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.

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The Day I Was On The Cooking Channel And Didn’t Know It

This morning I received an e-mail from Brad Parsons (author of an awesome new book about bitters called, appropriately enough, Bitters) that said the following: “I was watching the Suzanne Goin (who I know you adore) special on Food Network (or Cooking Channel?) last night and they had some b-roll of the Hollywood Farmers’ Market in the beginning and I swear there was a shot of you (or your doppelganger) in the beginning browsing the stalls. Same haircut, glasses, plaid shirt, canvas jacket. I’m not sure if you were already in LA when they filmed this or if it’s just an illusion, but wanted to let you know in case you haven’t seen it.”

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In Praise of the Two Fat Ladies

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Mr. Game Show was a Hanukkah gift that my parents bought me one year in the 1980s. It looked like a regular board game (small tokens that you moved around a large, printed board) except there, in the middle, was a plastic figurine that talked. “Hello!” it announced in a Guy Smiley voice, “I’m Mr. Game Show! Who’s ready to play a game?”

Mr. Game Show’s Mr. Gameshow had slick-backed hair and big white teeth. He embodied everything that was false and mockable about that most loathsome TV type: the game show host. As time marched on, and we moved through the 80s to the 90s to today, the TV landscape has shifted enough that, even though there are still game show hosts (Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek haven’t gone anywhere) there’s a new contender for that most loathsome TV type: the food show host.

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Food TV’S Unsung Hero: Mark Bittman

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I am not a minimalist: my desk, like my life, overflows with clutter; I like big, loud, campy entertainment; at MoMA I roll my eyes at “White on White” and bow down before Dali, Kandinsky and Magritte (and not just because I like apples.) You’d think that if presented with a TV show by a man known as “The Minimalist” I’d recoil in horror. I like food that is big, brash and bold; I like abundance–the more ingredients the better; how could I ever like Mark Bittman and believe in what he does?

Well after tonight’s episode of “The Best Food in the World” on PBS, I’m ready to put him on a pedestal. In one single episode–approximately 26 minutes of television (there’s a chunk of advertising before and after)–Bittman, aided with Google Earth (or was it Google Maps?), grazed with cows on Bill Niman’s ranch, talked to the man himself, shot over to Tuscany where he ogled Tuscan cows with Mario Batali, met Marco the butcher who, I’m fairly confident, is the butcher profiled in Bill Buford’s “Heat”, had an Italian steak cook-off with Mario and then, just when you thought he couldn’t do any more, he popped up in Fergus Henderson’s kitchen at St. John and Henderson himself, a world class chef beloved for his fifth quarter cooking (offal: blood and guts), made his signature dish: roasted bone marrow with parsley salad. It was a stunning episode–one of the best examples of food television I’ve seen in a while. Bittman may be a Minimalist in the kitchen, but he’s quite the opposite when it comes to his show: it’s packed with hijinks and hilarity, dramatic cook-offs, food celebrities, dazzling plates of extraordinary food, and, more importantly, good old fashioned information. It leaves the large majority of cooking shows in the dust.

Why is it so good? Well, let’s take for example the cook-off with Mario in the hills of Tuscany. It’s one thing to have a saccharine TV host in a day-glo kitchen telling you how to grill your steak, it’s another thing to have two deeply intelligent cooks–one a chef, one a food writer–spatting and sparring over each and every step along the way. First of all, the steak itself made my jaw drop: it was the biggest steak I’ve ever seen in my life and there were two of them. (I think they were T-bones). Mario took his and rubbed it with olive oil, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, threw it on the grill and placed rosemary on the fire to give it an herbal scent. Bittman, The Minimalist, lived up to his title: he took the steak, unadorned, and threw it on the grill.

“I want it to caramelize really well,” he said, “and I think salt draws out moisture, so I’m going to add it at the end.”

“Ok,” said Mario. “But you’ll see with mine, it’s going to get really complex flavor. You’ll see at the end when we taste.”

There’s real tension there. These guys are joshing each other, sure, but beneath the surface each one really believes in what he’s doing. And then Bittman gives Batali a heart attack: he puts butter in a pan, puts the pan on the grill and adds soy sauce.

“Dude!” screams Mario. “We’re in Tuscany.”

Bittman shrugs. “It makes it taste good,” he says, unwilling to be bullied.

The steaks start to take on triumphant golden colors, sizzling and crackling, their aroma wafting through the screen. By the time they were done, I didn’t care which one had oil, which one had butter, I wanted to eat my TV.

