The 12 finalists for season nine arrive at Food Network's Los Angeles kitchen. They are:
> Nikki Dinki, 29, an internet cooking show host from New York City, New York.
> Rodney Henry, 47, a pie shop owner from Baltimore, Maryland.
> Stacey Poon-Kinney, 34, a restaurant owner from San Diego, California.
> Chris Hodgson, 27, a restaurant and food truck owner from Cleveland, Ohio.
> Daniela Perez-Reyes, 29, a caterer and bartender from Haleiwa, Hawaii, though she was born in Lima, Peru.
> Russell Jackson, 49, an underground chef from San Francisco, California.
> Damaris Phillips, 32, a culinary instructor from Louisville, Kentucky.
> Andres Guillama, 26, a childhood obesity counselor from Waynesville, North Carolina.
> Connie "Lovely" Jackson, 27, a caterer from Los Angeles, California.
> Chad Rosenthal, 37, a barbecue restaurant owner from Ambler, Pennsylvania.
> Danushka Lysek, 37, a personal chef and model from New York City, New York.
> Viet Pham, 34, an executive chef from Salt Lake City, Utah.
The group socializes for a few minutes before the elaborate back wall of the kitchen opens with pomp, circumstance and some lighting effects. Bobby Flay walks through the crossing lights and welcomes everyone to the Food Star Kitchen. Next Giada and Alton walk through the pretty lights and say their obligatory introductions. These have not changed much from previous years.
Mentor Challenge: This part of the selection committee gives the finalists their first task. Make a 30-second pitch tape to present to the two remaining members of the selection committee, Food Network executives Bob Tuschman and Susie Fogelson.
Everyone tapes their pitches. A couple do it in one take. Most are polished by the second take, but a few leave with a very weak pitch.
Star Challenge: For this challenge the finalists must cook a spectacular dish that illustrates his or her vision using the potato. They must be done and plated in 45 minutes. Alton, Bobby and Giada each cryptically allude to something else to come and other people to meet, but no details are forthcoming. Everyone piles into the sponsored SUVs and drives to the host site. Once there, they gather ingredients from the available supplies and begin cooking. Rattled by the time constraint, Nikki cuts herself twice - once on each hand. Danushka's time spent criticizing those around her comes back to bite her. Her potato puff dough is too thick and doesn't fry correctly, leaving them raw. Rodney's pie doesn't work. He says he should have started boiling his potatoes as soon as he walked in the door. Time is called and cooking and plating stops.
The finalists walk outdoors and are introduced to Susie and Bob. Susie and Bob do their usual spiel about what a Food Network Star is and what they look for during the competition. Alton then shows them a gadget and explains its purpose. The dial on the box will be used by a focus group to rate their pitch tapes, and those ratings will be used by the committee to determine who faces elimination. The finalists are sent to a room and will be called out singly for their presentations.
> Lovely - Sweet Potato Hash: After watching the tape, Bob thinks she needs to be authentic - no poses or empty words. Bobby likes her hash. The focus group kept her slightly below midpoint of the green section.
> Russell - Potato Tasting Trio: Neither Susie nor Bob likes the tape. Susie accessed her 60s persona, telling him not to "be a downer, Russell, just have some fun, man, you know?" Bob thought he was a librarian, not a revolutionary. Giada liked the idea of the trio, but the execution lacked something. The focus group almost bottomed him out in the red.
> Chris - Potato Pierogi: Bob and Susie are equally confused by Chris' vision. His explanation doesn't make things any clearer, as he just explains what inspired his point of view, not how he sees it playing out. Bobby thinks the pierogi is bland and displeasing, which really doesn't please Chris. The focus group puts Chris in the red, just slightly above Russell.
> Stacey - Fried Potato Balls: Bob really likes Stacey and her concept, but she's too quiet. The potato balls get positive comments from all three chefs. The focus group puts her in the green, almost maxed out.
> Danushka - Potato Puff: Susie calls her tape odd and says she needs to find her version of warmth. Bobby, after tasting the puff, says that if you're cooking the one potato dish that could save your life, then this is not it. The focus group maxes her out in the red.
> Andres - Spanish Omelette: Bob says Andres is a little closed down and quiet. Bob is looking for a star and Andres is not there yet. Bobby felt the omelette was bland. In a beautiful illustration of focus group mentality, Andres was in the red and sinking until the line in his tape where he mentioned losing 300 pounds, at which point the dial swung to the green and stayed put or rose.
> Damaris - Roasted Potato Salad: Bob hates the tape, and finds the woman on it off-putting. Conversely, he finds the real Damaris odd but goofy. Giada and Alton both liked the salad. The focus group also didn't know how to take her. She hovered just below the green in the red.
> Nikki - Potato, Cauliflower & Parsnip Soup: Susie finds Nikki's idea very marketable, but Nikki herself too cute to be credible. Bobby loves the flavor of the soup. The focus group loved her, almost maxing her out in the green.
> Daniela - Papas a la Huancaina: Bob was as nice as he could be about the mess of the pitch, saying that if she stayed around she'd need to work on her camera skills. Bobby and Alton loved her dish. The focus group started her out in the green, but as the pitch tape progressed, they maxed her out in the red.
> Rodney - Potato Cheese & Crab Pie: Bob is impressed that Rodney got his brand across without defining it and that Bob doesn't care. Alton has only one question: where's the pie? It turns out Rodney's served a dish of filling without the crust. He's given a pass for this, too. The focus group likes him, putting him slightly above midpoint in the green range.
> Viet - Potato Soup Croquette: Bob says he comes across as sweet and humble. This is good in real life, but not so much in television. Susie says the croquette is ridiculously good - the first food-related comment she's made all day. The focus group starts him out in the green, but then it begins to drop so he's barely in the green by the end of the pitch.
> Chad - Potato Latke with BBQ Sauce: Bob is impressed when the focus group claps, so he's all good - no critical thinking needed beyond that. Everyone hassled Chad over his food choice, perhaps expecting barbecue from a barbecue man, but he stood his ground, pointing out that the assignment was the potato. The focus group maxed him out in the green, and as mentioned earlier applauded him at the end of the pitch tape.
Elimination: The focus group saves are Chad, Nikki and Stacey. Giada saves Damaris. Bob saves Lovely. Alton saves Rodney and Chris. Bobby saves Andres. Susie saves Viet.
This leaves Russell, Danushka and Daniela up for elimination. They send the finalists out of the room so they can confer. After discussing each of the three and their weaknesses, the finalists are brought back into the room. Bobby saves Russell. Alton points out that neither Danushka nor Daniela had a stellar week. Then Giada does the long reveal and pulls a fast one, making Danushka think she's being eliminated, but Daniela is the one sent home.