Chopped fans, ever wonder: Who puts together the mystery baskets? Where does the fourth plate of food go? Does Ted Allen ever get a taste? Do the judges really have to eat that? Chopped host Ted Allen took the time to sit down with Food Network to answer the questions fans have been asking and wondering about through the many seasons of the show. He reveals some of the secrets behind one of the most-popular cooking competition shows on TV.
Can anyone tell which chef is going to win before the cooking begins?
Well, like everybody else, we kind of pick our favorites as they walk in, and just [keep them] in the back of our minds … . I got it right on our show that we shot last Friday, 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.
What is your favorite mystery basket ingredient?
Well, out of about 5,000 of them, that’s going to be sort of hard. I mean, gosh, Rocky Mountain oysters, chicken feet … we’ve even had eyeballs. My favorite mystery basket ingredient remains the whole chicken in a can, not so much because I love the food, [but because] I love the sound it makes when it plops out of the can.
Is there a food that freaked you out because it was placed in the basket, like something out of the ordinary?
Yeah. Like, most of them. Our baskets can be really, really tough. 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. Yeah, there have been ingredients that freaked me out. Pig nostrils, pig ears, pig tails. But here’s the thing: Some things that sound weird to you and me as Americans are not weird at all in other cultures and other countries. We’ve had bugs. We’ve had mealworms. We’ve had crickets. We’ve had grasshoppers. We’ve had snakes and eels and, you know, foods that are totally ordinary — pig blood, mmm, delicious — foods that are totally ordinary in other countries, and I think that’s part of the excitement. We all like [an] ingredient that’s going to, you know, make a 12-year-old boy go, “Eeew.”
Do you ever get to sit down?
No, I never get to sit down. I’ve asked; 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.
Is that why you always wear sneakers?
I have an amazing sneaker collection, thanks to our wardrobe stylist, Kitty Boots, and of course these sneakers don’t even have laces on them, which is kind of handy. 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, so I do like them for that. … Listen, if you’re a cashier or you work in a toll booth and you’re standing all day long, it’s good to have comfy sneakers, comfy kicks.
What happens to the fourth plate of food? Does somebody eat it? Why don’t you get to taste the food?
We send that fourth plate directly to my dressing room, where I consume it completely every single round. … No, nobody eats that. I’ll tell you why. 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. Also, we take close-up shots of that fourth plate. 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, so no one’s going to eat that. That wouldn’t be a good idea.
Why do you all loathe truffle oil?
First of all, truffle oil, there’s a time and a place for most ingredients. … There are different qualities of truffle oils. Some of it is great, some of it’s made with artificial ingredients, so that’s one reason. The second reason is that 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. … Three, 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. Like, people think, “Oh, if I put gold leaf and truffle oil and caviar and all this expensive, fancy stuff on a dish, that’s enough to make it a good dish.” Not really. How about just good cooking?
Where does the show get the leftover ingredients when there’s a leftovers battle?
This is something that we could all relate to. Go to the fridge and there’s nothing in there except cold pizza and, you know, a leftover soda that you didn’t finish. We get those ingredients from totally normal restaurants right here in the Chelsea neighborhood. There’s a pizza joint up the street that makes really nice New York City-style … thin-crust pizza. 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.
Why doesn’t the show have a second ice cream machine? Everybody’s always fighting for the ice cream machine in the dessert round.
Well, if it were up to me and the judges, we’d have 20 ice cream machines and make it easier on our contestants. 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. So, I don’t think we’re going to add another ice cream machine.
Who is the most-forgiving judge, and who is the least-forgiving judge?
That’s kind of like the question people ask me, “Who’s my favorite judge?” They’re all my favorite, and that’s like, you know, when someone asks “Who’s your favorite kid?” or “who’s your favorite pet?” Our judges are all brilliant in totally different ways. Alex Guarnaschelli has, I would say, the best gift of language of any of our chefs. She can talk, talk, talk and talk so beautifully about food like no one I’ve ever heard. Scott Conant has this seriousness … particularly about foods that matter a lot to him, like pasta. Chris Santos has a similar seriousness, always passionate, always deeply concerned about the cooking. Marcus Samuelsson brings such an international worldview. Everybody has a different skill set, and I think it’s great that they rotate so that we have different people there each time. I would say none of them is especially forgiving when bad cooking happens, but I think they all care deeply about cooking, and they care about people. So, they were all well-chosen, and I love them all.
Do the judges have a say in the basket ingredients? After all, they do have to eat them.
The basket ingredients are chosen by a committee that’s led by our staffer Sara Hormi, and 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. Once in a while, the judges or myself will look at a basket and say, “This is just too mean or just too hard,” 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, 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.
Have any of the judges ever gotten sick from the food they had to taste?
No. I have to say after about 5,000 mystery basket ingredients the judges have never gotten sick, knock on wood, from eating the food, and that’s because our culinary department is very serious about food safety, and that’s part of their job … . Just like when you go to a restaurant, you want to have confidence that the food is going to be safe.
Have any of the judges ever gagged at the idea of eating something?
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. 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. So, 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?”
What characteristic is most prevalent among Chopped winners?
So, I’ve always wanted to sit down and write a guide on how to win Chopped or how not to lose it, and there are so many things you could try to do. I think practicing is a great idea — I think especially practicing what can you accomplish in 20 minutes, because 20 minutes flies by, 30 minutes flies by. I think the most-important thing you could do is try to cook a bunch of different things within a very strict time frame, and don’t give yourself an extra minute, because we’re not going to. 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 — I’m trying to see how much of the alphabet I can remember. 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.
How long is the judging time, on average?
Well, our judges care very deeply about fairness. They base their decision entirely on the food that’s on the plate. 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. Judging takes probably about 15 minutes per round, 15, 20 minutes, and we film it, but you only see little moments of it. 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, but usually it’s … often very close … . I have to say it’s actually really hard. 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.
Watch Chopped on Tuesdays at 10|9c to see who beats the mystery baskets.