I don’t think many people would disagree with this statement: Food Network is easily the go-to channel for peak cooking drama. Three of the most memorable cooking competition shows in recent years have been Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay, and Iron Chef America — all produced by Food Network. Everyone knows what it means to be an Iron Chef, or gets the reference when they hear, “You’ve been chopped.” But of all these Food Network shows, which one is truly the best? Here's my evaluation after a thorough watch of these shows.
I watched these shows with the following criteria in mind:
Entertainment/drama factor: Is the set-up and production of the show entertaining? Does it make me want to watch another episode? How fierce is the competition?
The food: Obviously, the food needs to look good — does the show succeed in giving the audience #foodporn to admire?
Is it educational?: Did I understand how the chefs made their dishes? Did I learn anything new about food or cooking?
The personalities: How likable or engaging are the chefs/hosts/judges? How much do they add to the entertainment/drama factor?
Entertainment/drama factor: I think of Chopped as the single-episode version of shows like Hell’s Kitchen or MasterChef. It gives you wacky challenges, interaction between contestants, and tries to slip in heartwarming stories about its contestants in-between challenges, not unlike those season-long competitions. The bulk of the drama in Chopped comes from trying to build three gourmet dishes using crazy mystery basket ingredients in 20-30 minutes, and it’s highly effective despite the clumsy attempts to put in emotional backstories.
The food: Chopped, out of any of these shows, easily takes the cake in creating the most insane dishes — there’s no other show where you see someone make dessert from beef like in the episode I watched for this article (“Meat Fight," if anyone’s curious). However, with the intense time crunch, we often see chefs forced to make less-than versions of some dishes (I’m looking at you, contestant who tried to make risotto in 20 minutes), which costs the show some points in this department.
Educational?: With Ted Allen hosting, you don’t have to worry about not learning something new.
The personalities: Along with Ted Allen, the judges, usually other Food Network stars like Alex Guarnaschelli, always have good banter and commentary. But the contestants also can be a bit bland (understandably so, when all of their focus is on winning).
Overall: 9/10 — What keeps it from perfection is the unavoidable dip in quality of some dishes due to the tight time constraints.
Beat Bobby Flay:
Entertainment/drama factor: This is probably the least actually competitive of these shows, with a more casual, laid-back vibe. The first-round judges always taunt Bobby Flay and want him to lose, so +1 for that. But I don’t understand why half the episode is dedicated to two chefs competing to face-off against Bobby Flay, making the actual “beating Bobby Flay” part of the show actually quite short. DRAMA FACTOR NOT MAXIMIZED.
The food: The finished dishes look great, but the short amount of time we see Bobby Flay and the contestant actually cooking means we lose a lot of the cooking #foodporn. Everything about this show feels too rushed to actually enjoy each part of it.
Educational?: In terms of learning about Bobby Flay’s culinary style, yes. In terms of food in general? So-so.
The personalities: Whoever casts the show obviously searches for chefs with big personalities who can match-up well against Bobby Flay. The judges all let loose and have no problem heckling Bobby. The strength of the show is its versatility: it’s a good watch whether you love or hate Bobby Flay.
Overall: 6.5/10 —This show has great personalities, but just not enough cooking for, you know, a cooking competition.
Iron Chef America:
Entertainment/drama factor: Iron Chef manages to be dramatic almost in spite of a lack of reliance on a gimmick, unlike the other two shows. Instead, the tension builds over the entire hour as we watch the chefs’ menus come together.
The food: To me, this is the holy grail of #foodporn in a cooking competition show. The entire process of watching the chefs reach their final products is incredible and it’s clear the show allows the viewers to really take in the techniques being used, much more than Chopped or Beat Bobby Flay thanks to almost the entire run-time being devoted to showing the cooking. And of course, the final dishes are always unbelievable.
Educational?: Absolutely. We watch chefs prepare the theme ingredient differently for each of their five courses, and Alton Brown’s commentary and the floor reports combine to give viewers a good understanding of the techniques and ingredients the chefs are using.
Personalities?: Iron Chef shows how much a chef incorporates their personality into the food they’re making. While the chefs are more subdued because of how concentrated they are, Alton Brown and the Chairman provide plenty of comedic relief.
Overall: 10/10 — Iron Chef manages to hit all of the criteria. It shows that a competition without staged drama can be entertaining; it showcases cooking beautifully, and it invites viewers into the world of fine dining with commentary that's both insightful and funny. Allez Cuisine!
Though Chopped and Iron Chef were close, I ultimately declare Iron Chef the winner of this Food Network battle. But this is just my opinion—maybe you like the slow-burn of Iron Chef like me, or you love the chaos of Chopped, or you enjoy the lightheartedness and humor of Beat Bobby Flay. What makes all of these shows great is that they all make you love food a little more, so have fun while watching them!