A cooking show co-hosted by a Chihuahua? It almost happened with Chopped, the hit Food Network show in which four chefs compete against one another in three fast-paced rounds of cooking. That sounds all well and good, but the catch is that they are given baskets created by an evil person who thinks things like pig heads, purple asparagus, licorice candy, and heavy cream can all come together into one cohesive dish. But that’s what makes Chopped so great — you never know what’s in the basket, and the poor chefs have 20 minutes to make an appetizer, 30 minutes to make an entree, and then 30 minutes to make dessert.
You wouldn’t be alone if you found yourself screaming, “Get it on the plate!” while the clock ticks down the final minute and the judges — who are highly entertaining in their own right — approach the table as the seconds tick down.
It’s great, but there are also things that go on behind the scenes that viewers don’t know about — until now. What’s their recipe for success? Let’s open the basket and find out.
It Almost Starred A Chihuahua
Chopped changed a lot from the original show concept. For instance, the initial pilot took place in a mansion instead of a kitchen set. The mansion’s butler served as host, and the failed dishes provided food for the show’s other star: a Chihuahua. Host Ted Allen revealed:
I wish I knew the Chihuahua’s name… Food Network got the pilot – which they spent actual money to make – [but] I think they kinda rolled their eyes and said, “Okay, that’s a little weird for us.”
But Food Network still saw the potential in Chopped, and it hit the airwaves after extensive revamping.
Even The Judges Get Grossed Out By The Ingredients
The judges are not immune to some of the gross items in the mystery baskets. They must remain professional, though, trusting all of them are completely safe. As host, Ted Allen is sometimes grateful he doesn’t sample the weirder ingredients. He commented:
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?”
One Person Carefully Curates The Baskets
Tune in to any given episode of Chopped, and you’ll be baffled by how the chefs use everything from their basket of confounding ingredients. While those components might seem random, producer Sara Hormi considers each one. According to Ted Allen:
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… but there’s a lot of thought process that goes into choosing those ingredients, and by the way, they’re not chosen randomly.
They’re designed to be possible but difficult… 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.
It Takes A Long, Long Time To Shoot An Episode
Chopped episodes only run about 45 minutes without commercials, but filming a single show takes up to 80 hours. The crew, well-staffed with 75 people and a cast of nervous competitors, typically puts in long days.
Contestant Kathy Fang revealed those who make it to the final round might need to film until 8 or 9 pm. After that, they record the interview segments, which can take another hour or more. According to Fang, “Even though I was surrounded by food all day, I was running around so much I didn’t even think of eating.”
Judges May Taste Food Before Filming
It looks like each judge enjoys a fresh, piping hot plate. But given the natural constraints of filming a television show, food doesn’t always get served immediately. For them to try the dish before it congeals, falls apart, or goes cold, judges receive an early taste.
When the timer sounds, the judges visit each station and sample without disturbing the presentation. They may check for thorough cooking or appropriate texture. Contestants, though, don’t get penalized for unplanned time delays.
The Judges Put A Lot Of Thought Into Their Decisions
The judges use scorecards to record notes and rate the food on taste, appearance, and originality. They spend around 15 minutes on every dish, providing detailed feedback. Ted Allen explained:
It’s actually really hard [to pick a winner]. It’s not just, “Well, he won Round 1, and she won Round 2, and then she won Round 3, so she wins.” It’s not that simple…
We break it down: who used each ingredient in each round the best? Who left a mystery basket ingredient off the plate? If someone left an ingredient off the plate, did somebody else do something even worse? It’s actually really complicated. So sometimes it takes a while, but… we have to make sure that the right person wins.
Producers Manipulate Things For TV
Chopped takes a little dramatic license to build tension and make better television. For instance, they blindside chefs with the mystery baskets. The contestants, however, do receive a few advantages. Someone preps the kitchens, pre-heats the ovens, and boils water.
Occasionally, chefs even feign their aired reactions, as producers require several takes for certain moments.
The Judges Are More Funny Than Mean
Chopped judges eat and critique each dish, and sometimes they seem incredibly harsh. But Ted Allen and the judges insist the show makes them appear much worse. Judge Amanda Freitag said, “I get totally edited… I’m funny behind the scenes… I have to be a judge; I have to be intimidating and serious.”
Allen echoed Freitag’s sentiment, sharing, “The judges and I tell very risque jokes, but you don’t see it because Food Network is very G-rated.”
Producers Make Things Seem Extra Dramatic
Producers often try provoking the contestants. Allegedly, Chopped execs attempt to raise the stakes by goading competitors into trash-talking one another. Contestant Josh Lewis said he refused to take part in such fakery.
Chef Allison Robicelli, meanwhile, acknowledged the entertainment factor, but didn’t fault producers:
It might not be the popular choice, or the one that gets the highest ratings, but I’d much rather try to get attention by making people laugh than by hurting others in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator… I stand by that choice.
Chefs Can Hide Ingredients
Each Chopped contestant receives a well-stocked pantry loaded with familiar ingredients. They can even look through the pantry inventory beforehand, but producers sometimes change the items between rounds. Sneaky chefs can gain an edge during this time, though, as the show rules allow them to hide ingredients from other contestants.
In a kitchen only stocked with one jar of each spice and seasoning, this kind of craftiness can throw a wrench in someone’s plans.
Producers Closely Watch Contestants
During any given filming day, producers monitor all contestants closely and take notes; they want to make the interview segments more interesting. After observing contestants and writing down every failure and muttered aside, Chopped execs question contests.
Contestant John Lewis remembered being “shocked by how much they wrote down and asked me about. They had stuff that I hadn’t even realized happened while filming.”
Ted Allen Stands The Entire Time
Ted Allen is Chopped‘s levelheaded host, benevolent taskmaster, and eagle-eyed timekeeper. He introduces the judges and contestants, reveals the ingredients, keeps the chefs focused, and announces the losers.
To make his job description even crazier, Allen can’t sit down at all during filming. The producers want him standing the entire time. In an interview with Food Network, Allen revealed:
I’ve asked [to sit]; they said no. 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.