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Food Network 'Chopped' Lunch Ladies Episode is Inspiring Tearjerker


TV REVIEW: In a revelatory episode, Food Network's Chopped replaces their usual fun full-of-themselves cheftestants with four down-to-Earth "lunch ladies" and the result is great TV with an emotional punch.

By Robbie Woliver

Chopped, one of TV's best food shows, had its best episode when it schooled us about lunch ladies. (Credit: Food Network)

Paying tribute to the until-this-episode thankless job of being a school lunch lady, Food Network's always-enjoyable series Chopped elevated these women to well-deserved "chef" status, in this Emmy-worthy episode.

10 moments that will make you tear-up:

1. The four contestants were not only smart and crafty cooks, they were also gracious competitors who were incredibly supportive of each other, as opposed to the usual gang of egotistical, back-biting chefs featured on the series.

2. The contestants were so honored, amazed and thrilled to be on the show, constantly commenting on how important it was to be recognized for the hard work they do as opposed to being the butt of jokes.

3. One contestant told the all-star panel of judges, which included White House Chef Sam Kass, Amanda Freitag and Marc Murphy, that being recognized on this show and by these well-regarded chef-judges was so important to their self-esteem, because in many cases lunch ladies are so lowly regarded they aren't even allowed in the teacher's lounge.

4. These women couldn't be more concerned about their students' health and well-being, and they were all incredibly knowledgable about nutrition.

5. One contestant, Cheryl Barbara, has such an impoverished group of students she services, she packs them food on Fridays in a knapsack so they have something to eat on the weekends. Their school, and her work, is the primary source of nutrition for her students, with who she seems to have a one-on-one relationship with. As are her fellow contestants, Cheryl is an inspiration. 

6. One contestant comments that the $10,000 prize is more than she makes in a year.

7. The judges refuse to call the contestants "lunch ladies" and refer to them as "chefs," bringing the contestants to tears.

8. Yes, one wore a hairnet. But, hey, another used molecular gastronomy (the thickening agent ultratex)!!!!

9. No sore losers here. Unike the regular show format, all of the contestants came out at the end to heartily congratulate the winner. 

10. Cheryl was the winner (thanks in part to a drool-inducing Grilled Cream Cheese and Fruit Sandwich dessert drizzled in chocolate). When they brought out her excited students (and young daughter) who were drowning her in hugs, all the judges, crew and, I'm sure, viewers were wiping back tears.

IN OTHER WORDS: Kudos to Food Network for opening the curtain and allowing us to see the talent and knowledge these women have and realize the important work they do.  Yeah, that and a first-rate competition with a lot of weird ingredients.    





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Reader Comments (8)

I found it hard to believe that that woman legitimately doesn't make $10k a year. I'm sure they're underpaid, but I think she may have been exaggerating a bit.

That said, I was definitely teary at the end and impressed by their knowledge and fast-thinking skills.

November 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterthat_girl

That_girl I agree. It seemed like a low salary -- maybe she only gets paid on school days, and not summer or vacations? In any case, they work hard for very little recognition. The comment about not being allowed in the teacher's lounge was intense. It was a great episode of Chopped.

November 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobbie

In our county most kitchen staff at school are only around for a few hours, six at most for the head/manager person, per day. So they already start out just being part time.

We also have had teachers not receiving contracted step raises, and instead keep the same rates as they did five years ago, but paying more for health insurance, in effect making them take a pay cut. I know a teacher working 7 years (more elsewhere, just 7 here in the county) making 36k. Not the national average, and certainly not the 60k you'll see sometimes on Yahoo! News.

Point being that if even the teachers get hosed, no one will be doing any favors monetarily for the "school chefs" if there really is that kind of stigma against them.

November 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVictor

I agree wholeheartedly to all of the above comments and will only add that this was without a doubt the very best Chopped episode that I have had the opportunity to watch. I was drawn to it because I had heard tnat a Conn. school "chef" was to be highlighted and to my surprise there were THREE and one from NY. Due to my health and family urging I am a new resident in the beautiful state of Conn., I even experienced my very first BLIZZARD and am content and happy to be one of the newest residents even though I have been transplanted from my home of fifty four years in Las Vegas, NV. My daughter, son-in-law and two wonderful grand children are making me so very welcome and thankfull that I have a family that is capable of giving me my new home!!!! PS----I DVR all the shows I really like----don't like wading through commercials that I have already been exposed to. Anyhow, congratulations on a wonderful warm show, especially in the THANKSGIVING season!!!! BRAVO

November 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMiz B

To ridicule the school chef by saying she exaggerated how little her annual income is comes off as yet another disparaging remark about school cafeteria workers, as though they couldnt possiby know how much money they make in a year. In our area, in very well to do suburban schools, food service workers make an average of $8.25/hour. Do the math, $8.25 x 30 hours per week x 40 weeks in a school year =$9900. However, I loved this episode, these women were gracious, committed, and humbling. I will certainly have my kids watch this episode, they will never look at the 'lunch ladies' the same way again. Great show!

December 3, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfoodie

"Chopped" is becoming the WWE of the Food Channel. The shows have a pre-scripted feel similar to professional wrestling. This episode had a bit less than others, though just the idea of having lunch ladies cook competitively is mirrored by examples of amateurs getting into the ring in wrestling.

In other shows, they push the side stories--chef trying to raise money to see her mom in the old country before she dies or chef proving to dad that he's not a bum. The actual cooking gets pushed into the background, and the judges even seem to get emotionally involved with the contestants.

The low point for me was the one in which the contestant came in with near crippling shyness, admitting she was only there because her boss demanded it. She had much less experience than her rivals, which they expected would serve them well. And you would think so too, especially after she was required to use ingredients she was unfamiliar with. The blue-foot chicken is an old and gamy bird, which her two rivals knew and took steps to address. She had no idea and cooked it like an ordinary chicken. Guess what? Hers was perfect and the other two eventually lost because their chicken was dry.

If a show is genuinely heart-warming, that's great. If you feel manipulated and lied to at the end, you might be better off watching wrestling on TV, where if you want to believe that someone can get hit over the head with a chair and still come back to win, you're only fooling yourself.

January 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan

I do not routinely watch your show. I saw the program featuring the 'lunch ladies' by accident. I appreciated the fact that they called themselves lunch ladies -- you did not. You did a very intelligent service to us who live in North America. It was a cooking show episode influencing the dark side of the sociology of America. Anyone who says he/she didn't cry at the end is lying. Having a White House chef on the panel was brilliant. You could institute a whole program of certifying 'School Chefs' (with the support of the White House, of course). You should work on that. Could take you in a much more meaningful direction.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie Moir

I am a cafeteria manager at a High School with 17 employees. None of them make more than $10,000. The average is around $8,000/yr. But their commitment to feeding healthy meals to hungry students is unparalleled.

August 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

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