Tuned In

Top Chef Vs. Chopped: Who Rules the Food TV Kitchen?

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Tonight, Top Chef: Texas ends continues its season finale, which began last week with what may well have been the dumbest challenge theme the show has ever done. After whisking the four finalists off to Vancouver—because as we all know, British Columbia is the Texas of the North—it ran them through a gauntlet of three Olympic-style challenges that had progressively less to do with cooking. First, each chef had to prepare a dish in an airborne ski lift; then the remaining contestants chipped frozen ingredients from blocks of ice with icepicks; and finally, two aspirants competed for the last spot in the final—earning their ingredients by shooting at targets on a biathlon course.

I think it’s fair to ask the question: Is Top Chef bored with food? Is it so jaded with the idea of simply asking chefs to prepare the best meals possible that it has to make itself into an entirely different show to sustain our interest, and its own? Does an already stunt-heavy season (which worked in a secret “Last Chance Kitchen” competition to let one chef return to the show) have any legitimacy when its winner will have proved his or her worth through winter sports?

At this point, I’m too invested in this season and the show to give up; I’ll be watching to see who wins the final challenge, even if it involves choreographing an ice-dancing routine. But all this may be one reason why I’ve gotten more and more attached to Top Chef’s humbler, simpler, less glamorous Food Network counterpart, Chopped.

Unlike Top Chef (or The Next Food Network Star, a meta TV-hosting competition I could never really get into), Chopped has no season-long competition. Every episode, four chefs compete to cook an appetizer, an entree and a dessert from mystery ingredients. One chef gets eliminated by the judges and host Ted Allen after each course. When it’s over, it’s over; the “Chopped Champion” goes home and another four cooks step in for the next episode.

Chopped is far more bare-bones (and I would assume, less expensive) competition than Top Chef. There are no fabulous locations, no celebrity guests promoting their new movies. No one hangs out in a fabulous apartment between challenges or drives off to Whole Foods in a shiny new Product Placementmobile. It’s just four people, in the Chopped Kitchen, sweating and cooking for a half hour a dish.

As food porn, Chopped can’t really compete with Top Chef. The presentations aren’t as elaborate and the dishes aren’t as ambitious. Where Top Chef contestants hail from brand-name restaurants or brag about their apprenticeships with celebrity chefs, Chopped draws much more from caterers, food stylists and sous chefs in un-fabulous local restaurants. There’s much more a feeling of watching the grunt work of the average restaurant kitchen—there’s no molecular gastronomy, few food-magazine-worthy plates, but instead, just the effort of laboring to put some damn food on a plate before time runs out.

As a result—and because of the nature of the surprise ingredients, which include unappetizing curveballs like a whole canned chicken—Chopped produces fewer dishes that look like something that I’d want to eat, and many that are truly disgusting. Its judges sometimes deserve hazard pay for choking down the improv meals that sometimes come out of the kitchen—chewy vegetables, dessicated burgers, undercooked pork. But the competition also replicates the experience of the home cook much more than anything you’re likely to see on Top Chef: you have X, Y and Z ingredients on hand, the clock is ticking, and one way or another, you have to produce a meal. The dishes, produced under time pressure, are rarely imaginative: you can expect a lot of meatballs and various takes on French Toast for dessert. More often than not, what you end up with is not cuisine but, at best, food—the kind of passable, entree-and-a-swirl of sauce dish you’d see at Michelin-ignored restaurants across the country.

I wouldn’t necessarily want to eat any of it; many a Chopped contestant has won the competition with improvised piles of food that look like they were deposited by a sick bird. But it’s brisk and compelling to watch, because it’s so raw and stripped-down. On Top Chef, food is presented as entertainment, as performance, as art. On Chopped, food is simply work, which is both honest and absorbing to watch. It’s a much simpler show, without long arcs of rivalries and season-long journeys. (Maybe for this reason, the Tuned In Jrs., though they like Top Chef, really love Chopped, which offers immediate gratification and resolution without a lot of soap-opera drama and padding.)

Chopped is reliable, simple and procedural, the Law & Order of cable cooking shows. But as on Law & Order, the formula works. And it shows that, if you use a kitchen right, it has more entertaining obstacles than an entire Olympic Village.