Rules You Probably Didn't Know 'Chopped' Contestants Have To Follow
Here's how to avoid the chopping block.
Of all the Food Network shows, Chopped has a pretty simple concept: Four contestants duke it out in an appetizer, entrée, and dessert round. Oh, and they have to incorporate mystery ingredients into each dish...and they only have 30 minutes. Easy as pie, right? After more than 49 seasons, the show has proven how addictive this concept is and, as a result, it's become a Food Network staple. But what goes on behind-the-scenes? We tracked down everything you probably didn't know about being a contestant on the iconic cooking show.
Every chef competing on Chopped completes an online application filled with questions about themselves and their career.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Producers look for chefs who will thrive in the Chopped environment and try to spot this skill through interview questions and your past work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
...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.
The show provides all the pots, pans, plates, and pantry items, but chefs are responsible for their knife sets. According to the Food Network's website, each contestant can bring up to seven knives.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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!"
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.
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.