- I’m a Food Network “Chopped” Champion and I was surprised by a few things while on the show.
- Judging the starter round can take up to two hours, and there’s a legend of a cursed bowl on set.
- Although we were playing against the clock, I came up with a trick to buy more time for each round.
Arguably one of the most successful cooking competition shows of all time, Food Network’s “Chopped” is a television phenomenon — which is why I’m still surprised I won.
The episode I participated in (“Chocolate Obsession”, episode six of season 32) is a particularly dramatic 40 minutes of entertainment.
Here are 10 things that surprised me about the “Chopped” competition that even die-hard fans don’t know:
At no point during casting does anyone ask you to cook
The cast for “Chopped” is made up of three parts: an online application, an on-camera interview and, if chosen, a get to know you day, which is used for the introductions at the beginning of each episode.
At no point during this process does anyone taste your food or see you cook, a quirk that I found baffling given that “Chopped” is a competition for chefs.
5 chefs show up to film, but only 4 compete
While only four chefs go head-to-head on the show, five arrive on set. The fifth chef is a replacement in case someone withdraws at the last minute.
Since the call time is about 5am, I can imagine it’s a bit of a shame to go to the studio before sunrise and then be told you have to go home.
But we were told that alternates usually ended up on the show at a later date, which is kind of a consolation.
The chiefs’ stations are numbered, and each has its own pros and cons
At the start of the shooting, each chef is given a number, one through four.
Helping the crew stay organized throughout the day, these numbers are linked to the chefs cooking stations, with one to the right of your television screen and four to the left. Although the chefs are randomly assigned numbers, there are pros and cons to each station.
Station one, where I was assigned, is closest to the pantry, so you can easily ping pong from your surroundings to the fridge, spices, dry goods, and equipment.
This is especially beneficial because the “Chopped” set is gigantic and running back and forth takes up valuable time. The seconds saved by not having to dodge other contestants on the way to the pantry can make or break a round.
Station four, on the other hand, is furthest from the pantry, but closest to the judges. That’s why Chef No. 4 has to make plans because too many trips to the pantry mean you spend more time running around than cooking.
But station four has the advantage of being within earshot of the judges, who often discuss clues about how to handle mysterious ingredients. For particularly tricky items in the basket, hearing these tips can change the game.
The ‘severed’ clock is real – but there is a hidden time before it starts
There’s no fudge time on “Chopped,” because, just as the show claims, contestants are given 20 minutes to prep and place the appetizer on the plate and 30 minutes for the entree and dessert.
But just before the countdown begins, there are a few precious minutes that can be used to the advantage of the chefs.
After opening the basket, the chefs are filmed as they take out each ingredient and place it in front of them. Since the clock doesn’t start until the crew has their shot, the chefs have a moment to come up with a plan.
I learned after the first round that the faster I put the mystery items in front of the basket, the less time I had to think. By the second round, I took out the spare time items from the basket, making sure to thoroughly study each ingredient for as long as I could get away to give myself time.
This clever trick may have only gotten me a minute or so of strategies, but it was enough time to formulate a plan and get to work as soon as the clock kicked in.
Apparently there’s a cursed bowl on set
Although a day of filming takes about 15 hours, shooting the actual match only takes about an hour and 20 minutes. So there’s a ton of downtime shooting the breeze with producers and learning more about the show, like how there’s a cursed bowl on set.
As the legend goes, there is one bowl in the “Chopped” kitchen that spells doom for the chef who uses it.
The producers wouldn’t tell me what bowl it was, just that I haven’t used it and that when a poor cook does, they always get chopped.
While the judges and host Ted Allen get hair and makeup, the contestants don’t
The lights are bright and the kitchen is hot, but chefs are left to their own devices when it comes to hair and makeup.
The men didn’t seem to mind, but I would have applauded a professional touch-up here and there after sweating my morning face.
Each dish is discussed for about 30 minutes
Although the rating for each round is reduced to just a few seconds, in reality this process takes a long time. Each dish is discussed for about half an hour, which means that judging for the aperitif round can take two hours.
The judges are given ample time to discuss each dish and ask questions about the chefs’ creations. As a chef, it is extremely frustrating to watch the judges play in front of the cameras – this is entertainment first and cooking second.
Instead of talking about your dish the way two coworkers learn from each other, you end up spending most of your time in front of the judges being scolded for choices you’d never make in the real world.
This is the nature of the show, but I wish there was a little more recognition for the absurdity of the situation as chefs put their reputation on the line.
You are not allowed to taste the dishes of other participants – or your own for that matter
Once the clock hits zero and the camera crew gets the shot, the chefs are immediately taken off the set, so there’s never a chance to try your fellow contestants’ dishes.
Also, since completing each round comes to the last second, chances are you won’t be able to sample your own dishes in their entirety, which makes judging all the more mysterious.
All interviews will be done after the match is over
Whether you get chopped after the appetizer round or win it all, all “talking-head” interviews on “Chopped” are filmed after your competition is over.
The further you get in the competition, the longer your exit interview because you have to go back every round and talk about it as if it were happening in real time.
For me, the challenge was to wipe the smile of victory from my face when I talked about how I was sure I was going to be chopped after the first lap.
I imagine the runner-up had the opposite challenge. Having just lost $10,000, he had to look back on his day and give hope despite a disappointing result.
The winner can’t keep the chef’s jacket
And I’m still salty about it.