I found myself caught in a marathon of Chopped, a cooking reality show. As a writer, reality shows are anathema. I want a carefully crafted story and dialog that zings. Chopped appeals to me because I’ve found myself in situations similar to the chefs who compete for the $10,000 prize money.
Chopped puts experienced chefs through their paces by forcing them to create appetizers, entrees and desserts from crazy mystery ingredients. They race against the clock to put the food on the table. As a woman who has at different times in her life (1) been single and on a very limited budget; (2) been too busy with toddlers to take the time to shop; and now (3) caught up in long work/commute hours — I often find myself facing a hodgepodge of ingredients that somehow need to turn into a meal.
When life gives you lemons — make lemonade. Right? The chefs are faced with things like rattlesnake, miniature coconuts, animal crackers, rack of elk, cactus, astronaut ice cream, lamb testicles, Chinese spinach, cherry soda. Watching an executive chef from a top Boston or New York restaurant trying to blend pretzels into a fish appetizer is a bit like facing a fridge that holds deli ham, cocktail sauce and a stale English muffin. I usually have an emergency bottle of champagne tucked in the back. That can smooth the edges of any meal.
These chefs bring attitude. They are owners, executive chefs, entrepreneurs. Some are divas and some diamonds in the rough. They face a panel of still-more accomplished chefs. The judges evaluate the odd concoctions for flavor and creativity. It might be my bias, but I always cheer for the ones who set aside their bravado and put their heads down and just work their tails off. Drama rises, fingers often get sliced, hearts broken in defeat. Occasionally episodes end in tears, from the contestants or judges or both.
I think I learned the chopped way from my mother (along with a lot of other things). A family favorite was homemade pizza but we would find the cabinets empty of things like pepperoni and mozzarella. There was a memorably bad version topped with tomato soup and hot dog slices. Not something that was ever repeated, but it got the job done. When she first heard about tacos, long before Mexican food was rampant, she grabbed some corn meal and was grilling tortillas in no time. The competing chefs have the option of pulling other ingredients from a well-stocked pantry. My mother did not have that luxury. She ran on pure ingenuity and determination.
Making something from nothings brings me a sense of pride. Clearly, I’m not alone–and I like the company. And that $10,000?