I watch Food Network at the gym. It’s perverse, I know—a rabbit running after its carrot (or cupcake). I don't have a TV and I'm a food writer, which means not only that the gym provides a mindless visual and physical break from mindful writing about food, but also that I'm there at odd hours. Say, 3 p.m.—just in time for the Chopped contestants to open their mystery baskets.
Four up-and-coming chefs open their baskets to reveal … duck confit, red cherry peppers, frozen naan, and vanilla beans. Appetizer round: 20 minutes. If your dish doesn’t cut it, you get chopped. The celebrities of the show are the judges, a panel of three famous chefs who taste and critique each plate. They cluck and fret during the cooking—“He’s going to burn that sauce”—and then mull and squint at each round of plates, until finally—“I’m sorry, Tim. You’ve been chopped.”
Will Larry get his salad on the plate in time for judging? Will the naan crostinis get soggy—and will the black licorice reduction taste good? As the courses progress—entrée to dessert—the contestants get fewer and the survivors get sweatier. It doesn't really matter when we're watching, but when we're at home, enacting, a Chopped-state-of-mind raises the stakes. Instead of opening a basket of mystery ingredients selected by some committee at the Food Network—ground beef, wonton wrappers, cream of mushroom soup, bananas—I peer into my fridge to see what remains. Almond butter and eggplant, eggs and onions, yogurt and parmesan cheese. Are there any potatoes? Frittata it shall be.
Chopped is improv cooking at its best, and maybe that’s the key to the addiction—in the chaos. We are not watching perfectly-coifed Giada follow her grandmother’s lasagna recipe to a T—never rushed, never harried. No, in the Chopped kitchen, just like our own, we are sweating and rushing and while it’s true that we will not be disqualified from the dinner table lest we fail to plate our food before the time is up, we are rushed for other reasons and our kitchens cabinets might well be mystery baskets. With characteristic Food Network flourish and drama, Chopped offers up the notion that we can make do with what we have—and with creativity, make it into something good.