Of all the Food Network shows, Chopped has a pretty simple concept: four contestants duke it out in three rounds until one chef is left standing. In the appetizer, entrée, and dessert rounds, they have to incorporate a collection of mystery ingredients into each dish...and they only have 30 minutes. Easy as pie, right?
Wrong. It might sound straightforward in theory, but once you see chefs try to wrangle five star dishes with geoduck, canned chicken, and candy corn, you realize that competing on Chopped is no walk in the park.
But after nearly 15 years on television, the show has proven how addictive this concept is. As a result, it's become a bona fide Food Network staple. There's a reason we always tune in. The creativity, the high energy competition, and the fights over the ice cream machine have become a comfort show for millions of viewers.
But what goes on behind the scenes? How have they filmed over 55 seasons in just 14 years? How do they source all of these wacky ingredients? Does Scott Conant really hate raw red onions that much? We tracked down everything you probably didn't know about being a contestant on the iconic cooking show.
You must apply online first.
Every chef competing on Chopped completes an online application filled with questions about themselves and their career.
Then comes the in-person interview.
Chopped hopefuls wait to hear back from producers to schedule an on-camera interview. According to former contestant Julianne Feder, this was the opportunity to sell skills, backstory, and why you thought you'd make it all the way.
You must be a United States citizen to apply.
While producers look for a diverse group of contestants of different genders, backgrounds, and ethnicities, in order to adhere to the Food Network's eligibility requirements, you must be a citizen of the United States.
You must be a professional chef.
The competition really boils down to individual skills and technique, which is why contestants are required to be the real deal and work professionally as a chef.
But non-chefs sometimes get a chance to compete.
The Food Network films special episodes with amateur cooks, such as "grandmas who cook"or “firefighters who bring the heat in the kitchen," in which case no professional experience is needed.
You must be willing to talk about your personal life.
According to former contestant Josh Lewis, questions during his audition spurred his anxiety storyline: "I have some anxiety issues, and [the audition] is when that came up. When I eventually got on, that was kind of my story, that I was there to overcome my anxiety. That story was true; one of the reasons I wanted to be on in the first place was to prove to myself that I could do something like that," he told The A.V. Club.
You must be a good improviser.
Producers look for chefs who will thrive in the Chopped environment and try to spot this skill through interview questions and your past work.
You have to disclose any food allergies or dietary restrictions.
Due to the mystery ingredients used on the show, contestants have to tell producers if there are any foods they can't eat when they apply.
Even if you make it past the auditions, you may not compete.
Five chefs are chosen each episode, but only four compete—the fifth one is a back-up contestant. "As a standby, I had to show up and be prepared just like the real contestants. The night before I sharpened my knives and laid out my shoes and comfortable clothes. I set the alarm for 4:30 a.m.," Julianne Feder told Thrillist.
You must arrive camera-ready.
The contestants are given their Chopped aprons on set, but besides that, their appearance is up to them, because there are no stylists on set. Chefs are supposed to arrive for their call time ready to film.
You have to sign a confidentiality agreement.
This has to happen before filming starts and bans contestants from disclosing information about the show or they risk of being fined $650,000. Um, yikes.
You don't find out about themed episodes ahead of time.
Former contestant Josh Lewis was on a sandwich-themed episode, which he found out about the day of. "We didn't learn that we’d be doing sandwiches until right before the first round of the competition started, just like it appeared on TV, so I didn't have a lot of time to be disappointed," he told The A.V. Club.
You get to tour the pantry beforehand.
So that contestants know what ingredients are available to them in the pantry, each one is given a walk through before filming or cooking starts.
You get an equipment tutorial, too.
Ever wonder how the chefs are able to hastily use that thermo-freeze ice cream maker? The show teaches them how to use the equipment on set prior to filming.
You should prepare for items to be misplaced.
According to former contestant Michael Vignola, the show used to purposefully create drama. "When I was on the show, they removed or moved a few items each round to confuse you. They don't do that anymore!" he told Tasting Table.
You should prepare for a long day of filming.
