TV Preview: "The Chopping Block" Debuts on NBC

Contestants put their skills -- and egos -- on "The Chopping Block," NBC's new cooking reality show debuting tonight.
Contestants put their skills -- and egos -- on "The Chopping Block," NBC's new cooking reality show debuting tonight. (By Virginia Sherwood -- Nbc Universal)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Oh, for those days of innocence when cooking was not a spectator sport, chefs stayed in the kitchen and cameras barged into restaurants only to record coffee commercials. Remember those fiends who used to lurk about, secretly replacing restaurant coffee with Folgers Crystals? That was just sick.

Now, sadly, reality television has turned certain chefs into celebrities on a par with certain basketball or football coaches -- "professionals" with whom they share such unenviable habits as screaming, sweating and humiliating. They go ape about limp arugula or so-so couscous, cameras zoom in on eyes puffy with tears and everybody becomes hysterical trying to top one another's suffering succotash.

If there's anything TV doesn't need, it's another one of those shows, and NBC, granter of wishes never wished, springs forth tonight with just that: "The Chopping Block," a maddeningly empty hour in which hapless schmoes endure insults and temper tantrums from a pompous clod. It's enough, as the British say, to put you off your food.

The "celebrated chef and restaurateur" (NBC's description) at the center of this latest whirligig is "the controversial and unpredictable" Marco Pierre White, a bloated and gloating bully who nibbles at dishes and either mildly praises or wildly assails those who threw them together (White was mentor to Fox's shrieking chef Gordon Ramsay, and both are alumni of the U.K.'s "Hell's Kitchen" show). Contestant-couples are divided into a "red" team and a "black" team, each of which operates a temporary contemporary restaurant in Manhattan and competes for a $250,000 check.

As is now part of the template for these shows, a pair of competitors will be sent packing at the end of most episodes -- in this case because their sauces weren't sufficiently saucy or their shiitake mushrooms were too, um, shiitakey. One refreshing occurrence on tonight's premiere: A couple who race madly through the competition -- opening a restaurant and serving meals on about 24 hours' notice -- decide on their own that this idiocy is just too degrading and that Chef Blowhard can take his check and chuck it.

In reality TV, this might be the season not so much of change as change-of-mind, as with "The Bachelor's" already immortal "Oops, I'm engaged to the wrong girl." But the two feisty "Chopping Block" contestants who opt out tonight emerge as genuine heroes. One wonders what the producers would do if all the competitors came to the same decision and left Chef Petty-puss bellowing to himself.

The contestants, incidentally, must not only contend with the chef's nasty noshing but also submit to judgments from a snooty old restaurant critic who declares, "I have a moral duty to make the right decision." He's like the chef in that he insists on attaching great importance to something that is essentially of no importance whatsoever. He also leans toward extremes; having slathered lemon butter on a fish dish and then taking a bite, he exults, "was like walking into the Emerald City."

In addition to watching the contestants scramble about -- whining in the wine sauce, sobbing in the soup -- viewers will witness "the unseen pitfalls and behind-the-scenes madness that goes into opening a restaurant." What, again? Haven't two or three other reality shows already exposed this fascinating tripe? How much does the average, above-average or below-average viewer really need or want to know about pitfalls and madness in restaurant kitchens -- especially when increasing numbers of economically battered consumers can't afford to go out for a decent dinner in the first place?

Maybe someone should do a reality show about the life of a drive-through manager at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Things must get pretty hairy when they run out of extra-crispy and an angry customer is leaning on the horn -- or maybe even dialing 911 -- to complain. How about the mad panic at McDonald's when a nine-piece McNuggets box turns out to have only eight pieces? There's a crisis that makes limp arugula look like -- well, like limp romaine.

Time was when many if not most Americans could name without strain the most famous symphonic conductor in the land. Leopold Stokowski was a huge celebrity; so, later, was Leonard Bernstein. But there's been a tremendous, disheartening decline in the status of our cultural icons. Now people are far more inclined to recognize and lionize some culinary kook known for the decibel level of his hissy fits.

Just cook the darn chicken and put it on the plate, will you please? And no more of these ridiculously unnecessary and irrelevant shows about hotheaded chefs and coldhearted cooks. Why, you may ask, would someone waste his time not merely watching such programs but also opining on whether they're merely worthless or genuinely harmful? I can't speak for others, but as for me, I have a moral duty to make the right decision.

The Chopping Block (one hour) debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 4.

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