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Not Enough Heat in This Kitchen: An Advance Review of NBC's "Chopping Block"

I'm a huge fan of culinary competition series like BBC America's superlative Last Restaurant Standing and Bravo's sleek Top Chef, so I thought I'd fall under the loopy charms of NBC's newest culinary offering, Chopping Block.

How wrong I was.

Chopping Block, which launches tomorrow evening, seems to be a rather tasteless amalgam of Last Restaurant Standing and FOX's Hell's Kitchen (hardly a surprise as host Marco Pierre White replaced Gordon Ramsay on the original UK edition of Hell's Kitchen) the result of which left me starving for something more substantial.

The premise is this: Eight couples are split into two teams and given their own restaurants to run in New York City while enfant terrible chef Marco Pierre White, who previously trained such culinary notables as Mario Batali and Gordon Ramsay, tasks the competitors with various challenges--from cooking a signature dish to changing the restaurant's decor--and offers his thoughts about the proceedings while twirling about in a chair and wearing a suit with checkered Vans. The winner gets $250,000 to put towards opening their own restaurant. (Which is a pretty generous prize, given that the talented winners of Bravo's Top Chef only get $100,000.)

Unlike Last Restaurant Standing, which gives each of its couples their very own restaurant to run, Chopping Block crams them into one restaurant, likely in an effort to increase the tension and drama by forcing these strangers to work side by side. However, also unlike Last Restaurant Standing, this series seems to focus all of its energies on the half of the couple who is cooking in the kitchen. There's no weight placed on front-of-the-house or seeing if the other half of the couple can actually run the restaurant and act as a suitable host; instead, they're reduced to the role of server. Which isn't actually very fun to watch.

Additionally, there's very little means with which to connect with the couples themselves, who remain mostly ciphers and reality show standbys from central casting: there's the hyper-aggressive know-it-all mother, the overly cocky young gun, take-charge guy with no real skills, uptight cousins, etc. Oddly, we're given a clip package of some of the teams in the first episode to flesh out their backstories, but not all. (We're treated to maybe three of these segments, including one in which a contestant reveals that she lost her fingers in a food processor accident.) Which leaves the majority of the teams somewhat unknowable. In fact, off the top of my head, I can only remember brothers Zan and Than's names... but only because they're the sort of odd monikers that only reality TV contestants seem to have these days.

Chopping Block itself seems to be overly formatted and there's a weird combination of rigidness and looseness to the way that the episodes play out. Challenges are won by the opinion, not of Marco Pierre White, but by a "mystery" food critic--different each week--who turn up at the restaurant for dinner service. White, meanwhile, seems to play the role of narrator, speaking eloquently about cooking and being a restaurateur from some unknown location, yet when he interacts with the teams he is stiff and awkward at times.

I'm not sure if these segments are meant to evoke Donald Trump's words of advice in The Apprentice or were filmed to give some semblance of cohesive tissue with the rest of the footage. Still, White is at least quirkily interesting; it's clear that he's passionate about food but these segments are where his zest comes through, rather than in the rest of the series, where he seems to haunt the proceedings like a stringy-haired and irate British ghoul.

There are some odd choices made with the series' format. In the first episode, the teams are given roughly 48 hours to open their restaurants and White challenges the chefs to compete head-to-head to see who will be the head chef... but in the second episode, they seem to choose their own head chef. They're forced to throw together their restaurants before opening... but then compete in the second episode for money for a makeover. (Wouldn't the teams have been better served by decorating the restaurant before opening rather than in the second episode?) And the zoom effect on the restaurant's menus while the chefs discuss their dishes? It's dizzying in a lose-your-lunch sort of way.

The Fringe-style three-dimensional chyrons are a nice touch, however, and stand out as somewhat innovative in a series that borrows far too liberally from other well-known formats. But, ultimately, Chopping Block is the television equivalent of junk food, rather than the sort of delicious and soulful meal White himself might serve in one of his own high-end restaurants. I'll pass on seconds, thank you very much.

Chopping Block premieres tomorrow night at 8 pm ET/PT on NBC.


Anonymous said…
Wow. This totally sounds like a ripoff of Last Restaurant Standing but with none of the heart and soul. I'm a big fan of food-based reality TV (I love Top Chef and Last Restaurant) but hate it when it becomes less about the food and more about stunt casting (ahem, Hell's Kitchen). I think I'll pass on this one!
Unknown said…
I bailed on Hell's Kitchen because of the unnecessary melodrama, but really enjoy the F-Word.

With each new cooking challenge show, the serious foodie talent pool is watered down to a lukewarm broth.

Thanks for giving us the head-up.

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