Hello all! This post brought to you by Selena Gomez, the Little Singer That Could. Can she hear her own voice, and if so, why does she keep producing singles? Questions, questions. My post today is about two of my favorite reality TV shows, one I watch with pride, and the other I view in a hoodie and sunglasses while pretending I’m in an alternate universe. One’s an impressive showcase of professional cuisine and the other is a dramatic rendition of The Hunger Games: Cooking Fire. While I enjoy watching both equally, I can’t help but constantly compare one to the other, and notice the other’s damning flaws. Without further ado, let the battle begin.
Round 1: Content
Chopped is a cooking competition on the Food Network. I state the obvious here because while many shows on the Food Network are “cooking competitions” they seem to feature more gimmicks than actual cooking. But Chopped isn’t like those shows at all. The premise is simple, yet never grows old. There are three rounds, appetizer, entree and dessert. Each round has a mystery box with four ingredients that the chefs have to use to whip up a dish and present to the judges. The mystery ingredient gimmick could have gotten tired quickly, but the producers keep it fresh with two elements: talent and theme. Most of the chefs on Chopped are top-notch professionals in their field, so watching Chopped is akin to watching the Olympics of cooking. There’s no room for boredom when chefs are making gastriques at the last minute or using the anti-griddle for the first time (why do they always do that?). The theme episodes, like Teen Tournament, burger episodes, or holiday episodes, are thrown into the mix of general Chopped episodes often enough to keep viewers excited and on their toes. Plus, the chefs are always using new techniques which give the viewer a chance to learn about food without having to endure a marathon of Barefoot Contessa. I never thought I’d know how to cook rainbow chard with grasshopper legs, but thanks to Chopped, now I do.
And then we have Masterchef. Oh, Masterchef, how can you have so much cash and still be terrible? Masterchef is a “cooking show” which takes a group of amateur chefs and gives them high pressure challenges in order to win the $250,000 cash prize, a cookbook deal, and most importantly the title of America’s Masterchef, which is just a big shiny trophy like you’d win for a track meet. There are four types of challenges: Mystery Box Test, Elimination Test, Team Challenge, and Pressure Test. Each of these, however, can be summarized by Gordon Ramsey very dramatically asking the chefs to “cook that thing.” For your pressure test, you will need to….COOK THIS CAKE! For your mystery box test you will need to…COOK THIS PEAR! For the team challenge you will need to…COOK SOME CHICKEN…IN A TEAM! And the funniest thing about it is that a chef will get a challenge, such as to make a dish, any dish in the entire world, with chocolate and they’ll say “I can’t believe I got chocolate. I’m definitely the underdog in this challenge.” And I understand that the chefs are amateur home cooks, but they treat a dessert challenge like it’s an undertaking of legendary proportion.
Where Chopped is straightforward, Masterchef relies on location and tricks to liven up the episode. The producer manipulation is easy to tell from the beginning of a challenge. For instance, if the Serious Voice-Over Man says that the red team is struggling in the beginning of the round, it’s guaranteed that they will win the challenge. Perhaps the producers think this underdog struggle is exciting, but it becomes bland if it’s repeated every episode. Chopped’s theme episodes aren’t gimmicky because they always feature fascinating twists. The Teen Tournament seemed kitschy, but once I saw those kids cook, I was sold. There’s something so refreshing about seeing earnest talent in action and when bad things happen, like they cut their finger or forget an ingredient, the audience feels genuinely worried for them. But in Masterchef, you can’t trust your emotions because you don’t know how many mishaps were manufactured by producers, and how many “feuds” were scripted. I never trust the voting aspects of Masterchef as its obvious that they’re tampered with, or at least influenced. Their team challenges are location-based, such as the time when they had to cook on a beach for 100 surfers or on a farm for 100 ranchers. The contestants always seem awestruck by their location. You’d think they’d never been outdoors in their entire life. For content, Chopped wins this battle.
Round 2: Difficulty
Like I said before, the amount of talent on Chopped is immense. There are chefs who have won James Beard awards, have 5 star restaurants, or are mentored by world-famous masters. It’s like watching a master-class, and if you think about it, Chopped deserves to be called Masterchef much more than Masterchef does. And even with all this talent, Chopped is so difficult that it can often send the most revered chef into spirals. Baskets can feature any protein from spearfish to buffalo and they always throw in unfamiliar spices and vegetables that would require you to travel to the steppes of Mongolia and wrestle a yak herder in order to obtain them. There’s also the time limit, 20 minutes for appetizer and 30 for entree and dessert. At times they’ll give an extra ten minutes if there’s a meat that is impossible to cook in 20 minutes, but even then they only give chefs the bare minimum.
