Food Porn

04.02.13

‘Chopped’: Why I’m Obsessed with Food Network’s Reality Competition Show

Food Network’s Chopped returns for its 15th season. Jace Lacob on why sea cucumbers, speculoos and lacinato kale matter.

When the Food Network, the culinary-themed cable network available in approximately 99 million American homes and 150 countries around the globe, launched Chopped in 2009, no one could have imagined the eventual impact the show would have.

And by no one, I mean me.

I was initially less than enthusiastic about Chopped—a culinary competition show featuring four chefs squaring off by cooking an appetizer, entrée, and dessert from various mystery basket ingredients—during the early part of its run. I complained about the under-lit sets, the under-enthusiastic judges, the under-utilization of knowledgeable foodie host Ted Allen. I compared it unfavorably to Bravo’s Top Chef, from which it had appeared to borrow its overall conceit.

Over time, Chopped course-corrected: the set now no longer looks like it’s perpetually twilight, and the judges—a selection of well-known and well-respected chefs and restaurateurs—are now very much engaged and invested in the action in front of them. As for host Ted Allen … well, I always wish the show’s producers would give him something to eat, or at least offer him a chair.

I came back to Chopped a few years ago to discover the show’s transformation from staid and predictably over-produced competition show into something more intriguing and rewarding: a show that celebrated the competitive nature of chefs and brought a level of awareness—of technique, of ingredients, of culinary passion and poise—to a wider audience than ever before.

Years ago, Food Network’s primetime lineup was overflowing with how-to cooking programs. In the late 1990s, you couldn’t flip on the channel without seeing Emeril Lagasse or Ming Tsai or Bobby Flay preparing a dish, step by step, for the viewers. There was even a live call-in program, Cooking Live Primetime, hosted by Sara Moulton, which often featured sommeliers and wine experts in the mix. It was approachable, accessible, and most definitely focused on viewers who understood food and its preparation.

Over time, the network subtly changed its remit; in more recent years, it is stocked with various culinary competition shows, programming that places the emphasis more on competition (whether it be cupcakes, elaborate cakes, chocolate structures, new program hosts, etc.) than the food, per se. It wasn’t necessarily food television for foodies, but rather escapist fare for people who might derive more enjoyment from watching people cook than cooking themselves. (A spinoff network, the Cooking Channel, was created in 2010 to service the latter group.)

How does one build an entrée out of fish heads,sugar cookie dough, hon-shimeji mushrooms,and crema?

Chopped, however, occupies a unique strata within the world of Food Network. It might, like its similarly themed brethren (the terrifying Sweet Genius, for example), be a reality competition show in the vein of Top Chef, but Chopped manages to be absolutely riveting television that educates, informs, and thrills at the same time.

Four chefs enter the kitchen; one is crowned the Chopped Champion at the end, having gone through three courses and no less than a dozen mystery ingredients, ranging from the mundane (leftover pizza) to the sublime (abalone). The clock is relentless as they churn out dish after dish, being judged on creativity, taste, and presentation. Egos flare, tempers simmer over, and occasionally true culinary genius and ingenuity is glimpsed.

For the most part, these chefs can cook. In their own kitchens, on the line, sans cameras and countdown clock, their livelihood depends on them getting food out to their customers; on Chopped, however, they can stumble and lose their nerve. I want to see how they deconstruct the basket, parse meaning from the diverse items, and deliver a finished product that ultimately fuses everything together into a cohesive dish.

It is not easy, particularly because the ingredients chosen by the producers are meant to stymie the chefs while they’re under pressure. What does one do with yak strip steaks, when they’re accompanied by dried shrimp, mangosteens, and mustard greens? How does one build an entrée out of fish heads, sugar cookie dough, hon-shimeji mushrooms, and crema? (Not to mention one out of squab, peanut butter and jelly, red quinoa, and karela.)

I watch to see the chefs attempt to work their magic, to masterfully coax flavor out of disparate ingredients, and to materialize a well-executed dish out of thin air. I also watch to see whether they’re familiar with the more esoteric ingredients, some of which I’ve maybe either eaten or handled myself. Do they realize that karela is a bitter melon, popular from China and India to Trinidad and Vietnam? Are they going to overcook the quail? What will they do with pig tails for dessert? Will a custard base make it to the ice cream machine before their competitor’s?

These are questions that run through my head while I’m watching Chopped, which imparts a deeper culinary awareness to viewers. While it’s up to viewers whether or not to further familiarize themselves with some of these specialty items, what the show does so well is to demystify some of these less-quotidian ingredients, making them more accessible. It might be sea cucumbers and crosnes one week or lacinato kale and speculoos another, but viewers come away after watching Chopped with a broader culinary lexicon.

Additionally, while Chopped—like its predecessor Top Chef—makes cooking appear to be a high-octane thrill ride, it also rewards the innate creativity of the chefs. Simply cooking the four ingredients and placing them on a plate is grounds for disqualification. What the judges—and the audience at home—want to see is passion and inspiration, all materialized in a composed, unified dish. The results of that shared desire are surprisingly addictive, even though the audience is reliant on the judges’ reactions to gauge whether a dish is successful or not; it’s a vicarious pursuit of pleasure that forces the viewer to solely rely on sight, rather than taste.

And Chopped is the rare show that works as well in repeats—when you know the outcome—as a brand-new episode. The episodes that are strictly about the skill level of the chefs make for incisive television; those that showcase the sob stories of the contestants less so. While each competes for a reason (not least of which is a $10,000 cash prize), what many of us at home want to see is less of their personal backstories and more of the knife-sharp instincts that got them here.

Cooking is a form of alchemy, a collision of science and art—and a little magic, at times—that produces something delicious and occasionally something transcendent. Watching Chopped might ultimately make us hungry, but it also, in its own unique way, satisfies that craving … without the calories.