There's no shortage of food shows on television, from serene instructional content to tourist eye candy to kooky competitions where chefs cook in the desert. There's also The Great Food Truck Race, which is mostly about the finer points of where you should park a food truck.
But while my favorite was once Bravo's Top Chef, with its clearly skilled chefs and terrific judging panels, my new favorite is the Food Network competition Chopped.
Here's what happens on Chopped: Four chefs start out and play three rounds, in which they're narrowed to three, then two, then a winner. In the first round, they make an appetizer. In the second round, they make an entree. And in the final round, they make a dessert.
The catch is that in each round, they have to use four secret ingredients found in a big basket. They can use regular stuff from the "pantry and fridge" as well, but they have to use at least those four, and they get in trouble if they conceal them. The idea is not to keep anyone from being to tell what's in it.
As for the ingredients, some are relatively commonplace — steak, ham, beans, bread. Most are in the middle, slightly offbeat but nothing really difficult to work with — a special kind of vegetable, an unusual cut of meat, or a strong flavoring.
But the best ingredients of all are the weirdzilla curve balls that chefs groan as they take them out of the basket, many but not all of which are commonplace convenience foods that chefs have absolutely no use for. Sometimes, they're ingredients that wouldn't be weirdzilla curve balls in other parts of the world, but they are for chefs largely trained in the U.S. Spaghetti-O's! Gatorade! Frozen french fries! Goat brain! A whole pig head! Offal, in fact, is popular on Chopped in part because it's so common in so many places and yet people who aren't familiar with it tend to, in technical culinary terminology, freeeeeak out.
Consider the basket that contestants faced in the appetizer round of an episode available in full on Food Network's site: Asian pears, croissants, haricot verts, and rattlesnake. One lady made a bean and pear salad with "balsamic rattlesnake croutons." One guy made a rattlesnake sandwich with a pear and bean salsa and "rattlesnake aioli." Another lady made Sicilian rattlesnake with olives and capers. The last guy made just "pan-seared rattlesnake with toasted croissant." All of them squeezed all the ingredients in there somewhere. Their entree round featured rabbit and fruit leather. Their dessert round included yucca and jalapenos.
Each round is judged by three of the many chefs who are part of the Food Network universe. They taste, they critique, they debate, and then there's this ridiculous moment where host Ted Allen (who, back in the day, was on Queer Eye) uncovers a plate, and whoever's dish is on that plate, that's the person who's out. It's very dramatic. (If you don't say "WHOOSH!" when they do it, then you're a better person than I am.)
It's the only show where you'll hear a phrase like, "He wasn't too familiar with the goat brains, so I think that's an advantage for me." (Or, for that matter, "My brains are foaming.")
It sounds strange, but of all the cooking shows I've watched, this is the one that's made me more interested in cooking. I don't see much of my own kitchen experience in anything that happens on Top Chef, because they have unlimited expensive ingredients and a large amount of time to devote to most of what they do. (The quickfire challenges, which happen on a shorter timeline, tend to be gimmicky and not all that educational, and very little time is spent judging how anything turned out.) But on Chopped ... that's, in a twisted way, what a home kitchen is like. You don't have everything, but you have some stuff, and you have to put it all together without spending too much time.
While it's structured like it's about what to do with the ingredients ("What will I do with Gatorade?"), it winds up being about how to get a certain effect in a dish. It becomes about breaking food down to its component parts and thinking about what they actually do. The other day, I saw one where one of the ingredients was sugar cookie dough, and it was supposed to go in a dish with fish. Fish! (And mushrooms, and crema, which is a Mexican sour-cream-y item.) What do you do with sugar cookie dough?
Well, it didn't entirely work, but two of the competitors used it to thicken sauce. After all, it's mostly flour, sugar and butter, right? If you can cut the sugar a little, you're in the thickening family. Sort of.
It's the show that's the most educational about balance. That Gatorade went into a sauce in one case, and a judge commented that it was just too sweet — it needed something to cut how overly sweet it was. If you're a home cook, you can take that as a note, not on cooking with Gatorade, but on cooking with, say, apple juice. In fact, I improvised a sausage, rice and apples thing shortly thereafter I saw that and wished I'd used stock instead of apple juice, because it was — sing it with me if you know the words — too sweet. I could have known, because it wouldn't work with Gatorade, right?
In its wackadoodle way, Chopped is the food show that's actually about what ingredients do in a recipe. It will actually explain which things lend acidity, which things will keep something from rising, and how sweet tastes and savory tastes work together (like how you might incorporate meat — other than bacon — into a dessert).
It also has a way of rewarding breadth of experience, in that a lot of the ingredients are familiar in a particular style of cooking, and people can get caught flat-footed if they look at something and simply have no idea what it is or what it's for. Ted Allen will usually explain, for instance, that membrillo is quince paste, but that doesn't mean all the chefs will have any idea what to do with quince paste. After a while, you learn what the most likely outcomes are for ingredients chefs don't know what to do with — the puree, the vinaigrette, and the gastrique being the three big ones, in my experience.
Chopped attracts a curious collection of fans. They like the combination of craziness and suspense and cornball reality tropes, and they get used to its rhythms. (The person I follow in Twitter who most entertainingly tweets about it is Rian Johnson, the writer-director of many fine things including Looper, who had a hashtag going to identify the things that are said on #everychopped, including, according to him, "I need something to tie the dessert together, so I grab the mascarpone.") (It's true, by the way. They love the mascarpone.)
I'm not saying you're likely to walk into your kitchen one day and find goat brains if you aren't the one who bought them. I'm just saying if you want to know what you would do if you ever did walk into your kitchen and find goat brains, this is the show for you.