Friday, November 11, 2011

The Insane Frenzy Of Watching Chopped

I don't like scary movies. I don't like suspenseful novels, so it's a bit out of character for me to watch something as spine-tingling as Chopped. It is quite a commitment – not just of time, but of energy and emotion. I caught a 2010 episode “Winging It” recently and I was on the edge of my seat. Of course, as in all reality television, they enhance the drama, but that doesn't stop me from caring (out of all proportion, I know) about how each chef does in these most treacherous of situations. They also make it so that each course has its own special narrative that keeps you watching and wondering how the chefs will make it through.

Four very different chefs are competing – Lizzy, a Polish/Indian chef; John, a firefighter and chef; Linda, a Swedish pastry chef; and Justin, who is classically trained.

In the first round, the drama centers around John the firefighter, who is thrilled to see chicken wings in the appetizer basket. He cooks them ALL the time. Sake and grapes are the other two ingredients. Swedish Linda has NEVER cooked chicken wings. (She IS a pastry chef, after all).

It becomes clear that cooking chicken wings in 20 minutes is not all that easy, no matter how experienced you are.

Two of the chefs don’t even START the cooking until 10 minutes in. John has a hard time getting his oil hot. You would think a firefighter would be an expert at anything involving an open flame. He is panicked that if he loses this round, in particular, his firefighter buddies will never let him forget it.

How is it even possible that after 10 minutes his oil isn’t hot? AND he never found vegetable oil, so he’s using extra virgin olive oil. Actually it’s probably lucky that he didn’t get it really hot, because it would have started smoking. John is totally thrown by what a hard time he’s having, especially because wings are his specialty. He just can’t believe it.

Time’s up. The only one with gorgeous looking wings is Lizzy, but hers need salt badly. Linda’s are really uncooked, but she has a nice grape salad garnish. Justin’s wings don’t look horrible and, at least, his are completely cooked through. (He was the only one to get them on immediately and turn, turn, turn them.)

John is completely disgusted with himself. Judge Geoffrey Zakarian says everyone had the same thing to work with, so not having enough time is not a good excuse. John says that his dish is not ”representative” of what he can make. Oh, gosh, will the firefighter fight his way to the next round? How can you not root for him? I’m positively overwrought thinking John is going to disappoint his entire squad. This is what I mean by white-knuckled watching. Luckily, for him, Linda’s dish was even worse, and SHE gets chopped.

The next round is catfish, fresh horseradish, Japanese eggplant and TREVISO. Huh? That looks like radicchio to me. That IS radicchio. John says he’s never heard of it before. I never have either – I’ve always called it radicchio, but apparently it should be called Radicchio di Treviso. I am SO saying treviso from now on to sound (even more) pompous when necessary. Actually, there are several varieties of radicchio, so I could sound really pretentious knowledgeable if I wanted.

Justin is super-confident in this round because he grew up on catfish. (He better be careful, because John having cooked millions of wings didn’t help him in the first course.)  So, what’s the drama for this round? Justin cannot find cornflour for his tempura crust. Oh, that’s a bad one. How will it ever be crunchy? Another potential gut-wrenching problem - Lizzy’s horseradish mayo is way too runny. Oh my, those are both pretty huge dilemmas, but I see the catfish crust as definitely the most promising source of hubbub.

One more possible crisis is brewing РJustin notices that Lizzy is saut̩ing her treviso WITH the core in. GASP!!! How could she?

Still, it’s definitely Justin’s catfish situation that is driving the drama. It’s not as crispy as he likes. He cuts the catfish in half widthwise and stacks the pieces on top of each other and the crust breaks apart! It’s not staying in one nice piece on the fish. He decides to garnish the dish at the last minute with some citrus and he only has time to add the lime slices to 2 out of the three judges’ dishes. Uh-oh. Lizzy’s mayo is still quite watery and she doesn’t have time to put it in ramekins to serve separately.

Best line of the round – John is plating his food and he says, “Everything’s looking like…it looks like it does in the firehouse and it’s gotta look a little nicer than that for the judges.” I like him.

Oh gosh, what will happen? I kind of hope Justin stays in it and it’s Lizzy to go, but let’s see. Judge Gregory says John’s treviso has a beautiful bittersweet flavor. Judge Liz Torres comments on his plating and says it looks like train wreck. John tells her that at the firehouse it’s about how much is on the plate and how it tastes. She reminds him that he’s being judged on presentation…”AND we’re not firemen,” she adds. Oy.

The judges like the design of Lizzy’s plate, but why did she use arugula in both courses? And they ask her why she left the inedible core of the treviso on. BUSTED! Justin looks slightly thrilled. Lizzy recovers somewhat by saying she likes how the treviso keeps its shape when you leave the core in.

But then (Judge) Liz points out that Lizzy left the woody top on one of her eggplant pieces. Lizzy says that sneaked in. Liz replies with the second best line of the show, “It didn’t sneak in. You PUT IT ON THE PLATE.” She’s tough.

