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Our Dark Summertime Binge: “Chopped” Season One

Chopped season 1!

Aphrodisiac or poison? YOU make the call!

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: with weeks to go till vacation and no pressing obligations, my wife Anne and I have been bingeing a few different shows together, while I’ve done some additional grim watching on the side. Certainly not through careful planning on our part, each of the shows has had their own depressing and/or tragic aspects. Veronica Mars season 4 had its mad-bomber mystery and its upsetting finale. Season 2 of Hulu’s Light as a Feather made teen horror out of a slumber party game. The Netflix documelodrama The Last Czars reminded us Russian history is grimmer than many of our TV stories, and trying to cheer your audience up with cult orgies doesn’t help.

This summer we’ve even managed to find oppression and despondency in the things we’ve loved and watched for years. We expected nothing less from Veronica Mars. It paled before the dark side of Chopped.

Longtime MCC readers know Anne and I are big fans. We wrote our first Chopped tips-‘n’-tricks guide after watching several dozen episodes, We overhauled it and flipped it on its side once our watch-count reached the hundreds. We celebrated our twelfth anniversary at a Nashville restaurant owned by Chopped judge Maneet Chauhan. We’ve even met judge Alex Guarnaschelli and host Ted Allen at food-forward events here in Indianapolis.

But we came to the show a few years late. We discovered it one night in a hotel room on one of our annual road trips (2012 or 2013, I forget which). I’ve no doubt there are Chopped superfans out there who wildly outrank us in terms of devotion and skilled expressions thereof. We can’t even say we’ve seen every single episode. Yet.

We’re now working on that new goal. Despite the number of Chopped reruns filling out the Food Network schedule in any given week, early episodes almost never reappear in the mix. There’s a reason for this.

We’ve run across many a show in which the first season came out malformed, half-baked, and/or riddled with flaws and barely watchable, but contained just enough useful ideas to attract an audience, forestall cancellation, and buy its staff more time to figure out what they’re doing wrong, make improvements, and evolve into classic TV. Fans of Buffy, Angel, The Office, Parks and Rec, and Star Trek: The Next Generation know what I’m talking about. From what little we’d seen and heard about Chopped‘s first season, we suspected the same principle was in play.

Regardless, we were excited a few months ago to learn Food Network has made every single episode available through their app. That includes not only Chopped itself, but its spin-offs — the underage wizards of Chopped Junior (we’ve already seen them all); the judges-only out-of-competition just-for-kicks Chopped After Dark (I’m sure we’ve missed some); and Chopped Canada, which I can’t watch or talk about without affecting a cartoonish Fargo accent. I…I just can’t. There’s an episode of MST3K I blame for this.

We realized we had no choice. We had to watch the first episode of Chopped and work our way forward until we figure out where we joined in. According to its different season-length methodology, the show just kicked off its 43rd season this month. I believe their seasons are thirteen episodes each, but I haven’t scrolled through every list on the app to confirm. Even so, that’s a lot of seasons. Unless we’re more caught up than we think, this will be a long-term project.

While we watched, I thought it might be fun to jot down “first appearance” notes and mark special events if and when we run across them, much as The Overstreet Price Guide does for comic books. It’s a useful reference tool in that regard. (“Issue #1: 1st appearance Meatman, The Broccolier.” “Issue #2: 1st appearance, Vitamindy.” “Issue #5: wedding of Meatman and Deloris Dane.” “Issue #7: death of Mushroom Lad.” And so on.) In that baker’s dozen of nascent game-show cooking competitions we witnessed quite a few milestones.

The show has undergone many changes over time from its early forms. Sometimes the baskets contained merely three ingredients, or stuffed five of them into the mix. Chefs had none of the fancier gadgets and appliances that would be added later — no deep fryers, no sous vide machine, no anti-griddle or blast chiller, no confounding yet sometimes delightful ice cream machine. Gone today are the fawning intros for each judge that strained to convince the Viewers at Home of their bona fides before we got to know and respect them. Also quietly excised circa 2014 were the redundant minutes spent on watching the judges’ deliberations that consisted of them repeating everything they’d just gotten done saying to the chefs’ faces. As time went on and the show grew more successful, producers added more options to the Chopped Kitchen and tightened up the narrative.

While we appreciated the streamlining as we went, we also recoiled frequently at the harshness of some interactions. The show was created when American Idol was still a reigning trendsetter in the reality-TV biz, dozens of networks and channels were modeling shows after it, and too many producers thought the key to success was to have someone impersonate Simon Cowell and excoriate straggling contestants in the most stylish and/or rudest ways possible. That was not my favorite TV phase.

Chopped still reflected a bit of that mindset when we first started watching, but we didn’t crave that part. We wanted to see imaginative chefs creating one-of-a-kind dishes from outlandish combinations of alleged edibles from every nation on Earth. More to the point, we were curious to be introduced to hundreds of fruits, vegetables, meats, and other organic substances we’d never heard of in our sheltered, lower-middle-class lives.

As the show’s popularity has risen over time, it’s become consciously brighter and good-natured, more fun and less fraught with fear and loathing. Time-traveling back to the era of what I’ve now nicknamed “Dark Chopped” was jarring.

