In the whirling dervish of cooking competition shows that Food Network has morphed into, Chopped stands out amongst the best. Essentially a condensed version of Iron Chef, the show has four chefs making up to three courses (appetizer, main course, dessert) using a list of mandatory ingredients which are revealed at the start of each round. To keep things interesting, the combination of ingredients are often times strange and usually include one “what the hell?” addition.
After each course the dishes are judged by a rotating panel of three chefs ranging in degrees of celebrity – if Scott Conant isn’t on the panel I change the channel half the time – and one chef is eliminated. Eventually, the final two cheftestants take part in a one-on-one dessert showdown to decide a winner. It is here where the show falls apart.
Very few of the cheftestants ever have any experience or ability when it comes to dessert. This is not an anomaly, as plenty of other competition cooking shows have the same issue. Hell’s Kitchen, which focuses on line cooking more than anything else, rarely ventures into the realm of desserts. Top Chef is infamous for having sent many a decent chef home because they couldn’t even pull off simple desserts. Though, it should be noted that a few contestants on Top Chef survived weeks longer than they should have simply because they found a niche as the token pastry chef.
Because of this deficiency, the deciding round is often the worst. It is not longer a real test of who is a better chef. Though the chefs are scored holistically, based on each dish, I’ve seen few episodes where one chef dominated so much that they could afford to just throw the dessert round. In that case, the winner of the show is often determined by luck or which chef had a particular skill advantage based on a very specific situation. It’s made all the more frustrating because these people can actually cook. They aren’t semi-talented fame seekers jockeying for the latest Sunday morning time slot.
All this adds up to make the final round underwhelming and instead of the episode ending with great buildup and tension, the payoff is muted. The chefs usually fall back on a few simple recipes, sometimes doing so regardless of what is in the basket.
I’m going to scream if I see another cheftestant make a bread pudding, napoleon or french toast as part of the dessert course. These three dishes should be outlawed and host Ted Allen should be armed with a frying pan, ready to deal out some kitchen justice against anyone who dares to attempt one.
Why does this happen? Because contrary to popular belief, being a cook and being a pastry chef are not the same thing. Sure, if you asked Bobby Flay to make you a cake or some cookies, they’d probably be damned good, but as his difficulty with dessert throwdowns shows (pay attention Bobby!), that isn’t his comfort zone. There’s a different course of study, different skills and techniques which don’t necessarily overlap.
There are a few potential solutions, though none of them are perfect. First is to recruit more chefs with dessert experience, or look for pastry chefs explicitly. The issue here is that we might just reverse the problem and have competitors who are lacking during the first two rounds and limp along hoping to sneak into the finals where they can shine. If we have to choose 1/3 versus 2/3 of the show to suck, it’s an easy choice.
Another solution is to just eliminate the dessert requirement altogether. This would destroy the nice progression of the show, but I’m actually okay with that. Make the third round a wild card. Take the ingredients in the basket and make your best dish, no matter what. Not only does it reward the two chefs who battled to the end, but we get a much more interesting finale, where each chef can play to their strengths. If that means making a dessert, so be it, but no one is forced into a corner.
In fact, since we’re talking about it, there’s an argument to be made for removing the labels from all of the courses. Dessert is the only one that really seems strictly enforced anyway. The appetizer basket often contains ingredients that would become a main dish, but the fifteen fewer minutes and the emphasis on portion size are all that separate the first and second course. Now the competition becomes a three dish free for all.
Or better yet, remove the labels from each course, but force the contestants to have to serve one dish of each course. If you want to try making a first round dessert, good luck, or if you prefer to just wait it out till the end, that’s an option too. More strategy, more tension and more fun. At least, more fun for the viewers, the logistics of how you plan baskets and judging under this format sound like a nightmare, but that’s not my problem. Ted Allen is underutilized anyway, let him figure it out.
Whatever the solution ends up being, Food Network would do well to try and shake up the formula. The rest of the show is already such a well oiled machine that it could handle a little rework and not miss a beat. The camera work and setup are solid, they rightfully keep the “characters” of the chef at arms length (who really cares if the chef is an ass? Just shut up and let me watch you cook.), and the judging is usually informative and fun (Conant, Santos, and anyone else…dream team). All that’s really missing is a proper payoff, as the current course leaves us wanting.