Here's Everything You Wanted to Know About How Chopped Is Cooked Up

For more than a decade, Food Network's Chopped has had a winning recipe. To celebrate host Ted Allen's birthday, we're sharing how they whip up TV magic.

By Sarah Grossbart 20 May, 2020 10:00 AMTags
Watch: Healthy Food Options to Eat While Social Distancing

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. 

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Secrets of the Food Network

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. 

1. Finding those cut out for the show can be complicated, Allen wrote in a 2019 Business Insider piece. "We're looking for chefs who are interesting and colorful, and that have great skills," he said. "We want people from all over the country, every possible walk of life, different ages. We wanna have plenty of women and plenty of men. And it's harder than it might seem."

For contestant Kathy Fang, the chef and general manager at San Francisco's Fang and a 2016 victor, though, it felt straightforward. Not long after she applied, producers reached out for a Skype session. "They asked a lot of questions about my culinary philosophy and background: how I got into cooking, whether I'm comfortable cooking with random ingredients, how often I cook without a recipe," she recalled to Delish in 2016. After a follow-up chat, she found herself on a flight to New York.

2. Actually, five chefs are picked to be on set for each episode. A fifth alternate contestant is on hand in case of a no-show, crippling performance anxiety or the type of massive kitchen accident that might make competing in the first round impossible. 

3. The judges get some say in the basket ingredients. Not the original brainstorm, though, which is led by senior culinary producer Sara Hormi and involves cross-referencing a growing list of past basket ingredients to ensure there aren't too many repeats. "Sara's job is to find us things that we've never seen before, which with chefs as great as our judges is a hard thing to do," Allen explained to Food Network's FN Dish. It's not, as some might imagine, to be needlessly cruel. "They're designed to be possible but difficult," he said. "So if we give you, say, tomatillos, flatbreads and silky tofu, obviously we're looking for a play on grilled cheese and tomato soup, right? The funny thing is the chefs don't have a lot of time to think about it. In fact, they have no time to think about it, and they really don't know what the ingredients are, so they don't usually figure out what the riddle is inside the basket, but there definitely is an intention." 

There are moments, however, that the judges (i.e. those tasked with actually eating cow's tongue), feel the need to tone down the heat. "Once in a while, the judges or myself will look at a basket and say, 'This is just too mean or just too hard,'" he shared, "and we'll ask if something can be switched out, and usually they'll do that for us if our concerns are legit, but there's a lot of thought process that goes into choosing those ingredients."

4. Some ingredients are sourced super locally to the New York City set. For instance the "leftover" type inclusions (think Lo mein; cold pizza). "We get those ingredients from totally normal restaurants right here in the Chelsea neighborhood," Allen told FN Dish. "There's a pizza joint up the street that makes really nice New York City-style…thin-crust pizza."

As for everything else, they lean into the fact that NYC "has markets that sell absolutely everything," Allen told Business Insider. "There is at least one shop in Chinatown that sells nothing but mushrooms. New York is such a great food capital that we can get anything we need.   

5. And, no, contestants realllllly don't get a heads up on what they'll find in their baskets. "And they don't give you any extra time to come up with ideas," Michael Vignola, executive chef of Strip House and Bill's Bar & Burger and a season-three winner and all-star competitor told Tasting Table in 2016. "As soon as you open the basket, the clock starts."   

6. As for those theme episodes, no advanced warning there, either. When chef Josh Lewis was on in 2014, "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," he told The A.V. Club months later. Though, as they chatted later, continued Lewis, then crafting upscale and out-of-the-box versions on the lunchtime favorite at a place called Better Being Underground, "We all realized we had some connection to sandwiches through the restaurants we worked at—which I guess is why we were chosen for that episode." (While he didn't win, he did score a prize. Post-show, judge Amanda Freitag reached out and offered him a job!)

7. There are no breaks, either, or producer finagling to make sure everyone finishes in the allotted 20 minutes for the appetizer round and 30 for dinner and dessert. "This show is real. There's no stop and go. It's very much like real kitchen life, and you have to just make it happen," said Vignola. "You're really being timed, you're being filmed from all sides and it's a real competition, not just a fake reality show. I went into it thinking I'd just have fun, but as soon as the first round started, I had to win."