They all applaud Justin’s eggplant and treviso with the miso glaze, although Judge Chris Santos says the batter on the fish is too thick. Justin takes a deep breath and realizes he didn’t get away with his crummy batter. Gregory says the batter has the consistency of bread or pancakes, which is completely accurate, since it was made from flour, milk and eggs. Chris loves the citrus in the dish and he says the fish was great, but the crust was such a disaster “that it’s something we’re really going to have to talk about”.

Will Justin get a pass because his dish is passable and John has a presentation problem? They thought Lizzy’s fish was the best and her dish was the most creative, although she left the core in the treviso and used arugula in both courses so far. Unfortunately, I think the firefighter is going home.  I want Justin to win. He’s definitely the most skilled.

Whoever is left, it’s lucky the pastry chef didn’t make it to the last round. That might have been tough.

AND going home is…Lizzy. I AM surprised. The stem on the eggplant and the core in the treviso were too heinous to overlook, I guess. She looks pissed! AND, Judge Liz adds, there were too many flavors going on in her dish. Actually, Lizzy takes it well and tells us that she has no one to blame but herself.

The dessert ingredients are cherry tomatoes, silken tofu, ginger snaps and cocoa nibs. Justin can probably whip up a cheesecake thing in no time. John probably has never even tasted silken tofu, much less cooked with it. He says WHAT?!! He laughs as he takes the tomatoes out of the basket. He throws his hands up in the air.

Even Justin is thrown for a loop.

Chris says these ingredients are tricky and they level the playing field. I don’t agree with that at all. I think Justin’s training gives him a HUGE advantage.

Justin decides to make a genoise. I’m not sure John would know what that is, since he never makes desserts. He’s going to start with whipped cream, which is one thing he knows how to make.

Justin makes a sugar syrup for the cocoa nibs and it burns. Oh gosh, is he going to lose in the final moments? He starts it all over again.

John caramelizes the cherry tomatoes. He tries to coat the tofu with ginger snaps and then fry it. It doesn’t work. He tries to melt the cocoa nibs. THAT doesn’t work. He decides to make a parfait with tofu, ricotta, milk and orange liqueur.

Justin gets his little cakes in ramekins out of the oven. John just throws things together. He calls everything a concoction. I really can’t see him winning.

The judges taste Justin’s dessert. Chris loves the ginger snaps in the genoise and the cocoa nibs. Gregory likes it too. Liz does not like the way he treated the tomatoes. Chris says Justin did as well as they could expect with those ingredients.

John (almost) manages a straight face when he says he made a tofu, ricotta, parfait SOUP. He should have left off the soup. CHRIS LIKES WHAT HE DID WITH THE NIBS and says they added a nice texture. Really? John had no clue what they were.  Gregory LOVES the dessert because he said he was really well-balanced. Justin cannot believe it. Chris says it’s not sweet enough.

Justin explains to the judges, “I cook with emotion, heart, passion. I know I have training and I’m up against someone who doesn’t.” Uh-oh, don’t be cocky to the judges.  He continues, “MY meal progressed.” AND he brings up the fact that his wings WERE COOKED and, in the restaurant world, if something is raw, you can’t sell it. He’s not wrong, but will this make the judges appreciate the firefighter, BECAUSE he doesn’t have training?

John defends himself by saying he needs to crawl out from the bus that Justin threw him under. Liz smiles. He says he learned a lot from the judges’ evaluations and tried to incorporate them into his dishes. John actually feels good that Justin felt unconfident enough to attack him.

Chris is totally for Justin, but Gregory thinks he phoned in some of his dishes and John was more creative. Chris keeps coming back to the inedible chicken wings.

John doesn’t want to get chopped, but Justin REALLY doesn’t want to be. He says it will be like stab in the heart and that someone has said you’re not a chef.

So who is it? Whose dish is the final one to be chopped? And it’s…JOHN’S. JUSTIN wins. Gregory says they loved having him there, but that he dropped the ball on the chicken wings. John is annoyed that he lost because of CHICKEN WINGS!

Justin IS kind of cocky when he says he’s glad that the judges appreciated what he did. He wins them over, though, when he says THIS is what he spends his time thinking about – family, food, football and women (and in that order). Who can disagree with that?

Justin says it’s a big moment for him and that he gave up a lot of activities in his youth in order to spend time working and trying to be a better chef. That’s pretty admirable. I’m glad it came down to training and hard work, although I’m a sucker for a firefighter every time, just for what he does in his everyday life. I’d even give him a Bisquick pass, if it meant he could get to the fire faster.


Abandoned By Wolves said...

My biggest problem with "Chopped" is that it wastes Tim Allen. He was funny, focused and quirky in "Queer Eye", and the show lets him be none of those things - he's just another dweeb in a suit. Ed Sullivan could do the lines he's given just as well.

Tracy said...

I like Chopped. The chefs always seem to have a problem with their pans not being hot enough. My hunch is that they give them stove meant for home kitchens, when the chefs are used to the commercial stoves.