Chopped: There Are No Top Chefs Here
Last night, onetime Bravo boy and sometimes Top Chef judge Ted Allen premiered his new rival show on the Food Network, Chopped. Allen has spoken out against allegations that the show is a Top Chef rip-off, elucidating the differences on his blog, saying "There is no sleep deprivation, no "Big Brother" house full of bunk beds and cameras, no booze-fueled personal drama...Best of all, there is no product placement, so you never see passionate lovers of good food being forced to use packaged convenience junk thanks to Kraft/Altria/Exxon's sponsorship."
That may all be true, but the absence of Diet-Dr.-Pepper Quickfires doesn't make up for the fact that Chopped's format is boring, the talent of its chef-testants subpar, and the general look of the show cheap. We'll take the occasional Bertolli challenge in exchange for some decent production value and an occasional change of scenery.
If there's any format Chopped has ripped-off, it's Iron Chef's. Each week, the four chef-testants have to cook an appetizer, main course, and dessert. They have 30 minutes to cook each course and must use the "mystery ingredients" provided for each course. Of course, instead of watching an Iron Chef like Mario Batali stun you with his genius use of yogurt, you're watching a Chopped contestant like Katie, a 21-year-old pastry chef, struggle to incorporate a strange vegetable known as "green onions" into her entree. From round-to-round, the chef preparing the worst dish is eliminated via a series of puns and catchphrases involving variations on the word "chop."
One of the four mystery ingredients for the appetizer course is baby octopus, along with bok choy, smoked paprika, and oyster sauce. Only rock star turned chef, Perry, who works at Bar Blanc, thinks to throw his babies on the grill. The other chef-testants throw up their hands and toss their octopussies into boiling water with mixed results. At least chef-testant Sandy, an older caterer guy with a charming Southern accent, refers to them as "pulpos" in front of the judges, a move that impresses them and demonstrates the sort of culinary mastery only known to those who have ever eaten at a tapas restaurant. Chef Summer, a chef-testant who had hoped to show her vegetarian and vegan cooking skills rather than work with a tentacled-creature is the first to go. Big surprise.
The judges themselves are a far less noteworthy and witty crew than Padma, Colicchio and Co. They're easily "wowed" by mediocre presentation, they're too civil, and they don't give us a clear idea of how they think a dish tastes. In the entree round, Chef Katie serves her duck breast with a surprise accompaniment of a cocoa crepe filled with ricotta. It appears to be a disastrous combination, but it could possess the weird brilliance of that wasabi-white-chocolate concoction that faux-hawked guy once did on Top Chef. Sadly, we never really get an idea of what the poultry + sorta cannoli dish tastes like. I found myself wishing for a Padma-esque declaration of like or dislike. Instead, we get that it's an "interesting" combination you wouldn't think of; apparently it tastes okay, as Katie passes to the next round.
That's the problem with Chopped. It's all about "passable" cooking using not-that-weird "mystery ingredients." The chef-testants fumble and bumble when they have to work with baby octopus, or god forbid, green onions, and, at best, they make a presentable meal that surprises neither us nor the judges. There's little entertainment value in watching half-skilled pro-am (we're being generous with that designation) chefs attempt to cook a halfway decent meal under light constraints. If anything, it makes you appreciate the very aspects of Top Chef that Allen criticizes--the Big Brother living situation that at least provides opportunities to get out of the kitchen on occasion, and even the rampant sponsorship that while annoying also gives color and variety to the challenges. It's all too bad, because we like Allen, but we'd rather see him at the Top Chef judges' tabe than on this chopping block.