8. It's a loooooong day. Contestants are expected to report to set camera-ready by 5:45 a.m., Fang told Delish. And making it to the end like she did means you're there until 8 or 9 p.m., including an hour or so at the end to do interviews. And it wasn't until that point she was finally able to dig into a plate of lentils and samosas supplied by the crew: "Even though I was surrounded by food all day, I was running around so much I didn't even think of eating."

9. Which may have been for the best, because surprisingly the show's craft services is kinda lacking. "The network has some off-site catering company they use," explained Lewis. "I don't know who it was, but it wasn't good. We were all shocked. No one ate much of it."

10. Chefs do get a bit of a head start. Ovens are preheated at 350 degrees, a pot of boiling water is set on the stove and contestants are given a tour of the pantry (the fridge is stocked with some 70 ingredients, including various herbs, whole milk and fresh berries while other shelves house ingredients such as citrus fruits, ready-to-go pizza dough and eight different varieties of vinegar) ahead of each round. "They also show you how to use everything in case you don't know, which surprised me," Lewis told The A.V. Club. "Like, 'Here's how you get ice cream out of the ice cream maker.'"

Though Vignola says back in his day, producers had a few tricks up their aprons. "When I was on the show, they removed or moved a few items each round to confuse you. They don't do that anymore! They also used to ration the ingredients a lot more: They'd put one stick of butter in the pantry and make you fight over it."

11. Still, things can get, uh, spicy. Fang shared that, like any other kitchen, the pantry only has one jar of each spice and seasoning, which means sabotage is totally an option. "You could yell and ask, 'Hey, has anybody seen the cumin?'" she said. "Some people might tell you to come and get it; some people might decide to hide it."

12. The one bring your own item: knives. Since chefs generally feel some type of way about their chopping tools, they're allowed to bring up to seven of their own knives. Pretty much any other piece of culinary equipment can be found in the kitchen, the producers say two—the sous vide machine and immersion circulator—are rarely used

13. Even with all of the shouts of "behind" as contestants crisscross each other's stations and more than a dozen cameras, Lewis felt the space was luxurious compared to a standard restaurant kitchen. Allen has a habit of making things feel tight, though. "They actually warn you about him, because he gets close when he comes in to do his interview about what you're making. It's kind of his thing—he wants to see if he can distract you or get in your head," he told The A.V. Club. "The producers tell you that if he's bothering you to tell him to go away and he will. That's what happened when he came to me. He asked, 'Chef, what are you making?' and I said, 'No idea! But when I know I will let you know!' He's like, 'Okay!' and that was it."

14. You're not alone: the pros are also placing (figurative) bets on who will be the first to get chopped. "Well, like everybody else, we kind of pick our favorites as they walk in, and just [keep them] in the back of our minds," Allen noted to FN Dish. "But you can never really tell, and that's what's exciting about it. You never can tell, and even if someone has the best resume, that doesn't mean that they're going to get a basket that suits them or that's full of things that they're going to succeed with."

15. He does feel there's a winning recipe, though. While he doesn't discount the importance of training, "especially practicing what can you accomplish in 20 minutes, because 20 minutes flies by, 30 minutes flies by," he told FN Dish. "I think winners on Chopped are people who are very open-minded and who are quick at getting an idea and sticking to it, but also who are quick to go to plan B or plan C or plan D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O." 

The key ingredient, he said, is flexibility. "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," he said, "because chances are it will."

16. Four plates of food for three judges—what gives? Despite speculation the extra dish is for Allen to try, it's really more for show. "We need the fourth plate, because if someone gets Chopped I have to have a plate underneath the cloche when I lift it, and you don't want a plate that's already been half-eaten, so that's the main thing," he explained to FN Dish. Plus it's used for all those enticing close-ups and if one of the judges had to wait 'til production was through, their plate would definitely be less than appetizing. Said Allen, "By the time we're done with that fourth plate, it's about two and a half hours after it was cooked, and it's been sitting out at room temperature."

