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.