There’s a lot to hate about reality TV. Even if you avoid the shows that feature alliances and gossip, the declarations “Go big or go home” and “Failure is not an option” seem as central to the genre as the premise that these are real people doing real things. Setting aside the role of constructed events, failure is an option. Saying otherwise doesn’t guarantee success. And spouting clichés during breakaway spots doesn’t infuse a ritual challenge with drama—it just makes you sound like somewhere behind the scenes, a producer is saying, “You sound too wishy-washy. Can you say, ‘I’ll crush these losers’? No? How about ‘go big or go home’?”

Despite my dislike for reality TV in general, a couple of years ago, I got hooked on Food Network’s Chopped. At first, I was just looking to watch something relaxing that wouldn’t require a channel change each time a young kid walked through the livingroom. Then I noticed similarities between my life as a grad student and the chefs on the show.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the premise. Each episode begins with four chefs and “chops” one chef per course—appetizer, entrée, dessert—to get a winner. Every round is strictly timed and starts with the contestants opening a picnic basket of mismatched ingredients. Then they cook a dish that includes these Mystery Ingredients and whatever they need from a well-stocked pantry. The Mystery items can lead to some amazing innovations (gummy worms melted down and acidified with balsamic vinegar for a vinaigrette) and some horrible-sounding failures.

Like comprehensive exams, the challenges require the chefs to come prepared to improvise. From what I’ve gathered from watching more episodes of this show than I should admit, those who emerge as Chopped Champions generally arrive having internalized such a range of recipes, techniques, and ingredients (some very esoteric) that they can swiftly unite the random ingredients in pleasing arrangements. Some of the chefs say they prepare by practicing various recipes beforehand; others have traveled extensively or apprenticed themselves to many different master chefs. Whatever they do, they often need to treat at least one Mystery Ingredient as a substitute for a standard ingredient in a familiar recipe.

Another feature of the show that seems relevant as I prep for my qualifying exams is the critique the panel of judges deliver after tasting each chef’s food. The judges often disagree about the merits of the dishes, but they rally around three criteria which are more or less consistently understood:

Taste. It’s arbitrary and conventional, so you should try to understand your judges’ palettes. In one episode, a Chopped chef zealously stuck to her health-conscious cooking style. Had she watched the show before, she would likely have understood that the judges tend toward the “full fat, full flavor” principle. They axed her in round one. Making sure I’m aware of and able to account for my committee member’s perspectives while authoritatively representing my own might be challenging at points, but that’s part of the job, I think.

Creativity. The Chopped judges like being surprised as long as the thread of innovation isn’t pulled to snapping. If a chef calls a squid ink and corn chip dessert French Toast, then the judges will expect it to resemble traditional French Toast*. But if they serve just plain old French Toast, then they get a shrug. This may be more relevant to my field (Literature) than others, but the advice I’ve received from a committee member to “be interesting” as I demonstrate how I’ve engaged with these texts seems relevant here—but, I caution myself, this exam is not the occasion on which I want “interesting” to edge into “incomprehensibly eccentric.”

Presentation. Although no one ever seems to win Chopped because they led the pack in visually engaging plates, this element is sometimes used as a tie-breaker. It’s also used to weed out chefs who simply can’t get their food composed and delivered on time. There’s a lot of latitude given for the chef who manages to get all the required ingredients on the plate in perhaps a less-than-stellar way versus the chef with the pretty plate that lacks Mystery Basket ingredients. From this, I’m thinking—hoping—that even if I don’t answer every exam question as gracefully as I’d like, I’ll still pass to the next round as long as I show I understand my field of inquiry.

I notice other affinities between my position as a Humanities grad student and the chefs. One is that the majority of them appear to have chosen their field out of a genuine love for the alchemy of their work and the good things it makes possible. I keep returning my own love because–to pull another phrase from the Reality TV lexicon–that’s what matters at the end of the day.

Though I want that $10k too.

*Incidentally, far too many chefs on Chopped appear to think French Toast is an acceptable dessert item. It’s not. Even when you call it pain perdu.

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