Between setting up the stations, the judging deliberations, filming post-round interviews, and, oh yeah, cooking, an episode can take more than 14 hours to film. Contestants have to get to set by 5:45 a.m. and block out two consecutive days for filming, according to the online application.
Get ready to cook in front of a big audience.
Though it looks like there's no one else in the kitchen besides the contestants, judges, and host, that's not the case. Chef Marcus Samuelsson revealed there are actually around 140 people—including producers and crew members—there while filming. While that may seem overwhelming, it's anything but. "A lot of them have been there from day one," he told Mashed. "And it's diverse in every way you can imagine...a big restaurant family."
You have to give a post-show interview.
...Whether you won or not. "After you've been named the winner, there's still an hour to an hour and a half of on-camera interviews to go through—those scenes where contestants explain what's going through their minds at any given moment," Chopped winner Kathy Fang told Delish.
You must BYOK (bring your own knives.)
You can't chat with the judges beforehand.
Even though everyone is on the same set all morning. It isn’t until the first round is completed that the contestants are introduced to the judges. Hey, they've gotta remain impartial!
You can listen to the judges' commentary.
The judges watch as the contestants cook and comment on everything from a contestant's skills to their ingredient choice—and, yes, the contestants can hear them.
You get no info about the ingredients beforehand.
That's right, everything that comes out of the mystery basket really is a mystery to contestants. "Because the ingredients in the mystery baskets can be so hard to work with, I knew I needed to be very comfortable with everything else I was using. At the beginning of each round, I would sprint to the pantry and load up on anything and everything I thought I might use," Michael Vignol told Tasting Table.
You SHOULD be able to come up with a recipe.
Sara Nahas-Hormi's job centers around the mystery baskets as the show's culinary producer. She works with the Food Network's executive chef Rob Bleifer to select items with similar flavor profiles and even brainstorms dishes she knows will work with the pairings. "They don't want to make a basket that's impossible, just incredibly difficult," Ted Allen told the Food Network's blog.
You're going to want to skip the bread pudding.
There's one recipe the judges of Chopped never want to see: bread pudding. The dish has just been made so many times over the course of the show. "Apparently everyone does that and the judges are sick of it. They want you to be more creative," Josh Lewis revealed to The A.V. Club.
And skip the truffle oil, too.
Another big Chopped no-no? Truffle oil. "It became a fad among restaurant chefs to drizzle truffle oil on everything, and so when you're a creative chef, the way our judges are, you don't want to be piling onto the bandwagon that everybody else is already on," host Ted Allen shared on a Food Network blog. "It's a very strong ingredient and can overwhelm everything else, and so combine the fact that we're a little tired of it, [and] if you use too much of it, it can really overwhelm a dish. And, finally, it just feels like a crutch."
Sometimes you have to wait a long time for the mystery basket reveal.
One of the biggest moments on the show is when Chopped host Ted Allen lifts the basket and reveals the mystery ingredients. So, naturally, the producers like to milk it. "They really draw out the anticipation," Kathy Fang told Delish. "We were standing in front of the basket for about 15 minutes before we could open it."
You should practice creating new dishes from leftovers.
It's very possible that an ingredient in that mystery box could simply be "leftovers"—but what exactly does that mean? Ted Allen says the food comes from local restaurants in the area. "There's a pizza joint up the street that makes really nice New York City-style …thin-crust pizza," he shared in a Food Network blog. "I remember once a guy put a slice of pizza in the blender and made a sauce out of it, and it was actually good."
You have to answer Ted Allen's questions.
The host is notorious for wandering around the kitchen and asking contestants questions—which they have to answer, while, you know, still focusing on their dish and getting everything finished on time. But don't blame Ted! When asked why he does this on Facebook, he said: "Because mean producers make me!"
You have full access to a stocked fridge.
There are more than 70 food items inside, including "various herbs, whole milk and heavy cream, fresh berries and butter," according to the Food Network. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and more is available in the pantry.
But spices are scarce.
