A Fitting Finale to Chopped All-Stars

Kudos and garlands of gratitude should be scattered around to all responsible for the surprisingly dramatic and heart-tugging bit of programming improbably known as the Chopped All-Stars series. Begun several weeks ago with individual competitions featuring representatives of various Food Network subcultures -- such as stars Robert Irvine and Anne Burrell, judges Aaron Sanchez and Geoffrey Zakarian and Nate Appleman, a former contestant on a previous Next Iron Chef show -- the five-week-old event managed to combine cooking pyrotechnics, tears, emergency room-worthy on-set injuries and a climactic visit by a family member, and do it all in the name of donating $50,000 to charity.

And it managed to produce a surprise winner whom I won't divulge simply because through the power of TiVo, someone still might not have caught the dramatic photo finish. What this Chopped All-Star broadcast succeeded in most was showing that even the most seasoned of kitchen chefs, even ones with plenty of culinary mileage on their aprons, can wilt under the pressure of the unforgiving Chopped clock.

When you have to come up with an inspiring appetizer course involving such wackily incongruous ingredients as rabbit kidneys and salt-and-vinegar potato chips and you only have 20 minutes to make lemonade from those lemons...well, I lost track of how much flop sweat was flowing down the concerned brows of the normally unflappable Burrell and that mucho-macho kitchen meister Sanchez.

Reality shows speak in their own language, forecasting the impending doom or Phoenix-like elevation of each contestant -- and Chopped All-Stars is no exception. But at this level of high cooking expertise, the defeat can come over the most minor of miscues. In these finals, Michael Proietti, a refugee from the remainder pile of Next Food Network Star competitors, never quite turned out a proper aioli to go with his otherwise exemplary rabbit kidneys and baby beet salad. Such false aioli advertising, however unintended, was enough for the faux-hawked Proietti to get the boot.

And for as much as I enjoy watching Burrell on her Secrets of a Restaurant Chef program, with all that cooing kookiness coming through, I sensed a bit of an arrogant kitchen bully seeping out from her frosted helmet of hair. So for her to be bounced after an entrée round in which she inundated her otherwise perfectly butchered goat leg (yes, you heard me, a goat leg!) and pattypan squash with more tomato paste than can be found in most Neapolitan villages, well I for one was not mourning the mighty Burrell's sulking exit.

Which meant that viewers were left with not only two of the contest's most serious yet relatively modest competitors in Sanchez and Appleman, but also two cooks most committed to a very individual style of cooking. For Sanchez, Chopped All-Stars was a needed platform for this veteran chef to show the wonders of sophisticated Latino cooking. And the result was a palate epiphany for judgmental judge Marcus Samuelsson when he pronounced Sanchez's appetizer taco as providing the single best bite of food for the entire night.

Meanwhile, understated, laser-focused Appleman just kept on plugging away -- but with the clear difference that he was going to push his own personal creative envelope and not wilt under the moment's pressure. What that really translated to was concrete action as Appleman was the only chef to sprint for the meat grinder to break down all that sinewy goat meat. And he tackled that recalcitrant piece of goat while also steadily ladling stock into a zesty risotto. And then Appleman headed right for the ice cream machine for the dessert round -- not exactly the logical vehicle for such ingredients as sesame candies, ruby red grapefruit, chayotes and chick peas. Of course, Appleman immediately thought sorbet upon seeing those four zany products. Wouldn't you?

I won't say who won between Sanchez and Appleman, but suffice it to say that when the winner's son ran onto the set and leaped into the arms of his father, suddenly this entire exercise known as cooking was put into proper perspective: It remains, at the end of the day, a most flavorful means to the end of giving love.

(New episodes of Chopped tend to air on Food Network, Sunday evenings at 8 p.m.)

Follow City of Ate on Twitter: @cityofate.