A Question of Taste: Cultural Identity on Chopped

Curator's Note

On the Food Network’s Chopped, the professional chefs/contestants are required to create an appetizer, main entrée and dessert in a fixed amount of time. The show’s hook is that for each dish, they are required to include four incongruous ingredients.

The contestant’s dishes are judged on taste, presentation and creativity. Presumably the most deserving creations win, but as television demands stories, we also are provided with a career-oriented biography for each contestant. With the introduction of this narrative, the cultural differences in cooking styles and tastes become problematic for the judges and the viewers. While the appreciation of any art form is influenced by cultural biases of what is aesthetically pleasing and technically proficient, preferences for certain dishes vary considerably with regional diets and available foods/spices.

On Chopped, there is a bias towards American cooking. In the first example seen on the video, Chef Denis is penalized primarily for making a spicy dish, despite the fact that Judge Aarón appreciates the heat and another contestant makes what Denis suggests is a more egregious error.  

In the second example, the judges articulate contradictions overtly. Chef Gillian identifies herself as an “immigrant” to American cooking despite being a first-generation American, and then when she is creative with the traditions of American cooking, Judge Alex objects, suggesting that this take on American cuisine is not authentic. When Chef Gillian defends her food in the context of her memory as an American, Judge Scott attacks her for making this about her story rather than the food itself, despite the irony that the show’s editing has emphasized this narrative.

In the last example, a former member of a metal band, Chef Ric also offers his own narrative. Despite Judge Alex’s continual dislike of his dishes that she admits is “not my style of cooking at all,” Chef Ric ultimately wins the contest. Again, the narrative is emphasized, and may suggest that race can play some part in an episode’s conclusion.

Admittedly, taste and technical considerations of cooking do and should play a significant part in determining who wins, and members of all ethnicities have won Chopped. But, on numerous occasions, in order to fulfill the expectations of reality television, narrative (and when appropriate, ethnic narrative) is used to create tension, suggesting a prejudice against ethnic cooking, when food should more effectively function as a common language.



Thank you for this very informative article.

I was quite taken by this clip, and by your observation that the show seems to pose (ethnic) narratives against an essentialized notion of food. I think you are very right to point to the ways in which the contest (and the show) are designed to create authoritarian figures that delimit national identities through food. It is clear that though they are opining what “american food” should be like, they are doing so under an essentialized/universalist banner disguised as taste and opinion. In doing so, they penalize ethnic foods (and others) by quite literally disciplining the tongue.

Though this is symptomatic of the show, I am curious as to how this tendency plays out across the food network. I now wonder the various kinds of insights we could acquire by focusing on lunch time programming and contrasting that with dinner---perhaps class is a factor as well (unemployed vs. employed audiences)?


I found this clip really fascinating. Has there been any discussion on message boards about the racial politics (of both the food as well as the contestants)? It's clear that Chef Gillian and Chef Ric follow the same formula for their dishes: just ethnic enough without becoming too ethnic. This formula operates across reality television (I'm thinking of something like America's Next Top Model), and I wonder the degree to which it is becoming more evident to viewers. 

There is some discusion of racism on the show across the internet, but it tends to focus on one particular contestant losing; just last night, a woman of color won in a championship round.  I think the racial issues are more subtle than this, with the quality of food somehow being tied to a common ethinic definition which in reality is impossible and inappropriate to define.

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