Tonight at 8 p.m. ET, NBC debuts The Chopping Block, but don’t expect a series much like other network food competitions.
The show, which was first announced a year ago, is based on an Australian series by the same name, although that show had one-off episodes featuring real restaurants, while this is a competition between two teams of four couples each who run two producer-created restaurants in New York City. As a result, it seems more like the BBC’s Last Restaurant Standing or an extended version of Top Chef‘s restaurant wars episode.
While it’s produced by Granada, the company that produces Hell’s Kitchen, and hosted by Marco Pierre White, the chef who mentored Gordon Ramsay and took over as host of the UK’s Hell’s Kitchen from him, White is nothing like Ramsay on screen. He’s sort of a more mild-mannered and more arrogant Tom Colicchio.
There’s some sniping and conflict between team contestants, but White doesn’t scream at the contestants, and while he offers criticism, it’s much softer. When we talked yesterday for a few minutes, he said that’s intentional.
“Why should you have conflict? Why? Why should you belittle people? Why should you shout and scream and swear? I don’t get it. I’m there to inspire people, to give a little insight into my life, and if they can take a little bit of my knowledge, a little bit of my philosophy, and it can help them realize their dream, then fantastic,” he told me. “We’re not trying to be controversial. We’re not trying to manufacture something that’s not real. What you see is real. It’s about trying to put reality into reality TV. Why should it be manufactured?” Later, he said, “Maybe [viewers] want the screaming, the shouting, the swearing. But that’s not my game.”
He was almost confrontational with me about how non-confrontational the show is. “I’m not there to be a star, I’m not there to be a celebrity. I’m there to help these individuals, to share my knowledge. They know I’ve got the toughest job because I have to sit down and sack them,” he said. “Everything I do is about inspiring people to want to eat, to want to cook. It’s about inspiring people to want to come into my profession, my world. It’s about helping somebody to realize their dream.”
He even said, “at the end, it’s a toss of a coin. They all have qualities–every contestant has qualities,” adding, “If I had it my way, I’d turn them all into a winner.” But will all that inspiration and everyone’s-a-winner thing work?
I’ve seen the first two episodes, and it’s watchable, but not yet as compelling as the food competitions that have preceded it. On some level, The Chopping Block kind of seems like a British show, as it’s slower and quieter, with editing and cinematography that’s different–sometimes flashy (on-screen text hovers in the city’s landscape), sometimes corny (White’s interviews have interesting content but are filmed in an over-the-top way). Most annoyingly, the editing ignores events, like when something breaks in one kitchen but is completely ignored after that, or just doesn’t explain what’s going on until after we’ve been watching for a few moments, trying to figure out what’s going on.
Casting couples–each restaurant is run by four couples, with four people in the kitchen and four people in the front of the house–was a good call, as they bring their own issues, and they’re mostly strong characters. Anonymous food critics choose the winning restaurant, and offer pretty compelling critiques, although they aren’t always anonymous, as the second one is recognized immediately.
White, however, eliminates one couple from the losing team. He provides consistency, and his Trump-like, finger-wagging lectures that we see in interviews offer rationale. But without a regular panel of judges defining criteria and using that to make the win/lose decision, the show loses something, even if it gains realism, since actual restaurants are constantly judged by different people.
The big question is whether or not a network food competition needs Gordon Ramsay-ish screaming and Hell’s Kitchen-ish dolts for contestants, or if something a little smarter, a bit more full of itself, and a lot quieter can succeed.