“I use a thermometer to see if it’s done,” said Bittman.

“Why would you use a thermometer when you have a perfectly good tool right here,” said Batali, using his hand to press into the meat.

“Well most of my readers wouldn’t know how to do that,” countered Bittman. “I’ve got to give them a temperature.”

[I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea.]

These guys were so intent on one-upping each other I really thought the zippers would come undone and Larry Craig would pop out of the bushes with a ruler to judge.

When the steaks were finished, Mario cut into them carefully. Both steaks looked stellar (if a bit underdone) but Mario’s was the winner. “When you’re in Tuscany,” conceded Bittman, “you want to eat steak the Tuscan way.”

The fact that I could tell this story with so much enthusiasm speaks to the inherent quality of the show. Bittman understands that what makes something dramatic is conflict. That’s what makes Top Chef so entertaining, Hell’s Kitchen, and so on. The conflict partly comes from Bittman’s personality–he’s antagonistic–but also from the cleverly devised situations. The set-up of his other PBS show, “Bittman Takes On America’s Chefs,” makes those situations impeccably clear: he goes up against America’s great chefs to prove that simpler can be better. And I’m often embarrassed for him–the chicken with Red Hots he made for Jean-Georges made Diana, my roommate, groan in agony–but it’s part of the same winning formula. Bittman knows his food but, more importantly, he knows how to entertain. And that makes for good TV.

Top Chef & Underdog Theory

After last night’s episode of “Top Chef,” which Diana and I really enjoyed, I pointed out that C.J.’s team had it coming. C.J., who CHOSE his team, made a classic blunder: he chose the beautiful people, the most likable people, the most popular kids in the class. And as anyone who’s seen an 80s movie knows, when you’re the last to get picked in gym class that means you’re going to score a touchdown at the end of the movie.

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The Hell’s Kitchen Finale

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Young chefs, take heed: reality television offers you two glimpses, this summer season, of chefs who have fallen so far off their pedestals it’s difficult to believe they were ever taken seriously. Rocco DiSpirito’s visit to Top Chef Season III was thankfully limited to one episode, but there he was shilling for Bertolli, his face strangely waxen, maybe from all that cat food he’s testing? His dress, his face, his hair, his voice, are all so presentational you can see the crux of his career crisis right there in his pixelated visage: he’s too in love with his own image to stay in the kitchen. The kitchen is for the Howies of the world and Rocco wants the limelight. Only that limelight will fade, as it always does, and then what? “All right, Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my Bertolli frozen pasta dinner”?

Yet Rocco’s disgrace is tame next to that of Gordon Ramsay. How can a man who held three Michelin stars appear on a show where the two finalists–the supposedly BEST chefs from the entire season–serve a three course meal that would embarrass the lowest chef at a T.G.I. Friday’s? Did anyone see this? I mean, I don’t watch Hell’s Kitchen, we were desperate tonight so we watched the finale and it was shocking. The food was so sub-par that the fact that anyone could believe that these “winners” are the best at anything, let alone cooking, is deeply disturbing. In particular, the blonde woman’s food (I forget her name) was laughably bad: her signature pasta with shrimp looked like it came out of The Idiot’s Guide To Olive Garden Cooking. And her dessert? A chocolate covered strawberry and some cookies. I’m not kidding. This show has as much to do with fine dining as “America’s Top Model” has to do with brain surgery.

And yet, “Hell’s Kitchen” does do something that “Top Chef” doesn’t: it tries to recreate the dynamic of a “real” restaurant kitchen. Sure, “Top Chef” does that in the finale, but that’s what “Hell’s Kitchen” does all season and it showcases how social skills and leadership skills are so essential behind the scenes. And that’s about all the praise I can muster for the show.

Back to Chef Ramsay. Look, money talks, I’m not an idiot. He must be paid up the wazoo for his volatile personality, his mad-dog antics, his showboating sadism. But at what cost? And the same goes for Rocco. What’s your price, young chefs of America? At what point are you willing to become a corporate shill, like Rocco, or a fuming cartoon character like Ramsay? If fame and fortune in the food world are what you seek and you want to maintain your integrity, there’s only one model you should follow and that’s the Anthony Bourdain model. I’m not sure how he does it, but he traverses the world of popular entertainment and the cultish world of foodiedom with ease. One day he’s on “Top Chef,” the next he’s writing on eGullet. Study his example, young chefs of today, and avoid the pitfalls that were so depressingly demonstrated this summer on TV. Now I have to shower for 12 hours to get the stank of “Hell’s Kitchen” out of my hair.