brand strategy, Susie Fogelson, who often chides competitors for failing to tap into their personal authenticity: “She really is an empowered woman,” Fogelson says of Davidi. “Whether you like it or not, Penny is who she is.”


Davidi couldn’t agree more, even if that sometimes leads to conflict. “When you are a little bit confident and secure within yourself, sometimes people get a little intimidated.”