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  • A Winning Recipe

  • Ask 100 people what they consider the best show on television and you'd get 100 different answers.
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  • Ask 100 people what they consider the best show on television and you'd get 100 different answers.
    Probably more.
    But honestly, who has time to do that? You don't, especially if you're wasting precious moments reading this instead of chasing strangers down the sidewalk, only to have them give you answers such as "The Wire" (which isn't even on anymore) or "Don't Trust The B In Apt. 23" (which should be canceled on general principle just for its previews alone).
    And I sure as heck don't have time to survey 100 random people — nevermind getting them to look up from their tablets long enough — particularly about a question for which I already know the answer.
    The best show on television combines comedy, drama, mystery, suspense and an appeal to our senses. It comes to a solution at the end of each hour, passes judgment on its protagonists, and leaves the humble viewer wondering what we would have done under similar constraints of time, stress and materials.
    And if that's not enough, it's got the coolest red-numbered countdown clock since "24" hit 00:00 for the final time.
    For reasons general and specific, "Chopped" is the best show on televsion. Not just the best competition series, or the best food series. "Chopped" reigns supreme because it is ingeniously simple, yet compelling enough to draw in those who don't know a sous chef from a saucier.
    "Chopped," which usually airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on the Food Network, is moving to prime television real estate (9 p.m., Sundays) for the next five weeks for the second installment of its "All-Stars" competition. (Correction: The time of show on Sunday has been corrected in this story.)
    No line cooks here: The 16 all-star contestants will be culled from the Food Network's own pantry of celebrity chefs.
    A winner emerges each of the first four weeks — to be pitted against each other in the finale, with prize money going to charity and bragging rights to the "Chopped Champion."
    And, if you've ever seen a cooking competition show, you realize fairly quickly that bragging rights matter to these people more than a proper parsnip puree.
    The rules are deceptively easy. Four contestants, three rounds — appetizer, entree and dessert. Each round contains its own set of mystery ingredients, lovingly (some would say cruelly) gathered in a basket in front of the chefs. All ingredients must be used in some way in that round's dish.
    How difficult can this be? Consider that during the first edition of "Chopped All-Stars," one of the appetizer baskets contained teething biscuits, hot peppers, raspberries and everybody's favorite mystery meat ... canned haggis.
    Go ahead, make four servings of an appetizer — to be judged on taste, presentation and creativity — out of THAT quartet of foodstuffs. And, oh yeah, you have 20 minutes ... and you time starts ... NOW.
    That's just the lure. Because while these trained professionals are frantically grilling and basting and blending and (yes) chopping, you find yourself sitting in front of the TV wondering what you would do. What you could do.
    "Chopped" allows us to see something that's rarely shown on television: We get to see people think, to see inspiration strike, to push themselves to their limits in what feels like real elapsed time.
    We get moments of introspection from the chefs, sure, as their wait in a side kitchen while the judges pick apart their dishes over the smallest details. But we get none of the antics of a berating host ("Hell's Kitchen") or backstabbing melodramic "cheftestants" (the formerly wonderful "Top Chef").
    Ahh, the judges.
    Chefs themslves, they comment as the cooking goes on, seeing mistakes before they happen and occasionally breaking into exhileration or anguish when tasting what reaches the plates under the "Chopped" clock's red glare.
    And then they eat, with the competitors standing 5 feet before them at the "Chopping Block." If you've never thought watching someone else eat could fill you with empathy, and tension, you will find yourself proven wrong.
    None of this would work without host Ted Allen, who combines just the right amount of twisted, dramatic line readings ("Whose dish did not make the cut?") with sympathy for the contestants and (one suspects) a slightly gleeful anticipation of delivering his "We're sorry, you've been chopped" to yet another failed concoction of multi-colored breakfast cereal, pork tenderloin, arugula and peach brandy ... as the meat cleaver protruding from the door frame in the background signals defeat.
    Sunday's "All-Stars" premiere features four of the masters from "Iron Chef America," until recently Food Network's signature series. But "Iron Chef" is getting a little long in the tooth, and in trailers for the episode you get to see these chefs at the top of their profession really working under the pressure of facing each other.
    Go ahead, try "Chopped" on Sunday night. It's an hour out of your weekend that will be well-spent. If you get hooked, and I suspect you will, you'll be back for seconds. If not, feel free to track down another 99 strangers.
    Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin once wrote about television for Tempo. Apparently, he does again. He can be reached at rgalvin@mailtribune.com
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