Top Chef Masters is surprisingly delicious, Next Food Network Star is very satisfying, and Chopped is just filler

Usually, copycat shows tend to suck, but two food competitions on cable networks have done an excellent job of taking Top Chef‘s format to new levels, starting with a spin-off of that show, while an older food competition series has gotten even better with time.

When Top Chef Masters was announced, I was extremely skeptical: A new host and judges? One-off episodes? But the show is masterful in the way it uses all of the original series best elements and puts them into a package that in some ways is better than the original.

In each of the first six episodes, four master chefs competed in a quickfire challenge–recycled from a previous episode, which seems lazy but works well–and an elimination challenge, and so they’re subjected to the same absurd constraints that the unknown chefs are. Now, the six winners will move on to a sort of mini-season, facing elimination each week until one wins money for charity. (The first six episodes repeat Wednesday starting at 4 p.m. ET, while the last three will be rebroadcast Saturday at 7.)

Because it’s a competition between extremely well-regarded and well-known chefs, there is no immature drama–well, there was one exception, Ludo Lefebvre, who was obnoxious. Instead, although they’re subjected to the same insane pressures and crazy challenges, the master chefs have great fun while respecting each other and each other’s work. “The word sabotage and professional chef does not exist,” Jonathan Waxman said during Wednesday’s episode when he had to select ingredients for another chef.

While the show lacks interpersonal drama, it’s replaced by raw competition between chefs who respect each other, and that’s so much more satisfying. Their camaraderie within the competition is just awesome, as is the way they gain new respect for the normal show’s contestants, many of whom have been judged by the masters. It’s the most unexpectedly feel-good show ever, and it’s nowhere close to cheesy.

Besides the chefs’ interaction, there’s a lot that I like better than the regular version, from having a creatively chosen group of people judge the quickfire (from kids to Whole Foods employees) to the way the editing can focus on the food, since there are just four chefs. The scoring method is the best change from the original: Each chef receives a total score that’s a combination of averaged scores (from diners) and individual scores (from each judges). That’s so much better than the less transparent way chefs are usually judged, and gives us an understanding of what each judge thought of a particular dish.

All that said, it’s not perfect. Kelly Choi pretty much sucks as a host (it seems like most of her lines are dubbed in later), but at least she doesn’t quite suck the energy out of the episode like Katie Lee Joel did in season one. Her lame hosting is forgivable, though, because she’s barely in each episode and also because it makes us appreciate Padma even more. Likewise, the judges/critics, while competent as reality show judges, aren’t Gail Simmons or Tom Colicchio. And actually, Gail and Tom’s appearance in recent episodes was slightly unsettling because it was like they showed up while the kids were playing with mom and dad’s show. But they’ll be back soon enough, and I hope Bravo brings this version back at least annually.

Speaking of Top Chef‘s judges, judge Ted Allen left the show for his own series on Food Network, so it’s tragic that he’s the weakest part of that show, Chopped, which is now in its second season. Overall, Chopped is a good food competition, but it’s not great, nor is it ever must-watch TV.

The format is simple: Chefs have to create a dish in 30 minutes with a basket of mystery ingredients, which usually include one packaged food (like creamed corn) and one random ingredient (like chocolate). It’s interesting, but still basically the most basic, most unimaginative Top Chef quickfire challenge repeated three times an episode. After each round (appetizer, entree, dessert), one chef is eliminated–or, as the show calls it, chopped. The time crunch creates drama, because they often barely finish, and incorporating the weird ingredient often creates problems.

There’s a strong focus on food, and the rotating panel of judges eat and offer articulate criticism and praise to the chef’s faces, which is a nice twist. But there’s nothing to keep you coming back. The one consistent personality, Ted Allen, is annoyingly underused; he was a great judge on Top Chef, but here he basically repeats the same lines every episode. I can’t understand why he isn’t a judge and host, like Padma, offering his feedback on the food, too. He doesn’t even taste it. While he’s started to talk to the chefs, he’s totally flat and contributes to the way the show seems to lack something.

Besides that, the most frustrating part is that Chopped is one of those damn annoying shows–like many on Food Network and HGTV, and too many shows on other networks like History–that is filmed in standard definition but gets stretched to 16:9 on the HD channel, which seriously makes me want to punch my HD TV and send the bill to whoever decided to try to fake me out and ended up ruining my viewing experience by making everyone oddly wide. Whoever is doing this: you suck.

The second-most frustrating part is that some of the chef competitors are sometimes interesting, and I want to see them for more than an hour. Focusing on the food instead of unnecessary drama is great, but introducing us to people and then dumping them at the end of 44 minutes is kind of tragic. It’d be great to have the winners return for a future episode or competition, a la Top Chef Masters, and that might give the show a bit more of an edge, which it could definitely use.

Finally, Food Network is currently airing the fourth season of its answer to Bravo’s food competition. The Next Food Network Star actually debuted a year before Top Chef, but really only evolved into a comparable show in its third season.

The series got even better last year with the permanent addition of Bobby Flay to the judges’ panel, who’s back this year along with Food Network executives Susie Fogelson and Bob Tuschman. They’re pretty fantastic judges, especially the way they articulate what attributes a Food Network personality needs to have to attract viewers; of course, viewers are listening to them say that, so on some level, it’s like they’re revealing their secrets.

They put the chefs through challenges that are both interesting to watch and seem to simulate what they’d do on television, even if the contestants get no time to do it. There’s also the added social component of the contestants interacting together, and so far this season, there’s been lots of drama, from Eddie using a Paula Deen recipe (shocking!) to lots of finger-pointing and back-stabbing. But there are also likable contestants, and great moments, like when Bobby Flay pointed out how Debbie always says “I’m Korean” without connecting anything to that.

While it’s a really fun show, it sometimes wavers between a great show and an excellent one, hence the grade below. In addition, it’s yet to actually create a break-out star for Food Network besides Guy Fieri, and one winner even rejected the idea of continuing her show. Thus, it has a bit of a credibility problem, although it’s not like the inability to produce a supermodel affected America’s Next Top Model, a show that I would love to see Susie Fogelson and Bob Tuschman guest judge.

Top Chef Masters: A-
Next Food Network Star: A-/B+
Chopped: C+

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