'Chopped All-Stars' recap: 'I'm a MexiCAN'
Once again, this five-part special took us to new heights as it pitted four "Chopped" judges against each other in a charity run for $50,000. There was Amanda Freitag, Maneet Chauhan, Geoffrey Zakarian and Aaron Sanchez standing on what would appear to be the wrong side of the judge's table. And there were tears, so many tears. Alex Guarnaschelli teared up partly out of pride, partly at the thought of judging her compadres and sending three of them home. Sanchez teared up, and had to turn away from the camera to compose himself as he recalled his mother teaching him cooking basics but urging him to put his own imprint on Latin cuisine. Even Freitag appeared to get misty eyed when she was sent packing in the second round, telling the judges: "I'm so sorry you have to do this." Awwwwwwww.
And once again, the cuisine reached new heights as it has in the last three episodes when the pros were on board. (The food in the first week, when the series features former contestant from "The Next Food Network Star" had both its highs and lows.) "Chopped" fans are so accustomed to seeing at least one or more colossal mistakes. Not so with these pros.
From the first round, it was clear that the battle would come down to Sanchez and Zakarian. (No sleight to either Freitag and Chauhan, but those two guys were on fire and in the zone, fueled by a friendly rivalty that grew with intensity at each passing round.)
I half wanted Zakarian to win, because he was the butt of so many of Sanchez's old man jokes. But Sanchez's dishes commanded the judges to declare him the winner. And that was fitting. Sanchez is, IMHO, the best judge on "Chopped." He excels at describing why a dish does -- or doesn't work -- and takes the time to tell chefs how they can elevate their game. And he does it with care and sensitivity, without being dismissive or demeaning.
This win marks a turning point for Sanchez. He can sometimes come across as the "youngster" on the panel and among the Food Network's pantheon of celebrity chefs. Perhaps it's because he isn't afraid to look silly, and doesn't take himself too seriously, which, again IMHO, only makes him more appealing. (Those handsome Latin looks, that brilliant smile and his sense of humor doesn't hurt, either.) "It's not about the size, it's about the flava!" he bellowed when it became clear that the finale would pit his modestly sized lemon souffles against Zakarian's impressively statuesque peanut butter souffles. And "I'm a MexiCAN not a MexiCAN'T," he cracked at one point, playing to the cameras for the laugh. It's hard to imagine some of the network's other celebrity chefs reeling off those lines.
When Sanchez dropped the monkey business for just a moment, he all but conceded that he had something to prove to himself, to the fellow judges, to the network and to his fans: "I'm not just a joker. I handle business."
With this hard-won victory he'll return to the judging table to sit just a little taller, and with a little more cred, regardless of what happens this coming Sunday. But let's hope he never loses his charm and easy-going style that give him all that flava.
Speaking of Sunday, what do you predict? I thought this was shaping up to be an Anne Burrell vs. Nate Appleman finale. But Sanchez has me wondering....
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Photo: The judges face the judges. Food Network