Before they realized we'd all be just as enthralled watching James Beard Award-winning chefs scramble to whip up something palatable with, say, squid ink and reindeer pâté, the masterminds behind Chopped cooked up a complicated conceit.
The original idea, as outlined in Allen Salkin's 2013 book From Scratch: Inside the Food Network, was that the four professionals would compete for the privilege of catering a dinner party thrown by a silhouetted tycoon with his butler ("a snooty John Cleese type") serving as host. Following each round, one contestant would be "chopped" by a group of judges, and the rejected dish fed to the millionaire's chihuahua Pico.
Fortunately, clearer heads prevailed after the pilot was shot and producers brought something a bit more refined to the table.
Some 47 seasons in, safe to say the pared-down concept works just fine. With trusted host Ted Allen at the helm—the food and wine connoisseur from the original Queer Eye celebrates his 55th birthday today—four chefs are tasked with creating an appetizer, entree and dessert in less than 30 minutes using four mystery ingredients. (The impossible-sounding, but very real, mix chefs found in one season 41 basket: bologna cake, tomato soup, celtuce and cerignola olives.)
The rotating panel of judges is still in play, with Allen calling the likes of Alex Guarnaschelli, Chris Santos, Amanda Freitag and Geoffrey Zakarian "the stars of the show," their personalities shining through as the pals debate which cook should walk out with the $10,000 prize. (Sadly, Pico has been chopped.
"Food Network got the pilot—which they spent actual money to make—and I think they kinda rolled their eyes and said, 'Okay, that's a little weird for us,'" Allen detailed to Vice. It wasn't until 2009 that network executive producer Linda Lea took it all in, he said, and thought, "'Let's just have a straight up competition about chefs.'"
More than a decade later, the seemingly never-ending series is still the oyster in Food Network's pearl for one simple reason, Allen surmises: "Chopped is relatable. We all have the experience of opening the fridge and needing to throw a meal together with what we have on hand."
Of course, with countless anxiety-inducing ingredients, fancy kitchen tools (an actual smoking gun!) and so very many award-winning chefs, the show's secret recipe is a bit more involved than your standard Tuesday night dinner dilemma. We share how the sausage (and chicken confit and rice pudding) is made.