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Next Food Network Star: LA Chef/Caterer Paul McCollough Breaking Out of the Pack

This is undeniably the summer of food TV, and since we've given so much obsessive love to the local contestants on Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef, we thought it only fair to give a shout out to caterer/personal chef Paul McCullough who's made quite the impact on this season of The Next Food Network Star. Complete disclosure: We haven't seen all the episodes. In truth, out of the three cooking competition shows, TNFNS is our least favorite. The contestants are all there for personality, not necessarily skill, and we like a little skill with our "reality" shows. The judges come from the marketing department, which lacks oomph for us, and this year, the challenges are more Top Chef inspired, so it's kind of a rip off. However, we fell in love with Paul on the episodes we have watched because, as someone calls him in one episode, he's "like a Jack Russell terrier." All revved up, perky, charming, and real. And he can actually cook.

What's not to love about a man who puts two grooms on top of a cake in a wedding challenge? To many viewers, this was a big moment for the Food Network to actually let a gay man be gay. And quite frankly, it's time for some diversity. Musing on the show on Ruhlman's blog, Anthony Bourdain picked Paul to win it all, and we couldn't help but break the news to him ourselves. Excerpts from our conversation follow. The Next Food Network Star airs on Sunday nights at 9pm.

Take us up to speed on the season.
There are nine episodes total, and the fifth episode will air this Sunday (6/24). So far, for a pot luck challenge, I picked vegetarian out of a hat, the worst thing to get for a pot luck. I didn't win. For the wedding challenge, I made a four-tier cake, and I've never rolled fondant before. My two groom cake toppers raised some eyebrows, I guess. We didn't know the cake was for an actual wedding, so I didn't win. (The couple was a man and a woman.) The catering part of that challenge we won, but I was in my element. The third challenge was to create a dish for the cover of Bon Appetit magazine. I did lamb chops, not the best choice for a summer grilling issue. The last episode the temperature of my burgers wasn't right, and I had to basically cook everything to order at a Nets basketball game.

So far, not good. We saw the ep with Barbara Fairchild as a judge. You seemed really nervous when you had to explain your dish.
They had us wait about three hours before we each did a presentation, and we had to all sit together, quietly, so those who went didn't give off any hints or tips. It shook me to the core, and I had a hard time communicating. That's when I thought, "Wow, can I really do this?" I got some harsh criticism. They told me I have a good personality, but to calm down.

Why are you doing this? Did you always want to be on the FN?
I've done some TV work in the past on the USA Network. I tried out for this season of Top Chef and made it to the final 24, but they didn't take me. A friend suggested this show, so I applied. I thought it would bring some good exposure for myself and my catering company. My idea for a show is to do party food on a budget, because it's possible.

But please, not like Sandra Lee, right?
No. There are ways to create budget meals without having to use a lot of processed and packaged food. It's all about the carbon footprint these days. Making a homemade vinaigrette is just as easy as opening a bottle of store-bought vinaigrette.

What can we look forward to this week?
We go to Fort Dix Army Base. We had to jazz up MREs in 20 minutes, make them tasty. Not easy. The second part of the day we had to feed 100 hungry soldiers, and I was in my element. I'm a caterer. Paula Deen is our host, and Giada. I felt like I hit my stride and had a good time.

So we'll take that to mean you're sticking around.
Well you'll have to wait and see!

At this point in the competition, who's the biggest threat and the weakest link?
Adrien is a big threat at this point. He's so charming and has great on-camera presence. And he relaxes so much on camera, which is something I really need to work on. Culinarily, Jag is the guy to beat. He's the best chef on the show. But he gets pissed off really easily. He complained about things to producers. FN says they want to pick someone that they want to work with. To me, it was like a month-long job interview, and I tried to always be 'on'.

What about the other contestants?
I teased Rory in the beginning. I don't know who my biggest competition was, her or her boobs.

What do you think about Anthony Bourdain picking you as his favorite on the show? He said: "Even the Food Net might---at this point in history---be willing to defy their traditional, older "core Bible Belt" constituency with an openly gay host with hopes of attracting younger, hipper viewers."
How flattering! From the beginning, we figured the FN had an idea of who they wanted. I would look at all the people on the show and think, "I can go all the way." Being a gay person is a part of who I am, but I'm not defined by my sexuality. At the same time, there's not better time to be gay. We're in so many TV shows, we're out there in a really positive way. People accept gay people more than ever.

So does that mean you won?
[Laughs] Well, you'll just have to watch and see.