The following are my ostensible notes and annotations as I went, none of which are jokes and all of which I am not making up:

  • Episode 1: 1st appearances of judges Aarón Sanchez, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Marc Murphy. 1st incident of a chef cutting themselves and costing precious minutes. Unlike today, there was no medic in sight — the chef threw on a plastic glove and kept working while blood pooled up inside.
  • Episode 2: The judges catch a chef double-dipping, tasting a dish with a spoon he’d already had in his mouth. Despite this basic sanitation faux pas he survives the round because another chef’s cooking errors are deemed worse.
  • Episode 3: Unhappy speeches from losers who disagree with the judges’ decision aren’t uncommon, but one axed chef is angry enough to punch a countertop on his way out.
  • Episode 4: 1st appearances of judges Scott Conant, Amanda Freitag, and Geoffrey Zakarian. 1st episode in which a chef is sent home for failing to get one of the four basket ingredients on the plates.
  • Episode 5: 1st incident of a chef serving food that was dropped on the floor. Somehow they were not chopped for this. 1st use of fried egg as an awesome meal topper, though the chef was chopped anyway. 1st serving of French toast as a “dessert”, a recurring nemesis to the judges for years to come.
  • Episode 6: 1st appearance of judge Chris Santos. 1st incident of a chopped chef crying on their way out. 1st incident of judges being unable and unwilling to taste a dish due to food safety issues. 1st indication that Alex is getting sick and tired of male judges talking over her as she begins to stand her ground and be heard.
  • Episode 7: 1st episode with two (2) female judges, Alex and Amanda, on the panel at the same time. 1st offense of a chef plating food after Ted Allen has called “time’s up”, which never goes over well.
  • Episode 8: 1st time a female chef wins an episode, after seven straight dude victories. This landmark moment is overshadowed by a fair catastrophe: the one and only time in Chopped history that a chef left off all four basket ingredients, as well as food entirely, and served empty plates to the judges because he had nothing ready. In a related first, Ted kindly let the judges try bites from his unfinished product with the other contestants’ permission, though they couldn’t give him points for it. Chef Gwen LePape returned to the show four years later to compete in a special “redemption” episode alongside three other memorably non-winning competitors, all given second chances to acquit themselves in the Chopped Kitchen. Gwen proudly trounced them all.
  • Episode 9: 1st contestant to have full day-job bragging rights, a man who was once personal chef to King Hussein of Jordan. 1st incident of a chef allergic to a basket ingredient (in this case eggplant) but being forced to work with it anyway. Red sores later appear on his hands, worsening still when he’s taken aback by a second food allergy. 1st instance of chefs pushing for clarification of the rule on how much of a given basket ingredient must be used to qualify. This happens when boxed mac-‘n’-cheese begs the question of whether they had to use the noodles and the powdered processed cheese food product, or if either/or was fine. Also possibly 1st episode with strong evidence that the producers have intentionally sabotaged the pantry supply: despite the mac-‘n’-cheese in the basket, the chefs find no milk or cream in the fridge whatsoever. Later they also run out of bread. Regardless, 1st appearance of bread pudding in the dessert round, a recurring nemesis to the judges for years to come.

(Napoleons, the third rival on the Axis of Easy Go-To Desserts That The Judges All Got Sick of and Dread Tasting Ever Again, debuted sometime before this, but I failed to note them. Mea culpa.)

  • Episode 10: 1st episode with no white competitors. 1st episode with no female competitors. One round goes so badly for all involved that Ted warns the chefs afterward, “The judges, frankly, were offended by your dishes.” One concoction is written off as “just awful”. Later a judge prefaces his remarks with, “I’m gonna try and control my anger.” In a possibly unrelated development that did not help matters, someone made a bread pudding in the entree round. In terms of emotion and tone, this episode is season one’s darkest hour.
  • Episode 11: 1st time the judges begin to complain about “progression” among the three courses, back when part of the premise asked chefs to consider all rounds as part of one big, hopefully cohesive meal. (That hasn’t been emphasized in ages.) One chef caps off a finished round by kissing two of his female rivals. In the dessert round, the same chef finishes minutes early, begins snacking on his leftover brand-X Cocoa Puffs, and asks his last remaining opponent if he can help her with anything. Today when the kids on Chopped Junior help each other finish it’s heartwarming and makes me tear up a little. When this dude tries that, Geoffrey calls it “inappropriate”.
  • Episode 12: 1st issue with inedible detritus left on a plate, in this case a piece of meat-wrapping string. 1st signs that Geoffrey isn’t as big a fan of bold spiciness as his fellow judges. No longer oppressed by coworkers, Alex makes her first forays into becoming the master of metaphors and personification in her critiques, describing one chef’s particular dessert technique as “naughty little chocolate footprints”.
  • Episode 13: One chef, disappointed in her own performance, sums up her meal as “the worst thing I ever put out” as she exits the stage. Another younger chef is so obnoxious in defense of his flaws that he and Scott nearly get into it. While the contestants are secluded in the waiting room, Scott describes him as a “young punk, cocky, almost elitist.” It’s foreshadowing of confrontations to come as future chefs learn Scott will not brook any sass.

…and thus did the season close.

Honestly, I’m afraid of where season 2 might go from here. Perhaps we’ll see a judge call a contestant’s grandmother and shame them for not imparting more wisdom upon their kin. Maybe there’ll be a basket containing live orphans. I dread the possibility of Scott getting so Fed up with poorly prepared Italian food that he tosses all the pantry pasta in a pile, douses it in hair gel, and sets it ablaze. Or maybe one day we’ll see a huge plot twist in which Ted cocks a shotgun and gives a loser a 60-second head start.

With that viewing experience now added to our mental libraries, I’m so, so glad the show feels much lighter and sportsmanlike and 300% friendlier today. I’m also relieved we as a society have agreed American Idol is no longer a thing.

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