Monday, November 2, 2009

Capsule Review Cavalcade: Food Network

This collection of mini reviews covers some of the shows on Food Network. And not one focuses on overhead shots of cooktops with people talking about recipes.

Chopped; Food Network
Four chefs meet in the Food Network kitchens, competing to cook the best three-course meal. The first round is appetizers, where each chef gets 20 minutes to incorporate the same three ingredients into their dish. A panel of three judges from the food industry taste the dishes, and "chop" the worst chef from the competition. The second round pits the remaining three chefs' entrees against each other, now with a 30 minute time limit and four ingredients. One more "chopping" later, and it's down to dessert, again with half an hour and four items to include. After the last dish, the judges consider the entire three courses by each remaining chef, and award one the $10,000 top prize.

"Iron Chef" has a built-in appeal in seeing what the secret ingredient is and how it will be incorporated into a meal. "Chopped" has this to the nth degree, with three rounds, and multiple ingredients. Read on paper, you might assume the chefs have to combine strawberries and a side of beef into their entree. In reality, the items in the baskets are often much more esoteric, and 99% of the time include things that don't sound like they go together. From host Ted Allen to the contestants themselves, this show is wall-to-wall food experts
. Just by watching, I feel like I know more about food and cooking. Because of the high caliber of participants, the hour is always exciting, fun to watch, and rife with opportunities to backseat cook or judge. ****¾

Dinner: Impossible; Food Network
Chef Robert Irvine goes across the country taking assignments for "impossible" catering. Event planners enlist Robert to cook for many people in a short amount of time, usually with extenuating circumstances that make the mission even harder. From having no kitchen, to having a theme around which to cook the dishes, things never get any easier for Mr. Irvine.

Robert's a hard person for me to pin down. On the one hand, he's a pill to watch because he has male PMS, and his voiceovers are filled with melodrama. But I can't deny that it's still compelling, even if I'm watching to goof on him. Or watching to see him emasculate his talented sous chefs.
***½ The one season with Iron Chef Michael Symon was perhaps a bit more enjoyable because he was easier to root for.

Ace of Cakes; Food Network
"Ace of Cakes" follows the exploits of Duff Goldman and his band of bakers at Charm City Cakes in Baltimore. Each week, Duff and the gang cook up crazy confections that defy most people's idea of a cake. Their unique style and attention to detail get them many clients, from weddings to corporate anniversary parties to red carpet movie premieres.

It's easy to see why cakes became such big business for Food Network after this show. Watching these amazing and/or huge structures made with cake take form is oddly fascinating. The assignments Charm City gets remain widely varied and interesting, just like the show - which has now taken trips across the country for special occasions on episodes that rival "Dinner: Impossible." And to top it off, Duff's crew are all pretty fun people who are easy to watch. As mentioned in another post, rival show "Cake Boss" suffers because it lacks focus, and its characters are abrasive. "Ace of Cakes" succeeds because it sticks with the baking, and the decorators are nice people. ****

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