The Chopping Block [review]

It's taken a couple of days for us to fully digest NBC's new cooking reality show, The Chopping Block — we had the unfortunate displeasure of watching it twice — and here, in a nutshell, is our take: it's a sloppily-executed crudely-edited mess. The whole thing stinks of artifice and deceit. Frankly, we were a little surprised by the positive reactions in print and online.

Yes, we've seen the show's forerunners, the original Australian The Chopping Block and My Restaurant Rules, as well as the BBC's The Restaurant (renamed Last Restaurant Standing on BBC America). Compared to those, this falls unpleasantly flat.

Nothing against Marco Pierre White, an established figure in food (see our writeup of Marco Pierre White) who's certainly mastered the art of harsh (albeit accurate) criticism, but there's one big strike against him: somehow he got in bed with this show. While we can see the appeal to his ego in positioning him as this godlike figure, sitting on his throne, sockless, passing judgment, we don't really see the appeal to us.

Shot during the summer of 2008, this show's been sitting in the can at NBC for a while now. Makes us ask, why? Well, it was probably intended to function as a mid-season replacement (likely for the ill-fated reboot of Knight Rider). Not wanting to tread on Bravo's Top Chef turf — which in turn is also owned by NBC — they held onto it well into March, waiting for the season of Top Chef to finish. After seeing the first episode, we understand why they had their doubts.

The Producers

The show is produced by Granada America, a self-proclaimed "leading producer in the USA," which makes reality gems like Celebrity Fit Club, Nanny 911, and the upcoming Steven Segal: Lawman. In addition, they're responsible for the decidedly down-market American versions of Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares. (So they do have a vested interest in promoting the supposed feud between Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay.)

The Chopping Block is Granada's attempt at a quality, upmarket reality show, something more along the lines of Top Chef or The Amazing Race. But they seem incapable of doing it right, resorting to their trademark devices like the cheeseball music and sound effects that they use in almost all of their reality shows, including, yes, the same exact ones from Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares. You know it when you hear it.

Not New York City

There's absolutely no sense of New York City, The show is so generic and detached from reality — It may as well have been shot in Vancouver. In the spring, in the fall, it doesn't matter. It exists in this vacuum-sealed bubble, edited so heavily, so contrived that it comes off as completely artificial.

In the first challenge, where the contestants have to select food out of trucks provided by advertiser US Foodservice — US Foodservice, by the way, is one of the largest corporate restaurant food distributors, with not the best reputation. This was such a fuck you to New York City and fuck you to food. It's the height of summer, Greenmarkets are at their peak, and they get to cook with industrial ingredients from a national distributor out of a truck? This is no different than watching Top Chef in New York City, running around Whole Foods. It's insulting.

Editing and Sabotage

But what turned us off the most was the repeated deception — the same sort of stunts they pull in Kitchen Nightmares — the sly editing tricks, the attempts to provoke drama and prod the show along — this isn't just filmed reality, this is some kind of abstract television where the rules of space and time are completely ignored and defied, all in the name of "expediency" or "entertainment." The whole time you feel like they're trying to pull a fast one on you. See the following editing sequence:

"The less you put on the plate, the less chance you have of messing it up," intones Marco Pierre White when served a veal chop with greens on the plate. In the sequence of shots though: 1. there are greens on the plate, 2. the greens vanish, 3. then they're back on the plate, and 4. then Marco Pierre White takes the greens off of the plate. Subtle things like this happen over and over, making the whole show questionable in our eyes.

That whole weird sequence when the black team is preparing their tasting for MPW, when the salamander falls off of the wall, then the glass oven door shatters, and then the lights go out? What the hell was that about? It happens, the team recovers, but the incident is never mentioned again. Our theory is that the production company screwed up — their intention was to sabotage the team (and thus create drama) by having the kitchen collapse right in the middle of the dinner service — but it went off too early. Thing is, the salamander falling, the glass breaking, had no impact on the show at all, the food still went out, blah blah — so why even show it? To show that restaurants are crazy places?


We could go on and on: the quota-filling contestants of dubious talent and merit, the fake restaurants that have menus with no prices, the seemingly bad food, the cousins that take themselves out of the game with little or no explanation... it's all so very hard to take seriously.

And they want us to take it seriously. Clearly, Granada has put some effort into this show, to move it away from the histrionics and drama of Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares. The "circus of cruelty" of HK (as Bourdain eloquently put it) is fine for what it is, as it never esteems or supposes to be more than junk food. But The Chopping Block positions itself as something better, more "realistic," but in the end it's almost more painful to watch.

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