Chopped All-Stars: Judgment Day for Judges

The latest round of the surprisingly engaging and even moving Chopped All-Stars contest couldn't have come fast enough for me, for it involved the table finally turning on four of the series' normally imperious judges. For once, Maneet Chauhan, Geoffrey Zakarian, Amanda Freitag and Aaron Sanchez -- all much-decorated and lauded chefs -- would have to face the steely, discerning gaze of their peers.

What elevates these Chopped All-Star challenges is how much emotion and even a touch of human drama emerges. In this last judging-judges episode, you saw a bit of everything from high fives to trash talking, teasing, bowed-head humility and even tears shed by contestants and judges alike. With its mix of bravado, faux-preening, and, ultimately, deflating elimination for three of the four final combatants, this particular All-Star episode was more charged than the others with a W.W.F.-meets-Iron Chef atmosphere.

This week's segment drove home more than any of the others just how tightly knit the fraternity (and sorority) of chef-judges are involved in the Chopped family. Even more revealing is the challenge within the challenge faced by the judges -- in this episode, the tear-prone Alex Guarnaschelli, Marc Murphy and the often grim Chris Santos must make brutal elimination decisions of their peers.

These All-Star broadcasts, with the first three rounds having involved members of the Food Network extended family of show hosts and previous contestants on various reality shows, have been wisely set up to throw down the culinary gauntlet to these highly trained chefs.

So half the fun is seeing how self-proclaimed Indian fusion goddess, Maneet Chauhan (of Vermilion restaurant) copes with the carp-like smoked chub and powdered strawberry milk for the appetizer round. Here's a clue: Not well. Or how Geoffrey Zakarian, the show's éminence grise and force behind New York's much-praised The Lambs Club, incorporates taralli, an Italian pretzel, with his duck main course. Or how Aaron Sanchez (Centrico) works in smoky Chinese bacon with his ambitious lemonade-flavored soufflé desserts and, more crucially, how he unmolds the delicate desserts from an uncooperative muffin Silpat container. And, finally, there is the delight in watching the perpetually sunny Amanda Freitag (formerly of The Harrison in New York) put her game face on as she wrestles with executing a duck confit in much less than the desired two hours while also figuring out what in the name of Paul Bocuse she will do with the fermented soy product known as natto.

The juxtaposition of the prerecorded segments in which the chefs warn themselves of the pitfalls of not removing all the bones from the fish with some of them committing that very same cardinal sin makes for wonderful humanizing television. Talk about comeuppance: The judges will finally be chastised for the same crime they've often accused other contestants of.

This particular Chopped All-Stars segment packed some unexpected emotion as Sanchez, having reached the final round, began to sob as he talked about how his mother, hardly blessed with much money, was the one most responsible for instilling his doggedly individualist style in the kitchen.

Almost as poignant was the playfully combative yet ultimately bromantic relationship that emerged between Zakarian and Sanchez. Despite early Sanchez salvos of "old man" directed at Zakarian and remarks about how much Sanchez needs to "fear" Zakarian (coming from the veteran New York chef himself) sure enough, by the end of the contest, Zakarian was offering Sanchez his special confectioner's sugar strainer, and they were each quaffing a final shot to celebrate their gladiatorial experience. It was clear that both chefs were intimately aware of how much they had in common (Zakarian's humble Armenian-Polish roots matching Sanchez's equally modest Mexican-American origins) and how that fed their mutual respect.

I won't give away who won this round, since the ultimate contest between the four finalists is on for this Sunday, but when the judgment was rendered, there were equal amounts of tears and applause and hugs to go around. The judges, for the first time on a Chopped broadcast, looked genuinely relieved that their excruciatingly difficult task of appraising the superb craft of their peers was, at last, over.

(Chopped All-Stars Tournament Grand Finale airs Sunday, April 3 at 8 p.m. on the Food Network.)

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Andrew Marton