I’ve been in love with the Food Network for a long time. After college, my favorite thing to do after work was to watch Emeril cook something amazing while I sat in front of the TV eating something decidedly unamazing. He would yell “BAM” as he hit his lobster gumbo with cajun spices, then I would do the same while spilling pepper on a salad made entirely of iceberg lettuce and old swiss cheese. For me, the spectacle of fine food being prepared is made no less interesting by the fact that I have neither the ability nor the inclination to ever cook it myself. Turducken? Please show me, even though I can’t make a turkey sandwich! Spaghetti Carbonara? No idea what it is, but I can mix up a mean can of Spaghettios, so yeah, let’s check it out! And judging by the popularity of The Food Network, I’m not alone in my fascination. There are many great shows for this cooking voyeurism, but none of them hold a knife to Chopped.
Chopped’s gimmick is the mystery box. Chefs are given one before each course, and are asked to prepare a dish out of its bizarre contents; combos like pork chops, a can of black olives, and lemon Starburst. It’s comforting, because it makes professionals look as perplexed as I do every night, even though I’m dealing with much more reasonable ingredients. Except for the lemon Starbust. I’m stocked to the gills with those little bad boys. Because a pantry is not a pantry until it’s filled with yellow sugar. But I’ve learned a lot from watching my betters, and so that they might help you too, I’ve compiled a list of those lessons. Here now is all that Chopped has taught me about ]cooking.
1. When in Doubt, Deep Fry: There’s two Chopped options when you’re presented with a ingredient that has no clear purpose: deep fry the sucker, or cook like a civilized human being. When you deep fry, the results are always top-notch. When you do anything other than deep fry, the judges say “I don’t think this quite came together.” That’s Food Network code for “It tastes like someone went to the bathroom in my mouth.” Hearts of palm? Deep fry. Hallumi cheese? Deep fry. Sugar-Free Lime Jello? D to the F. Of course, I can’t deep fry at all because I’m pretty sure I would set the cat on fire, but still, it’s nice to know the option is there.
2. Add Bacon to Everything: This will hardly shock the internet, as I believe you are legally required to include the word “bacon” in one of every three online articles, but bacon is delicious. Add it to any meal for instant improvement.
3. Tragedy Makes Food Taste Better: Every time a blind, deaf, or otherwise disabled person cooks on Chopped, they clean up. And why shouldn’t they? I suck at cooking normally, imagine how bad I’d be if someone turned off the lights? Same with someone who came to the US under heroic circumstances, feeds the homeless, or cries during the episode. And honestly, these people deserve a break. Their lives are harder than ours, so how about a Chopped championship to even the score? Now, how can you and I use this to our advantage? Easy. Fake injuries. I’m cooking dinner for my girlfriend this weekend, and I’m planning on acquiring an ankle sprain, a broken thumb, and maybe Lupus if it will yield sympathy points.
4. Just Make Normal Friggin’ Ice Cream: Just because you have a crummy ingredient, that doesn’t mean surrounding it with ice creamy goodness will fix the situation. Nobody wants your triple basil asparagus ice cream on Chopped, and no one wants it in real life either. Acceptable ice cream ingredients include caramel, chocolate, mint, peanut butter, and, oh alright, a bit of fruit. (FYI, Lemon Starburst counts as fruit.)
5. Don’t Ever Cook With an Iron Chef in the Room: The Chopped judges are the worst. Watching you, evaluating your every move, shaking their head with disgust. One extra drop of soy sauce Geoffrey Zakarian is all over your ass. I saw Alex Guarnaschelli sigh when a guy used the wrong frying pan! I didn’t even know there was such a thing as the wrong frying pan! Who needs that kind of pressure? Screw food judges. If you want to impress your diners then find diners with low standards. Or no standards whatsoever. Cook meals for animals. Or babies. Or someone recently released from captivity. When Tom Hanks comes back from the island in Cast Away, that’s the time to make him dinner.
6. Got a Mess On Your Hands? Just Call It a Ragu: Ragu, it turns out, is code word for “Weird Soupy Mess That Might Be Garbage.” When chefs on Chopped screw up royally, they tend to throw a toasted crostini on top of the disaster and declare it a ragu, even though it looks more like roadkill. My girlfriend has been forced to eat a lot of ragu recently, and thanks to Chopped, perhaps one day, yours will too. It tastes bad, but it sounds Italian. Isn’t that all we’re really looking for?
So thank you Chopped, and thank you, television. For setting the bar so high and so low, all at the same time.