‘The Chopping Block’

Television Critic

I don’t know whether it’s still the American dream to own a restaurant -- it may now be just to hang on to that horrible job you had hoped to quit soon -- but there are at least 16 people who still dream it, and they are contestants on “The Chopping Block.” Premiering tonight on NBC, this latest in a lengthening line of food-themed reality shows shares a title (and creators) with an Australian food-themed reality show, has much in common with another Australian food-themed reality show (“My Restaurant Rules”) and the BBC food-themed reality show “The Restaurant,” and boasts the same host as the UK version of the food-themed reality show “Hell’s Kitchen,” Marco Pierre White.

“The Chopping Block”: A review of NBC’s new reality series “The Chopping Block” in Wednesday’s Calendar section said that cook-turned-restaurateur Marco Pierre White and his former assistant Mario Batali were feuding and no longer spoke to each other. The two are now good friends, according to a network publicist. —

White, who retired from cooking a decade ago but remains an influential restaurateur, is known among other things as the Man Who Made Gordon Ramsay Cry when Ramsay was working under him in London a couple of decades back. (Ramsay, who preceded White as a host of the British “Hell’s Kitchen” and continues to host the American version, quit White -- ironically, you’d have to say -- because of “the rages and the bullying and violence.” They don’t talk now, nor do White and former assistant Mario Batali, who doesn’t talk to Ramsay either.) In the hierarchy of Michelin-starred abusive English chefs turned TV stars, this feat would seem to give White the edge, but he tends to play himself as the nicer, better-intentioned of the two.

As to the show’s 16 aspiring Marco Pierre Whites, they come in the form of eight couples -- brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, exes, mother and daughter, significant others -- each comprising a cook and a server. The group is divided into two teams, each of which is given a New York City storefront to turn into a restaurant faster than you can say, “Turn this New York City storefront into a restaurant.”

Every episode will end with a dinner service, attended incognito by a restaurant critic -- incognito, that is, if no one recognizes him, which does happen in the second episode -- who will choose a winning team; White will choose a couple from the losing team to eliminate, but not before he invites the losers to throw one another under the bus, in the official reality-show parlance. The last ones standing get $250,000 to “open their own restaurant,” although I suppose they are free to blow it on the horses if they prefer.

It’s tough to see how they’re going to carry on running these restaurants as their ranks thin across the weeks, but the producers no doubt have a plan for that. And the point is, after all, to make it hard, so that crazy things will happen and rude things be said. This is less a show about food than about management and keeping cool under pressure while working alongside people whose opinions and interests ultimately run counter to your own. It’s the broth that too many cooks spoil and the waiters have trouble serving hot.

And so it’s a relief when White drops by the opposing kitchens to demonstrate how much better a chef he is than any of them. (“It’s like he invented food, almost,” says contestant Kelsey Henderson, who is from California and has “cooked for Madonna.”) Their own displays of incompetence, ignorance or poor judgment don’t make him loud and angry so much as quietly, bitterly sad. (He is offended not only on behalf of the customers but of the food itself.)

Slumped regally in a chair, hair unruly, legs crossed at an angle that gives you a good view of his naked ankle, he speaks in aphorisms, severe, paternal, even spiritual, like a sort of culinary Obi-Wan Kenobi -- just imagine him saying “Luke” at the end of these sentences:

“To reach great heights, you have to find great depths within yourself.”

“All complication does is create confusion; confusion creates inconsistency; inconsistency creates failure.”

“When you’re playing with a person’s dreams, you have to be fair.”

There is a kind of baseline entertainment value to all such contests -- we’re a species that will watch turtles race -- and while I’d make no great claims for “The Chopping Block,” it’s watchable enough. Its biggest problem, rooted in the fact that much of it is produced and cut like a trailer for the less frantic show you expect to start any minute, is that it’s difficult to get much of a sense of the contestants -- who they are and where they come from and how good they are at what they do.

A pinch of biography and a dash of human interest (a sainted mother here, children to provide for there, a few fingertips lost in a food processor . . . somewhere) don’t add much. Not for refined palates, then, but filling enough.

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