Chopped All-Stars: A Cut Above the Rest

I've watched enough of the regular episodes of Food Network's Chopped to see through its paint-by-numbers plotting. Within the first couple of minutes of an average episode, I can all but predict which aspiring chef, caterer or cooking instructor, wrestling with that mystery basket of ingredients to fashion an appetizer, main dish and dessert -- in a mercilessly short amount of time -- will get the axe. I've also seen enough of the show's host, Ted Allen, to wonder quite legitimately: How is this incredibly vanilla presence still thriving at Food Network?

But this iteration of Chopped -- its All-Star series -- actually packs some surprises and has perked me up.

Its premise is inherently more stimulating: four sets of four different chefs -- four returning Chopped champions, four Food Network stars, four prestigious chefs, and four familiar Chopped judges -- compete against each other in the preliminary rounds before the final four sweat off in an hour-long ultimate smack-down. Raising the interest ante on the show even more is its laudable, philanthropic goal: a $50,000 donation to the winner's favorite charity.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves. For right now, we're in the middle of the Chopped All-Stars trenches, sorting out who the final four competitors will be. Easily the most enthralling battle of the first two stanzas was this week's contest pitting four of Food Network's most distinct (read: those possessing some of cooking television's most pungent of personalities) "stars" against each other.

In one corner, there is Robert Irvine (host of Worst Cooks in America) and possessor of arms as broad as a Christmas ham. And then there is Anne "I cooked for Mario Batali so there" Burrell, also the co-host of Worst Cooks in America; the perky, molasses-and-gravel voiced Claire "in it to win it" Robinson; and Baltimore's gift to all things sweet and cakey, Duff Goldman.

Ratcheting up the interest even more is that these chefs are bringing their A-game to three of the most discerning judges this side of Top Chef: Alex Guarnaschelli, Marc Murphy and Marcus Samuelsson.

With all due respect to the relatively amateurish competitors who Chopped regularly showcases throughout the year, but they would probably have staged a collective revolt once they took a look at the wacky ingredients -- from teething biscuits to canned haggis -- the celebrity-chef quartet had to cope with in the appetizer round. And yet, kudos to all four for not fainting at the sight of the dog food-textured sheep innards, but actually converting it into something quite edible and, in Burrell's case, a brilliant riff on street food.

If it was predictable that the chef-personalities with the least amount of legitimate kitchen firing line experience, Goldman and Robinson, would be the first two to be eliminated, they were dismissed for totally legitimate reasons. In Goldman's case, it was because of a noticeably uneven searing on the haggis, in addition to its being paired with a gratuitous balsamic reduction. Robinson's doe-eyed good looks couldn't save her when it came time to giving all three judges a full plate of food. In the Chopped universe, Robinson received the capital punishment for not giving all the judges a complete plate.

The dessert round was positively dazzling as it showcased the underappreciated combination of spontaneous creativity and a high-wire athleticism that a professional chef must bring to every course. Working with ingredients as disparate as lady fingers, fennel and almond paste, Burrell and Irvine fashioned desserts of startling complexity and subtly.

In terms of variety of technique, Chopped truly did single out the contest's two most adept chefs, as Burrell sprinted towards the ice cream maker at the last minute, while Irvine toasted lady fingers at the same time he stirred bitter-sweet chocolate over a double boiler for what would be his sublimely custardy pot de crème. At that point, Irvine was a spread-eagled chef on a mission to win.

For all of Burrell's off-putting trash-talking and Irvine's cultivated reputation for Gordon Ramsay-like bluster, there was something endearing about how much sweat and thought they expended for this televised grudge match. Type-A, highly competitive personalities all the way, the bluff Irvine and the indomitable Burrell damned every torpedo possible in the service of putting out the best plate of food to satisfy some of the most persnickety palates this side of the court of Louis XIV.

After taking in the exhilarating level of skill and moxie evinced by these professional chefs, the real "challenge" facing Chopped will be when it returns to showing us mere kitchen mortals competing.

(Round Three of Chopped All-Stars airs 8 p.m. Sunday, March 20, on the Food Network)

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Andrew Marton