In Praise of Chopped

With The Taste launching on ABC and Top Chef enjoying its 74th season, I’d like to offer up a radical idea: the best cooking competition show on TV is Chopped.

These other cooking shows, with their high-stakes drama and interpersonal conflicts, are 30% cooking, 70% fluff. Chopped is 90% cooking, 10% fluff. Iron Chef comes the closest to that ratio, but Iron Chef insists on a level of theatrics (see: The Chairman) that detracts from the show’s authenticity. Chopped has a format that couldn’t be more straightforward. Round one: four contestants make an appetizer from a mystery basket, one is eliminated. Round two: the remaining three make an entree from a mystery basket, one is eliminated. In the final round, the remaining two duke it out over dessert.

There’s a certain working class quality to Chopped that I find more appealing than the glitzier world of Top Chef. True, the judges on Top Chef are titans of the industry–everyone from Eric Ripert to David Chang–and the judgments rendered there seem more significant and thoughtful than the one-second soundbites you get from Chopped’s Marcus Samuelsson or Jeffery Zakarian. But at least on Chopped, they’re all in the kitchen together; the judges empathize as the chefs battle their way through their baskets. On Top Chef, there seems to be a real class divide between the judges (who are often dressed to the nines, swirling the wine in their glasses like bored emperors at the Coliseum) and the sweaty, beleaguered chefs who sit like gladiators in the waiting area, readying themselves to be fed to the lions.

Top Chef shows chefs at the top of their game. Often the contestants have already made big names for themselves in their respective cities (the Voltaggios, Richard Blais, etc). Chopped, on the other hand, pulls back the curtain on the larger world of under-celebrated chefs who work their asses off night after night to feed customers without trying to innovate or build their brands. It’s a more realistic portrayal of the people who make your food when you go out to dinner in America.

It’s also a nicer show than shows like Hell’s Kitchen or Master Chef. As much as the judges on Chopped can be undermining and insulting (“Did you taste your crab cake before you served it to us? It’s filled with pieces of shell”) they’re ultimately rooting for the chefs to do well. (Especially Alex Guarnaschelli, my favorite Chopped judge.) When the chefs screw up (mostly by forgetting an ingredient), the judges seem genuinely disappointed. Chopped gives off good vibes, a fact fully embodied by its host, Ted Allen, whose knowing smirk sets the tone that as serious as this may seem, it’s all in good fun.

The only thing I don’t like about Chopped is that sometimes the mystery basket items are indefensibly disgusting. Case in point: “Fruit Flavored Energy Drink.” I mean, there’s no chef in the world who can take a synthetic red liquid and make it an organic, wholesome part of a dish. Sure, they can mask it with other flavors, but that’s less interesting to me than offering the competitors five really good mystery basket items that may not make sense together, but make sense by themselves. That’s my main quibble.

Here’s the truth: I wrote this essay because I love watching Chopped. When it’s on TV, I have to be careful when I turn it on; once I start, I can’t stop. It’s a no-nonsense show about cooking in its purest form: Here are five things, make something delicious. Judges will tell you if it’s good. Because of that simplicity, I think it’s the best.

33 thoughts on “In Praise of <i>Chopped</i>”

  1. Agreed, though I’d have a hard time deciding whether I like Chopped more than Top Chef (1A and 1B, maybe?). Chopped focuses almost exclusively on the cooking, rarely letting drama or antics get in the way. Kind of refreshing in the world of over-the-top reality TV.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I was so disappointed with the premiere of The Taste last night, and I feel like each season of Top Chef becomes less and less about the actual food.

  3. I actually prefer Chopped because I don’t watch that much TV. Invariably I will try to watch Top Chef or Next Iron Chef with my wife and fall too far behind to catch up. I know a lot of people prefer the story arc aspect of watching a competition from start to finish, but I actually prefer the bite sized self contained aspect of most Chopped episodes.

  4. (Otherwise I very much agree with you – absolutely my favourite cooking show out there right now, and though I love Alex Guarnaschelli, the best episodes are when both she and Amanda Freitag are judging. They’re my faves)

  5. Propaganda-as-news, fantasy-as-history, Ru Paul singing Little Drummer Boy… It was the endless stream of abusive contest shows — the horrifying Project Runway, and just about everything on The Food Network — that probably broke the camel’s back and made me decide to get rid of the TV. I’ve never seen Chopped, and probably never will. It really does sound like Project Runway to me: give otherwise gifted artists impossible things to work with and whoever figures out how to make it work (sort of), wins. This is probably not the best way to test an accomplished person’s skill at “anything*. Not to mention that contests, while thrilling, tend to suck all the joy out of the act of creation.

    1. You haven’t seen it, and your idea of what it is like is inaccurate. The chef’s are definitely tested out very specifically on their real life skills. Runway is not at all a good comparison. Maybe watch before you comment on what you imagine something to be?

  6. I’m diehard on Top Chef and have actually attempted to duplicate a few of the dishes. I can’t stand the ingredients used in Chopped. If they did as Adam described I would watch it zealously! Just a quick note: your blog freezes my up to date Chrome browser on windows vista every single time I try to load it. It doesn’t crash just freezes my mouse for about 60-90 seconds. Just thought you might want to pass that on to your people :-)

  7. My only problem with Chopped is that once I saw what the Chopped “All-Stars” could do with the ingredients in the given time, I was no longer as impressed by the normal episodes.

