I watch Chopped sometimes. I watch it less than I used to, now that I don’t have cable. Without broadcast television, I’m forced into a far more active consumer role, having to choose what I want Netflix or Amazon to screen for me. And lately, I’ve been thinking about how I wish I’d open Hulu, which currently has streaming rights to Chopped, and it would just be playing this cooking competition stalwart so that I can be freed from having to think quite so much about what I’m watching and why I’m watching it.
Chopped is the perfect show for passive watching. It’s an episodic cooking competition in which chefs create dishes based on quirky “mystery basket” ingredients, with one chef being eliminated after each course until there is a winner who gets money and a victory that doesn’t mean nearly as much as winning Top Chef. There’s an endless supply of it, and no single episode changes the course or the direction of the show so much that you ever need to rewind or pause for having stepped away. Perhaps most importantly, the show is good, but not great. I personally like thinking up — or if I’m not alone while watching, calling out — what I would make with the basket before I go back to looking at my phone for a while. The brilliance of Chopped is the way it unburdens us from having to care about the people on it too much, or what even happened.
The critiques are the best part, even though the judges rotate. They aren’t the coolest mix of people — there’s no Tom Colicchio-esque heavyweight nor Nicole Byer-ish personality in the bunch, but rather chefs like Marc Murphy, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Scott Conant, each of whom are at this point more known for their time on Chopped than any single restaurant — but they effectively stand in for the audience here. They competently describe how the weird combinations work and how they might have been more delicious; they deliver their thoughts with an appropriate level of self-seriousness to signal that they know what they’re talking about. Ted Allen is comfortable in his role as host, but since he doesn’t eat the dishes or influence the action in any real way, he’s pretty neutral. Everything that happens between the critiques is wheel-spinning.
Why isn’t Chopped a truly great show? It’s way too long: There’s no reason Chopped couldn’t be a tight 30 minutes. You know what’s going to happen with the cooking before it even starts. Someone burns something, they have to start over. Someone’s something doesn’t turn out as planned but they’re gonna keep it. Someone’s turning the sweetest ingredient in the basket into a gastrique, while someone else is adding bacon. Someone’s going for dried pasta even though the judges usually don’t like meals dependent on pantry staples! Oh no, did someone forget a basket ingredient!!!! See? It could be shorter. But because it needs to fill an entire network-television hour with commercials, Chopped is more baseball game than tennis match; the predictable action of the interminable cooking sequences lets you scroll Instagram, fold laundry, or fix yourself a snack that doesn’t involve Rocky Mountain Oysters or Twinkies — excuse me, “brandless snack cakes.”
The show would undoubtedly be better if the producers only gave the contestants whole, natural foods — forcing a chef to cook with sour gummy straws and then criticizing them when they effectively mask said candy in a dish is, on its face, stupid. Same goes for not having two ice cream machines: even if both finalists were able to use the machines when they wanted to, there’d still be a winner and a loser. It’s okay though, these predictable crisis moments keep the show in the realm of fine, and if it were better, I’d actually have to pay attention while watching, which is not the point.
Chopped is a master class in keeping the viewer at arm’s length. The competitor backstory montages move so fast it’s easy to miss where they work or even what they are about; the chyron that tells us the competitors’ names appears only rarely and never mentions their workplace again, which makes it thrillingly easy to remain emotionally detached. (Related: Celebrity episodes are to be avoided. Generally speaking, knowing the competitors makes listening to the fake smack talk unbearable.) The beauty of Chopped is that the mechanics of the show are what provide the forward momentum — no character journeys, where real feelings could come, are needed.
And what mechanics. Competitions have built-in stakes — even without $10,000 on the line each episode (which is a lot of money???), human nature means once the competition starts I want to know who wins. But because this is Chopped, I don’t actually need to know-know the winner. As soon as one is crowned, a new episode comes on with a new crop of contestants. Chopped is best, and in fact, might only be good at all, in marathons. It’s stress-free marathoning: Ted Allen announced yesterday that Chopped was filming its 600th episode, and they’re still making more, which means you basically never have to worry about running out. It’s the Law & Order of food television.
By my count there are only two real seminal episodes: the episode in which force-of-nature Nong Poonsukwattana competes and wins; and the episode where Elise Kornack cooks with confidence and gets unjustly slammed for not, I guess, giving enough of a fuck about what Scott Conant and the rest of the all-male panel of judges has to say about her work. But these episodes are exceptions to the rule, spotlighting two competitors whose spark could not be contained by the rigid Chopped formula.
As more of us cut ties with cable, it’s easy to forget about Chopped. To actively choose the show on a streaming platform seems like a huge step — and one that threatens to defeat its purpose. But if you do decide to actively engage, to click play, the show will welcome you back onto its gentle current and in return ask of you absolutely nothing — other than, perhaps, not to show the judges another pain perdu.
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.