A similar pattern has evolved with first season Food Network programs; their initial ideas start out as mimicry of another successful program, but generic enough that the continuing seasons are much more developed than the previous. It’s as if the Food Network either didn’t have the creative chops to come up with their take on a great program or they are too scared to dump money into something that has the potential to tank, so they serve up a program that’s only a half-concocted idea at best. After the show airs, they get a better idea of how to make the show more receptive to the public and the later seasons reflect it.
The latest brainchild, “Chopped” is a great example of this kind of development. When the show first aired, reviews came flooding in that this was a complete rip off of Bravo’s darling “Top Chef.” For this reason alone, I wasn’t so thrilled to sit down and start watching. I didn’t even read other reviews about the show. I was already watching “Top Chef,” so why would I bother watching its clone?
This weekend, I finally did, and walked away with some mixed feelings. To summarize, the hour long program selects four professional chefs to compete in three challenges: An appetizer, main course, and dessert. Each dish is dictated by a preselected combination of ingredients that are revealed right before the challenge begins. All ingredients in the basket must be incorporated into the dish. At the end of each challenge, the chef with the most unsuccessful dish gets “chopped”, that is, they are eliminated from the show. The panel of judges, all experienced chefs and restaurateurs who get to watch what’s happening in the kitchen (a la Iron Chef America), taste the dishes and determine, not the winner, but the loser. The winner is the person who makes it through all challenges without getting chopped, and wins $10,000.
If it sounds a bit like a Top Chef Elimination Challenge, I suppose it is. To me, it’s a hybrid of many cooking shows, but it feels a lot more to me like the fledgling stages of a stripped-down Iron Chef America. Reviews comparing it to Top Chef may be a little off, because it isn’t quite that. What makes Chopped better than Top Chef is, rather than providing gimmicks, themes, and expensive product placement, Chopped selects what might seem to be a random smattering of ingredients and demands the chefs to use them all in a dish together. The viewer gets a look at the ingredients and thinks, along with the contestants, “How in the hell am I going to do this?” The viewer is then brought into the process of clever food problem solving. After all, they are the Food Channel and their viewers want it to be all about the food, not about the gimmicks and product placement. We get enough of that from the channel as it is. (No, I do not want a Rachel Ray “Yum-O” knife, a Mario Batali lunch tote, or a vat of butter sucked out of Paula Deen’s arteries. Thanks anyway.)
Something else that I like a lot is that the show selects actual professional chefs, regardless of how charismatic they may appear on television. Chopped can sacrifice that element because this is definitely a cooking show, one that we don’t have to live with the contestants from week to week. I’m excited to finally see people who we know can cook, because they are professional, executive chefs, and in the end, only the food matters. If they have a television personality of a potato I can forgive that, because if their food is magnificent it doesn’t matter.
Where the show gets clumsy is at its attempts to connect the audience with the food. Through the television, the viewer can only enjoy the show with two senses: Hearing and Sight. The usual taste, smell and touch that comes with eating is unavailable, so the viewer is largely reliable on the show to provide the rest of that information. To do so, through the challenges the contestants are interviewed and provide their thought processes as to how they are going to solve the challenges. This is handy and necessary, but there are far too many of them, and they are way too long. Someone needs to get into the editing booth and do a little extra cutting. After the first challenge, it was apparent to me that the only reason we were seeing clips of the same chef over and over is because that chef was Red Shirt: He’s the extra crewman who gets out of the ship on a strange planet and instantly dies so Kirk, Spock, and McCoy can go on to beat monsters and score the green chick at the end. It becomes a little predictable and anti-climatic.
To make it conflicting and surprising for the viewers, we get the judging period where the dishes are served up and the discussion begins. This is especially where the show could use some work. The judges table is, by far, the most important part of the show. Not only does it provide the controversy and climax of the drama, it fills in all of the little details that the viewer can’t be a part of – not only because of the sensory issue, but because our panel of judges are experts that we trust and derive most of the excitement from watching their arguments about each dish.
Unless the judging portion is incredibly short and somewhat contradictory.
Chopped takes too little time with the judging portion, which is unfortunate because that provides the additional senses that connects the viewer with the audience as well as provide the whole plot of the challenge: Does the dish taste good? Could it have been better? Is it horrible? (Often times, we hope it is because it’s good drama.) Do other dishes surpass it?
The judging portion was way too short, and what comments made it through to the show makes the verdict confusing. Dishes that received only negative comments won the challenge, while a dish with mostly positive comments was chopped. The show’s inability to connect the audience with what’s happening in the room is a big downfall. By the time the verdict is reached, I didn’t even care who was chopped and who got to go on.
This needs to improve. The judging portion of the show is the guilty pleasure for the viewer because, not only do we want to see people soar, we want to see people crash and burn. We need the conflict for a good drama (even a food television show needs one), and Chopped isn’t yet providing it.
A big criticism I heard about the show was the host, Ted Allen. The reason I haven’t mentioned Ted’s hosting in this review is because the Food Network has pretty much relegated him to the role of the tacky, plastic parsley on the side of a diner dish. Now, I like Ted, but I dislike what the Food Network is trying to do to him. Attempts are made to connect him with the show, but he’s sort of the off-to-the-side host who doesn’t even get to sit at the table with the big kids. What they should do is try to make him more involved, rather than an outside viewer. In fact, when he addresses the camera and viewing audience, it makes the separation between the show and the viewer more pronounced. He’s trying to act as liaison between the two, and it isn’t yet meshing. Someone’s got to find a better place for him and, as someone who knows a lot about the food, he should be a lot more involved. Right now, he’s the inedible and offensive garnish that gets thrown under the table and is forgotten.