My old grandpappy used to live for those moments when someone would ask him why he subscribed to U.S. News & World Report instead of one of the more popular newsweeklies, such as Time and Newsweek. (No, there weren't that many people who ever asked. If he'd had the money, he would have arranged to have them bused in.) He would then explain that U.S. News & World Report was a proper, serious goddamn newsmagazine, with lots of black and white graphs and statistics and such and no gossip page or movie reviews or rock stars on the cover. (Commenters, please note: My old grandpappy died in the 1980s. I know that U.S. News & World Report no longer even publishes a weekly print edition, and for all I know, their last election week issue might have had Lady Gaga on the cover.)
As a Top Chef junkie who is only on nodding acquaintance with the regular programming on the Food Network, I can't help but compare the Food Network's shows to those shows they most resemble on other, less singularly-focused networks. I suspect that serious fans of a show like Chopped must look on it, in comparison to Top Chef, the way old grandpappy looked at his beloved U.S. News in comparison to Newsweek, if not Us Weekly. No inspiring or amusing backstories, no funny haircuts, no detectable personality quirks, at least none that are dwelt on. You damn sure never get the feeling that anyone's auditioning for a sitcom. There will be no road trips to the grocery; these people are here to cook, and you're there to watch them cook, so everybody had better like being stuck in the kitchen. If you can't take the heat (or the claustrophobia), switch over to Undercover Boss! This shit is hardcore.
For the current "All Star" edition of Chopped—the participants' celebrity standing having been established by their ubiquity on previous installments of this and other Food Network programs—the competitors are pretty hardcore themselves, and that carries over into the show itself. Watching his all-stars stampeding around the ovens, host Ted Allen muses that "It seems like these star chefs are getting so much more done in this tiny window of time than what we're used to seeing." This may have something to do with the fact that these established stars are not cowed by Allen's own amiable degree of fame (former food and wine expert for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy!) and so demonstrate not the slightest bit of tolerance when, having been informed that they have only 30 minutes to stay in the game and save their reputations by coming up with a pleasing entree that makes use of a soiled diaper and a box of Cap'n Crunch that's eight months past its sell-by date, he begins to exhibit symptoms of mad cow disease and tries to interview them about their progress as they're working. At their politest, their gently point out that their progress is being impeded by a tweedy git who's asking them about their progress. When things aren't going that well, you begin to worry that a harried chef with a knife in his head will suddenly look on Ted Allen as a rich source of nutritious protein
On a traditional Chopped episode, the players are required to whip together dishes using a mix of ingredients that might have been suggested by a bunch of giggly 9-year-old boys who Dr. Phil thinks we should probably keep an eye on. For the all-stars, this has only been stepped up. Tonight's gauntlet began with orders to produce an appetizer that included teething biscuits, Hungarian hot peppers, raspberries, and haggis—and not just haggis, but canned haggis, a masterstroke of culinary sadism that was like the first act of a violent revenge movie starring Groundskeeper Willie. Ace of Cakes star Duff Goldman went out of his way to insult frequent competitive-cooking show guest Robert Irvine by seeming to suggest that Irvine, who's from England, should have some special familiarity with the infamous Scottish delicacy.
Goldman had to get his licks in quickly if he was going to insult anyone, since any familiarity at all with cooking shows will tell you that, in any mixed competition, the pastry chef is the one with the target on his back. (Bravo's recent addition to its lineup, Just Desserts, seems to have been conceived as a direct response to all the times that a contestant on Top Chef proper who was assigned the task of handing in a dessert seemed to be wondering if there might not be some way he could instead arrange to quietly sneak off and shoot himself in the head.) Duff flamed out in the first round and so will never get to show us how he might have fared in the final round, when Irvine and Anne Burrell, the Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova of Food Network challenges, were obliged to produce a dessert using ladyfingers, baby fennel, almond paste, and root beer jellybeans.
Top Chef has come in for its knocks in recent seasons, for the suggestions of unfairness that naturally arise from those challenges and judging panels that seem the result of pure showmanship—not that I, personally, am about to question the delicate sophistication of Cookie Monster's palette. Chopped's bare-bones quality throws its virtues into relief, though. (For one thing, it would be nice if the judges on Chopped were quicker with a wisecrack and knew how to use a shiv. When Alex Guarnaschelli is trying to convey just how hard it is to choose between these wonderful, wonderful dishes—"Two meals that I could eat again and again, although there's one I just might eat one extra time!"—she babbles a blue streak, piling climax onto climax in a way that nobody has quite done since Donna Summer recorded "Love To Love You Baby." What keeps the show compulsively watchable is the sheer fascination of the mechanics of the creative process, though it helps that, even in this sterile atmosphere, some of the chef's personal egotism and terror of being outranked by the one member of the group that they, inevitably, like even less than they like all the others, does come through. It may be the tensest, sweatiest hour on TV since Jack Bauer hung up his brass knuckles. Just be thankful that Jack didn't have to work in a hot kitchen, alongside three other psychotics.