04.05.10

The Cooking Show That Outdoes Top Chef

Former Top Chef addict Emily Gould has transferred her affections to the homier, less corporate Chopped—in part because of its withering, yet maternal, judge Alex Guarnaschelli.

It's morning on the Long Island City set of the Food Network's Chopped, which means it's time for dinner. Downstairs from the control room, the cooking competition show's three remaining contestants are scrambling, cameras tracking their every movement as they hustle to make something edible—nay, tasty—out of the ingredients they found moments ago in their "mystery baskets." This time the baskets contained bratwurst, red quinoa, and scallops; other challenges have included even unlikelier groupings—tofu, blueberries, and oysters, anyone? A few minutes into the challenge, the intoxicating cooking aromas hit the control room, and the script supervisors and editors and assistants all start simultaneously half-consciously rummaging through the basket of craft services granola bars and gum, trying to quiet their suddenly growling stomachs.

The contestants are sweating heavily, as is everyone watching them on the wall of monitors upstairs—the studio is kept extra-hot, to mimic the conditions inside a commercial kitchen and to make it clear that the contestants are under pressure. It's hard to imagine that there'd be much confusion on that score: For three rounds, which take all day to shoot, ordinary chefs—from fine-dining specialists you've heard of to line cooks and caterers—have strictly delimited time windows to make crazy combinations of ingredients into appetizers, entrees, and desserts for a picky panel of seriously credentialed chef-judges. After each round, one chef is eliminated: chopped, in the show's parlance. The winner goes home with $10,000, and the chance to compete again. Justice is administered swiftly, with the chopped contestant allowed a sentence or so about his or her regrets—then everyone gets back to the business at hand: cooking quickly, originally, and well. It's a winning formula, at least by the Food Network's estimation: a new season, the show's fourth, starts airing Tuesday at 10 p.m.

I started watching the Food Network's Chopped the way a heroin addict might start using methadone.

Like many devotees of Bravo’s Top Chef—the Bravo cooking competition juggernaut that's won over viewers for six seasons with its signature blend of cutthroat judging, Real World-style cohabitation drama, and highly technical culinary challenges—I started watching the Food Network's Chopped the way a heroin addict might start using methadone. That is to say: I wasn't expecting the same high, I was just looking for something to curb my withdrawal symptoms while Top Chef was on one of its endless-seeming breaks between seasons.

The last thing I expected was that Chopped would become one of my favorite shows ever, handily supplanting Top Chef, which, in recent seasons, has grown to seem more and more like a long Diet Dr Pepper and Glad products infomercial hosted by (shudder) Toby Young.

Chopped, by contrast, keeps the focus off the contestants and on the food, and while there are emotional moments, they feel genuine, not eked out by drama-hungry producers. And $10,000 is a lot of money for most people who live on a typical midlevel chef's salary, and most Chopped contestants have specific plans about what they'll do if they win the money, most of which have to do with special gifts for children and spouses or plane tickets for parents who live overseas. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've teared up at the end of the show more than once; the judges have been known to cry, too—even puckish, perpetually sunny host Ted Allen once shed a gruff tear when a chef dedicated his win to his dead father.

On the day that I visited the set, one of the contestants, asked by the panel of judges what was motivating him to win, told them, after much prodding, that he just wanted to prove to himself that he could win. The blank look on judge Alex Guarnaschelli's face spoke volumes. But then, the look on her face often does: Guarnaschelli, more than Allen or any of the other members of the rotating roster of judges, is the secret heart of the show.

Guarnaschelli is also the star of the Food Network morning show Alex's Day Off—a joke, really, considering that she does actually tape that show, and this one, on the rare days when she isn't in the kitchen at Butter, where she has been executive chef for the last seven years. She is the best kind of reality-show judge, the quintessential disapproving mother whom you'd hate to disappoint. She freezes contestants in their tracks with a raised eyebrow instead of eviscerating them with scripted-sounding bon mots (ahem, Toby Young!), then delivers her stunningly articulate comments in calm, even tones. This is a lesson she learned in the kitchen, she tells me when we meet up one evening soon after my set visit, just before dinner service starts at Butter.

"I found it was a lot more useful to tell people—," and here she makes almost uncomfortably unwavering eye contact with me,"—'I like you. I don't like this salad. Fix this.'" She sits back against the banquette and almost smiles. "And I realized quickly that was a lot more effective than losing my temper." A few moments later, my tape recorder runs out of batteries and a hostess, who, like all Butter employees, Guarnaschelli addresses by name with the same solicitous, sympathetic tone—takes time out from her rush to tabulate the night's reservations to find me new ones. "We've had the same staff, in the back and the front of the house, for years, with very little turnover," Guarnashelli tells me proudly. More than any TV appearance or cookbook project, her commitment to mentoring young chefs—promoting the making of good food—is what she wants to talk about.

I leave a few moments later so that Guarnaschelli can start making dinner. I'm thinking about the familiar face that had greeted me when I walked in the door of the restaurant: former Top Chef contestant Ashley Merriman, who has worked at Butter for Guarnaschelli both before and after her Top Chef stint. (Blindsided, I'd done the humiliating "I know, from TV" thing when she'd introduced herself to me, and could still cringe at the memory of that.) While it might seem more flashy and glamorous for a chef to win the approval of Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi by winning a sponsored Quickfire Challenge and stirring up some drama with his housemates, it seems like chefs—and TV viewers who care more about food than drama—might find more to love in Guarnaschelli, and Chopped, than among the GE appliances in the Top Chef kitchen.

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Emily Gould is the author of And the Heart Says Whatever, to be published by Free Press in May 2010. She writes at www.emilymagazine.com and lives in Brooklyn.