  8. Also love Chopped! Actually, watch a lot of the cooking competition shows and agree that this one comes off as more realistic than the large cattle call reality shows. Also agree with other posters though that often the ingredients or baskets are filled with things that a chef would never bother with.

  9. I was really looking forward to the premiere of The Taste and was shocked at how bad it was! Only watched the first half so far on my DVR and not even sure if I will finish the rest.

    I’m with you on Chopped. I have a coworker who’s son competed on Chopped and he said that what we see is really what happens on the show. There are no theatrics. They only first see the secret ingredients when they actually open the basket (unlike Iron Chef where the chefs already have an idea of what the secret ingredient is).

  10. Agreed. Chopped’s downfall to me is the crazy ingredients–who cares if you can cook with that–and the emotional back story they try to bring out of the chefs. Again, don’t care. But I agree about the chairman being ridiculous and that the drama detracts from many of these shows.

  11. I agree wholeheartedly – and it feels more like me staring into my fridge before dinner [well, except for the high energy drink mix LOL]

  12. I liked The Taste. I have been waiting for a blind taste cooking show to come along. I love that the judges don’t even know what they’re eating and have to make up their minds before even meeting the contestant. I wish Top Chef & Hell’s Kitchen did blind taste judging sometimes. I loved Top Chef, but it seems like personalities get in the way of the food. And there is often a clear bias with judge’s favorites sometimes getting a pass based on past performances. Not always, but sometimes.

  13. I love Chopped too, especially the episodes with chefs who have persevered or how are underappreciated (i.e. cafeteria ladies, New Orleans chefs). As a Food Network junkie, I definitely agree that this is the best competition show on the channel. I will definitely keep watching!

  14. Chopped is my favorite show on Food Network! Very often I find myself thinking “What would I make with these ingredients?” Also very often, I don’t have an answer :-)
    I love how the judges root for the competitors “C’mon, get that food on the plate! Oh, you are giving me heart attack!”
    The only thing I don’t like about Chopped is when Scott Conant is upset when someone uses raw red onions. After all, it’s a cooking competition, not a Scott-Conant-pleasing competition.

    1. On Twitter I once made a comment similar to yours about red onion and received a very snippy reply from Mr. Conant himself. I was somewhat chastened at the moment but I stand by my statement (and I agree with you).

  15. It took me a while to get hooked on Chopped, but I love it now. As you and some other comments touched on its a true cooking show. Although I’m with you on the red sports drink or manufactured cheese spread stuff, that’s just too damn difficult! I’m a self proclaimed Top Chef groupie, but I think I watch that just as much for the drama/reality TV (maybe more so) than the food. The Taste = The Voice for food, not sure how that’s going to work.

  16. I still enjoy classic Top Chef perhaps most of all among cooking competition shows. But more than 1 season a year of Top Chef is far too much to keep up with. Chopped is so eminently watchable. I never sit down to watch an episode of Chopped as I do with Top Chef, but if I channel surf into an episode of Chopped or Tivo records one as a suggestion, and start watching it, I can’t not watch until the end. The only thing that keeps me from enjoying Chopped more is the random wackiness of some of the items in the box. Like some of the constraints on the chefs in recent seasons of Top Chef, some of the items that come to the box out of left field make it impossible to create delicious seeming food incorporating it.

  17. I love cooking competition shows and have loved Top Chef. However, I dont think the chefs are as interesting or likeable as they were in the past. The last season that had great chefs was when the Voltaggio’s were on. Since then, the Texas and even now, Seattle, are a bit boring. But, I still cant wait to watch it. I agree with everything you say about Chopped. It is the best thing on Food Network, which took a weird turn a few years ago and I really dont watch it much any more.
    I agree that Alex and Amanda are the BEST judges and Jeffrey is great too. The others are a bit arrogant for my taste. Is there anyone better than Ted Allen????

  18. as a follow up, what is your take on The Taste? I could not understand how the judges passed up some of the chefs they did for the ones they chose. Planned?

  19. Agreed. Chopped is by far my favorite cooking competition. I used to be a fan of Iron Chef, but as you put it so well, the theatrics got in the way.

  20. Chopped is the only cooking competition show I watch now. One of the best was the original Iron Chef dubbed in English…that was great culinary TV!

  21. Chopped is the only cooking competition show I watch now. One of the best was the original Iron Chef dubbed in English…that was great culinary TV!

  22. Chopped is the only one I will watch. Yes, I hate the weirdo ingredient that is usually a highly processed something that doesn’t have any relation to the other three and is often something I would never eat/drink/use IRL, in any form.. What I hate more? Zakarian frequently complaining about things not having enough salt, when no one else agrees. Get a shaker G. You can add, the others can not subtract (and you eat too much salt!). I think Aaron, Alex and Marcus are my favorite judges. But if I was Ted, I’d be mad about never getting to taste.

  23. I love Chopped! My hubby and I record every episode and watch it all the time. I have blogged about it as well. I agree that is it one of the best food/cooking competition shows out there!

  24. All these game show cooking shows are pathetic contrived time wasters, and that’s fine if that gets your junk jumping, but if you want to learn anything, watch Good Eats or anything with Child, Pepin or Ciarello, the rest is mindless piffle…enjoy it if that floats your boat, I stopped years ago…

  25. Chopped is the best, indeed, the only cooking show I can even stand to watch anymore! And it gives you the outcome by the end of the episode. Clean, quick, informative, exciting, and no cliff hangers. LOVE Chopped, and Ted, and his shoes & suits! Love even Zakarian. It’s so much better than so much of what else is out there. Yaaye Chopped!

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