Reviews of summer food competitions: Rocco’s Dinner Party, Extreme Chef, Chopped, more

Food competitions have multiplied across network and cable channels, and summer seems to be the time when they proliferate. While we wait for the return of Top Chef Just Desserts later this month, I thought I’d look at some new and returning food competition series and give them brief reviews.

Let’s start with Hell’s Kitchen [Fox, Mondays and Tuesdays at 8] . I didn’t write a single word about the show last season because I no longer watch it, because it is the exact same show every single season, which I’ve verified by watching clips or a few seconds as I channel surf. I am amazed that Gordon Ramsay isn’t bored out of his mind. If you have no memory or like watching the exact same, narrated by an over-enunciating narrator, this is a fantastic show to watch.

Following in its footsteps, Masterchef [Fox, Fox, Mondays and Tuesdays at 9] has been basically the same show as last year, but with CGI tricks and very little to capture my interest because its newness was the most interesting thing last year. (I grade them both a P for pass because their work isn’t a complete failure but I can’t evaluate it beyond that.)

On cable, Food Network’s latest competition is Extreme Chef [Food Network, Thursdays at 10]. It is simply Chopped in weird locations, so it’s light and watchable. The series is early in its life so there’s still awkwardness–host Marsh Mokhtari hasn’t found a groove–and some of the challenges fall flat and just seem unnecessary. Overall, the show tries a bit too hard; I’m not sure that text popping up on screen is extreme, it’s just annoying. But the show moves quickly and is entertaining enough.

As to Chopped [Food Network, Tuesdays at 10], it is as consistent as always. I tend to like its special themed episodes or series of episodes best, like when they bring back former contestants. But the formula–making dishes in very limited time out of a basket of mystery ingredients that always includes something totally random–works well and the show sticks close to that.

The best new food competition is Rocco’s Dinner Party [Bravo, Wednesdays at 10]. My first response to this show was that it was a hilarious Chopped knock-off, Bravo’s way of giving the middle finger to Food Network for turning a quickfire challenge into an entire series. The first segment on Rocco’s Dinner Party, on which three chefs make a dish in a short amount of time and get judged standing in front of a table, even goes to commercial with the image of a clock, similar to Chopped‘s interstitial graphics.

But the show does a lot more than that. For one, it’s the perfect vehicle for Rocco DiSpirito, who I find to be arrogant, obnoxious, and grating on the other shows he appears on (reality producers and network executives seem to love him, for some inexplicable reason). But here, his jerkiness is perfect, as he judges chefs to see who’s worthy of his high standards. Those who survive plan an hour-long dinner party, including theming a room with the help of a party planner, which keeps each episode fresh. So, too, do the rotating guests, some celebrities, some Bravo people, and others, and their conversation, which centers around commenting on the food, decor, and service, is fun to eavesdrop on.

The predictable last-minute twists are a little too much –sometimes they’re even blamed on the guests, which is lame–but the combination of conversation between B-list celebrities, cooking, and presentation all make for an engaging hour.

Hell’s Kitchen: P
Masterchef: P
Extreme Chef: B-
Chopped: B
Rocco’s Dinner Party: B+

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