QUESTION FOR Food Network fans: If you had to choose a team to compete on "Food Network Star," whose would it be?

Your choices are: TV chefs Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis or Alton Brown. For me, there'd be no contest. It would be Flay all the way. To me, he's the ultimate celebrity chef — competitive, creative, and the man really knows his way around a chopping block.

Flay and De Laurentiis are leaving their judges' chairs and getting into the on-screen action as the show's eighth season premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. (There's also a casting special at 9 p.m. Saturday.) They, along with Brown, will head up three teams of five finalists each, participating challenges such as creating a pop-up restaurant. The winning teammate gets the grand prize which is, of course, being named the Next Food Network Star.

Flay seems happy about the show's format shift. "It's been seven years. I felt like we needed a change," he explained during a brief telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. "I always wanted to mentor from the judging table.

"I like to teach. I like to get a result out of it instead of just telling people what I liked and didn't like."

If anyone knows the nitty gritty of what it takes to be a TV chef, it's Flay, whose empire includes 15 restaurants and starring roles on Food Network programs — "Iron Chef America" and "Throwdown with Bobby Flay," among others. I asked him about being known as not just a great chef, but also being one of the nation's most recognized TV chefs.

"As food grows in this country, there's room for lots of people to have a say in it. And I feel lucky to be in both categories," said Flay, who traces his interest in food back to being a teenager and watching TV chefs such as the late Julia Childs or Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet. "People are more interested in food and they want better-for-you cuisine. You can't get away with serving bad food today." n