Masterchef is a different story. The contestants are far less talented than the Chopped chefs, so naturally they’re given easier challenges, but the challenges are so simple in some instances, and almost outlandishly difficult in others. The initial mystery box challenges usually revolve around one stupid ingredient. The contestants will lift up their expensive, hand-crafted Masterchef boxes (they have an amazing prop department) to find something like…a pile of rice. Or a single pear. Or one fish. Then they are given 60 minutes and an entire pantry of food that looks like it came straight out of a still life painting. Inevitably the judges will remark on how difficult the challenge is, as if its impossible to think of a single rice dish, and we’re supposed to agree with them. Usually I laugh at the absurdity of it all. In other instances, the challenges are quite difficult. They’re asked to replicate an entire party platter, complete with 10 different appetizers, in 60 minutes, or to make 30 impeccable macarons from scratch, complete with arranging them in a little box. A macaron isn’t too too difficult if you have a recipe, but say that contestant has never made a macaron before. How are they supposed to complete the challenge? Masterchef has a lot of confidence in the fact that the contestants memorize hundreds of recipes before the show, trying to prepare for every situation. I’m waiting for the episode in which a contestant sees a challenge and says “There is no possible way I can do this! I’m just Judy from the hardware store!” before they are consumed by the glowing Masterchef symbol.
Masterchef contestants also only have to produce one plate, which I think is really odd. The judges all eat from the same plate, whereas on Chopped they each get their own plate, increasing the difficulty even more as the chefs have to race to complete 4 dishes. There’s also a much larger emphasis on presentation in Masterchef than in Chopped. When the judges call contestants to the podium in the Mystery Box test, they judge dishes based on appearance, not on taste. They choose 3 dishes they thought looked the best, so the majority of contestants are cooking dishes that won’t be eaten. The chefs on Chopped will be called out if their presentation is sloppy, but the main focus is on the taste, not the look. Many chefs have won with bad looking dishes, but that’s never the case on Masterchef. Speaking of dishes never being eaten, Masterchef has a food-waste problem. They use food like props, often filling up enormous crates with produce when only a fraction of it will be used. It bothers me when they dump a whole sack of rice on the table for dramatic effect, but it bothers me more when they don’t even eat the dishes the chefs are cooking for them. What’s the point of all their hard work? They waste the food for nothing. Much of the display food is probably props, but I know the food they put in their mystery boxes is real, and they waste a ton of it each episode. For less food waste and harder challenges, Chopped wins this round too.
Round 3: The Judges
The judges on Masterchef vary in effectiveness. First you have the main personality, Gordon Ramsey, who is shockingly nice on this show. He’s encouraging one minute, exasperated the next, but he abandons his usual inflamed British aristocrat routine for the paternal role on Masterchef. Graham Elliot is an award winning chef, but he has barely any presence on the show. He gives some actual food critique but he’s pretty lukewarm when it comes to having opinions. Christina Tosci, who replaced Tywin Lannister wannabe Joe Bastianich as the third judge, is also a famous professional chef, but she’s a welcome addition to the show. She says nice critiques, is a fashion goddess, and gives a professional female perspective, which I think makes Masterchef a more well-rounded show.
Chopped has judges with more professional clout, as all of the show’s mainstays are professional chefs with years of experience. I like how they rotate judges in and out so the opinions don’t get boring. Chopped is skilled at keeping their program fresh. Additionally, Chopped never stoops to character impugning in their critiques. The judges might raise an eyebrow at an arrogant chef, but they would never brow-beat a contestant because they dared to disagree with the judge’s perspective. Masterchef judges also rely too much on expectations, thus coloring their critiques with a contestant’s prior behavior over how well their dish actually tastes. Since Chopped contestants don’t roll over between shows, judges can’t hold a previous performance against a contestant. For this round it’s a tie.
Overall, Chopped beats Masterchef in almost every aspect. It’s a better competition with better contestants, better challenges, and makes for a better hour of televison. I learn something new from Chopped every day, but the only new thing I learned from Masterchef is that if you make a Hindu girl cook a pig head, she will cry. Masterchef isn’t a bad show, per se, but as a cooking show its too glitzy, too dramatic, and too childish to pass muster. And don’t even get me started on Masterchef Junior. Those kids are like nine years old! NINE! If Gordon Ramsey had yelled at me when I was nine, I would have melted into a pile of cake batter. But I guess I’m not as tough as those young olympians.
For all his posturing, apparently Gordon Ramsey is not a great chef, I don’t know who to trust anymore. How can he have 3 different cooking shows and not be a great chef? That’s like if it turned out that all of those sports announcers had never played football. Or if Aaron Samuels from Mean Girls left his job as a Spin instructor to host Cake Wars. Oh wait…