Critic's Review'The Chopping Block' (NBC)Preparing a Fresh Batch of Chefs
By Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times
- March 11, 2009
The restaurant kitchen is the last refuge of bad temper.
Plant managers who berate workers risk harassment charges, professors who grade too harshly face retribution from anonymous student reviews, and haughty magazine editors who bully their assistants are hit with tell-all tales like The Devil Wears Prada. Even movie stars are no longer allowed to be divas, as Christian Bale recently learned.
But when a celebrity chef screams obscenities or throws dishes at an errant sous-chef, his victim meekly replies, Yes, chef. And that atavistic ritual of apprenticeship is one of the great lures of cooking contests like Hell's Kitchen and Top Chef.
Pressure, spats and last-minute team effort are integral to all reality competitions. Haute cuisine also offers the kind of despotic rule and cringing servility that is no longer tolerated even in Marine Corps basic training on Parris Island. Yes, chef is the new Sir, yes sir.
The Chopping Block, a new cooking reality show on NBC, would seem to offer an even more gratifying tableau of kitchen tyranny: the star is Marco Pierre White, the fierce, foulmouthed and most terrible of the enfant-terrible chefs who transformed British restaurant cuisine in the 1990s.
Mr. White, who has his own books, TV shows and restaurants, is as well known in Britain as his former protégé, Gordon Ramsay, host of Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares on Fox. Over here, however, Mr. White is the Chuck Berry of swashbuckling cuisine a pioneer too often eclipsed by the Mick Jaggers of the cooking world like Mr. Ramsay, Mario Batali and even Jamie Oliver.
And to add piquancy, Mr. White and Mr. Ramsay, once allies, are no longer friends.
NBC gives Mr. White a flattering showcase: one of the awe-struck contestants says, It's like he invented food, almost. But The Chopping Block doesn't really invite viewers to compare the cooking techniques and management styles of the two rival chefs.
Mostly, it is a contrast of two networks' differing sensibilities. Hell's Kitchen has all the hallmarks of a Fox reality show back-stabbing contestants, fast-action camera shots and an entertainingly histrionic star.
The NBC competition has a more grandiloquent look and moralizing tone, with the kind of mawkish flashbacks and weepy soliloquies found on The Biggest Loser. And surprisingly, Mr. White does not cook on the show or even shout profanities or call his assistants bozo. Once in a while he enters the kitchen and offers some instruction. (Why not just buy great produce and serve it simply?) Mostly he sits in a leather armchair, wagging a finger as he adjudicates with magisterial poise and stern detachment a more donnish version of Donald Trump on The Apprentice.
Mr. White takes a more stately stance than Mr. Ramsay, but his disapproval, often expressed with a mere tsk, tsk, tsk, is just as crushing. If there was ever a moment that your soul could be pierced by someone's eyes, one contestant says after Mr. White frowns at his scallop dish, that was it.
In some ways the sober, earnest tone of The Chopping Block is better suited to these recessionary times. The two teams of 16 contestants are made up of pairs married couples, siblings, mothers and daughters and they all have hard-luck stories and financial hurdles that lend a virtuous streak to their quests to open restaurants in New York. The contestants on the fifth season of Hell's Kitchen are not nearly as poignant; they smoke and swear incessantly, and the prize is a job as executive chef in the Borgata casino and hotel in Atlantic City.
No cooking competition relies entirely on cooking to keep audiences entertained. Each team on The Chopping Block is assigned to restore an abandoned restaurant. (Location scouting wasn't a challenge given the number of restaurant closings in New York.) On opening night Corby Kummer, food critic for The Atlantic, comes in anonymously. After one of the contestants serving tables suggests a red wine, Mr. Kummer goes Anton Ego on him, noting the waiter's mispronunciation and hissing to his companions, It's claret, not claré. Reality competitions, at least the good ones, like Project Runway and even America's Next Top Model, have a hypnotizing effect there is something compelling about strangers thrown together in a difficult joint purpose: it's jury duty without all the talking.
But cooking shows have a tougher trick to pull off: audiences live through all the tension and tumult of vegetable chopping and sautéing, but never get to sample the results. Unlike viewers who can see the clothes on Project Runway, the audience for The Chopping Block has to take a judge's word on the soufflé.
Not everyone dreams of opening a fusion bistro or perfecting a vol-au-vent, but many feel that they had a tougher time learning their trade than younger, mollycoddled and overly entitled upstarts. And for those, The Chopping Block cuts just right.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/11/ar...ref=television