"Chopped" is perfect summer food fodder for "Top Chef" fans
As a fan of all things Food Network, I should have been watching the Ted Allen-hosted culinary competition since its inception earlier this year. But I missed the entire first season because promos gave me the impression that the show was far too ... dun, dun, dunnnnnn ... dramatic than it needed to be.
Now, I've always admired Allen's expertise during judging stints on "Iron Chef America" and "Top Chef." I've also become addicted to food competition shows ever since Malavika convinced me to give the aforementioned "Top Chef" a chance.
But I also have a natural born instinct to reject anything that comes off as too contrived or melodramatic, and I can only think that Allen's stone-faced "you have been chopped" tagline must have been enough of a turn-off that my "Food Network= awesome" instincts never truly kicked in.
And that's exactly what "Chopped" is. Awesome.
"Top Chef" fans: take note. "Chopped" is more delicious than a Scott Conant-Fabio Viviani face off over the merits of acid with cheese. I bring that up because hard-ass Conant (right) is one of the judges for "Chopped," though Aaron Sanchez (a finalist on "Next Iron Chef America") delivers the best "don't bleep with me" staredowns across the table.
The "Chopped" premise is simple. Four chefs compete each episode in a three-round Darwinian food gauntlet to display the best appetizer, entree and dessert. The trick is that each chef is supplied a mystery basket of ingredients that they must use in each 30-minute round (competitors are also given access to a pantry stocked with a wide variety of other ingredients.)
Judges start with the appetizer, and whoever is least impressive gets "chopped." Three move onto the entree round, and eventually, two are left standing in the final dessert battle -- with a $10,000 winner determined based on the overall meal.
It's basically three installments of a pressure-filled "Top Chef" Elimination Challenge mixed with "The Weakest Link" and the cheap thrill you get from the secret ingredient unveiling on "Iron Chef America."
And trust me, the revolving door of head-scratching ingredients causes contestants to scramble and sweat (literally, a few chefs have been known to drip buckets all over their plates). Among the combinations included in previous episodes: watermelon, sardines and pepper jack cheese; striped bass, pimento peppers, jicama, mango and brie; blackberries, kiwi, wonton wrappers and gummi bears; and beef shoulder, fish sauce and canned pumpkin.
As top notch chefs, the contestants do their best to make flavor profiles work. And it's not just food quality and presentation they get judged on. When one "Chopped" finalist recently dropped a set of tongs on the ground and appeared to re-use them, she was called out for her lack of cleanliness.
Of course, time is the biggest enemy as each chef turns into a bright, ball of intensity while slaving over flaming pans or blindly ignoring blenders sitting mere feet in front of them.
Best of all, it's beyond fun to watch the wheels turn as these brave culinary artists do their best to improvise and put together exemplary dishes for the judges before Allen delivers his signature line and (gulp) the dramatic butcher knife drops.
"Chopped" airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on Food Network.
-- Thomas Rozwadowski, firstname.lastname@example.org