17. In fact, Allen doesn't even get a seat at the judges' table. The host is really on his feet for most of the 12- to 14-hour shoot. "No, I never get to sit down. I've asked; they said no," he shared with FN Dish. "I don't know why they're obsessed with making me stand up all the time. Maybe it's kind of like exercise. Yet people in New York City pay good money to exercise, and they have to pay me to do it." Thankfully he has a sizable collection of lace-free sneaks chosen by wardrobe stylist Kitty Boots: "I mean, I don't only wear sneakers, but I usually do. It's because they're comfy, and they're easy to get in and out of."

18. Even Allen gets skeeved out by some of the ingredients. "We have had rabbit in a can, chicken in a can, chicken feet, all kinds of organs, tongues—many different kinds of tongues: duck tongues, cow tongues, lamb tongues, pig tongue. We've had pig lips," he detailed to FN Dish. "Yeah, there have been ingredients that freaked me out. Pig nostrils, pig ears, pig tails." Which is, ultimately the goal. While they don't choose things that aren't used in cuisine somewhere in the world, "We all like [an] ingredient that's going to, you know, make a 12-year-old boy go, 'Eeew.'"

19. For the most part, reshoots are not a thing. "That's why we need the coverage from so many cameras because we don't reenact things. We don't stage things, and we have to capture everything," Allen told Business Insider of, say, the moment a steak hits the floor.

There's one notable exception, however. Chefs' reactions to the basket's mystery ingredients are filmed at least twice. "We have four camera operators right in front of each of the chefs," he told Vice in 2017. "We're looking for, 'Oh my god, it's chicken in a can.'" FWIW, that remains Allen's favorite inclusion, even topping eyeballs and Rocky Mountain oysters (look them up.) "Not so much because I love the food," he told FN Dish, "[but because] I love the sound it makes when it plops out of the can."

20. And, of course, trash talk is encouraged. In interviews, "They want you to engage in something for the people watching, and actually said, 'Try saying this,' or, 'What do you think of the way this person did this? How would you have done it? Did they screw up?'" contestant Lewis recalled. "I refused. That's not me. I've seen trash talk on other episodes, but there wasn't any with us. It was more, 'I made this mistake,' not, 'You made this mistake.'"

21. It takes a long time to make the magic happen. During a 2016 chat on The UpsellEater's podcast, Allen revealed that each episode takes a startling 37 days to edit. "If you think about it," he explained, "we have easily thirteen, fourteen cameras. Each of which — it's a twelve hour shoot day, which probably means, what? I don't know, seven hours of tape? Times thirteen cameras."

Since some eager chefs have to wait a minute to see their episode make it to air, all contestants are required to sign a $75,000 nondisclosure agreement to keep the results under wraps. 

22. A second ice cream machine? Probably never going to happen. Though he told FN Dish he and the judges would be all for it, "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." The way he sees it, it's fair play. "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," he shared. "So, I don't think we're going to add another ice cream machine."

23. They don't have a hand in the final results, though. "The judges make all of the decisions—nobody tells them what to do, nobody could. Imagine telling Alex Guarnaschelli what to do. Good luck with that," Allen reasoned to FN Dish. And the 15- to 20-minute debates between rounds can get heated. "Sometimes there has been [an] argument about who should win, which is why we have three judges instead of two or four. So, there can't be a tie, and those arguments have gone on for 30 or 45 minutes," he revealed. "I have to say it's actually really hard."

24. And it's much more involved than we see on TV. Obviously contestants' lengthy explanation of their work is cut for time, but what's also not shown is the post-round workspace inspection. "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," Lewis explained to The A.V. Club. "If we made something that we didn't end up putting on the plate then they'll taste that, or they'll taste the stuff we left in the pan, which could be burnt or whatever. All that can play into their decision."

25. Even after thousands of dishes, no judges have gotten sick from something they've eaten Allen told FN Dish, "because our culinary department is very serious about food safety." But there have been some close calls. "There's a melon that comes from Asia called durian that is very smelly, and some people love it and a lot of people don't," he shared. "I remember once we had that in a basket, and Geoffrey Zakarian really didn't want to take a bite of that durian. The producers kind of made him take one, and I thought he might get sick. He also objected to the idea of tasting an eyeball, and so would I."

26. Which is why he's happy with his role calling the shots—or the time clock, anyway. "Whenever people say, 'Why don't you get to taste the food?' I always say, 'How bad do you think I want to taste eyeballs, chicken feet and Rocky Mountain oysters?'"