There's only one jar of each spice or seasoning for all four contestants. According to Kathy Fang, things can heat up around the spice rack. "You could yell and ask, 'hey, has anybody seen the cumin?' Some people might tell you to come and get it; some people might decide to hide it," she told Delish.
You really do only have 30 minutes to complete your dish.
Don't worry, the 30-minute countdown (well, 20 for appetizers and 30 for entrées and desserts) is real. "You're really being timed, you're being filmed from all sides and it's a real competition, not just a fake reality show," Michael Vignola told Tasting Table.
But judging can take a long time.
The judges usually deliberate for 90 minutes before making a decision and the lengthy deliberations are edited out later, according to judge Amanda Freitag. But don't believe everything you see. "I get totally edited," she told PopSugar. "I'm funny behind the scenes. I'm funny sometimes with the chefs. I think they capture those moments when I'm being stern."
You get to start with a preheated oven.
That's right. Production preheats each oven to 350 degrees and boils a pot of water before the timer starts to help chefs along.
It's up to you if you finish on time.
Sure, there's a giant clock on the wall counting down the minutes and producers frequently shout out updates, but it's still up to contestants to finish their dishes within the allotted time frame.
You should have a backup plan—or three.
Having a few recipes already in mind and being ready for anything are the most important things Chopped contestants can do, according to Ted Allen. "You have to be able to adjust and regroup very quickly, so I would say [those are] the top things: Be open-minded, be able to come up with an idea very quickly, understand what you can cook inside of 20 or 30 minutes and be ready to change your plan if something goes terribly wrong, because chances are it will."
You have to think about presentation.
"You have to spend time thinking about how your dish looks. If it doesn't look like something you'd send out in a restaurant, you shouldn't be sending it out to the judges," Michael Vignola told Tasting Table. The former Chopped competitor recommends blocking off two minutes for plating at the end.
You have to fight for the ice cream machine.
It's always a hot commodity amongst contestants. "If it were up to me and the judges, we'd have 20 ice cream machines and make it easier on our contestants," Ted Allen told the Food Network's blog. "Here's the dirty little secret: Producers of competition shows don't want to make it easy for contestants, so they enjoy it when people fight over the ice cream machine. But the fact is, it is totally possible for two batches of ice cream to get made within a 30-minute round, and when that happens, it's exciting for us."
Injuries won't win you any extra time.
Sharp knives, time crunch, $10,000 on the line, what could go wrong? There have been no shortages of cooking scars on Chopped. If a contestant gets hurt, they have to bandage themselves up at the first aid station and, unfortunately, don't receive that time back.
You must wear gloves if you're bleeding.
The meal must go on! For safety reasons (and because the judges don't want blood in their food) the contestants must wear sanitary gloves while cooking.
You can respond to the judges.
"In my dessert, a lot more of my sandwich filling came out than I expected, and I was able to talk about that and explain my side of it," Josh Lewis told The A.V. Club. That doesn't mean the judges will change their minds, but still!
You don't have to clean up after yourself.
The show has a cleaning crew that takes care of all of the dirty pots and pans. "They are fast, thorough, and a delight to be around," Ted Allen told the Food Network's blog.
But you must keep a sanitary workstation.
The show's judges check out each workstation after a round is completed. "They're looking to see how clean we are, they make sure we flipped the cutting board if we used it after having raw meat on it, that kind of thing," Josh Lewis told The A.V. Club.
You have to make an extra dish.
There are only three judges, but chefs on Chopped plate four meals and the extra dish is used for B-roll. It will also, sadly, appear on the chopping block if you're eliminated.
You get a pretty awesome prize if you win.
If a contestant is able to stick it out until dessert and make the entire basket work, then they become a Chopped Champion and get a $10,000 prize.
There are perks of being on the show—even if you don't win.
The judges and host Ted Allen are known for keeping up with the former contestants. According to Allen, former Chopped chef Vinson Petrillo has a restaurant in his New York City neighborhood and Josh Lewis is now a chef at Amanda Freitag's restaurant, Empire Diner.
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