With Worst Cooks over, and Top Chef All-Stars almost over, the next cable culinary competition on the horizon (March 6th) is Food Network's Chopped All-Stars. Ted Allen has returned to usher Chopped through its fifth season (the first All-Stars). Chefs like Geoffrey Zakarian, Aarón Sanchez, Robert Irvine, Anita Lo, and Anne Burrell will try to combine disparate mystery ingredients in winning dishes. Read interviews with host Ted Allen, judge Alex Guarnaschelli, and several All-Star competitors.
How do the baskets come together?
Ted: The mystery basket ingredients are chosen by an evil cabal in Food Network's culinary department. While the foods might seem random, or even designed to be impossible together, that's actually not true. There's usually a sort of riddle in the three or four ingredients — say, if you had almonds, blackberries, and wheat crackers, maybe you could turn that into a play on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (just a dumb example). The committee says it will not send out any mystery basket that it can't come up with a plausible concept for. Still, the committee can sit around all day, dreaming up that concept. Chopped contestants have to actually execute an idea. Figuring out what to do under our conditions, with our incredibly tiny time frame and ten camera operators chasing you, and then actually getting it done, is staggeringly difficult.
Alex: The ingredients are chosen and selected by the Food Network kitchens. They tend to have an underlying theme or a way they can come together. They can also vary wildly, and under pressure seem like an impossible riddle to solve.
Which chefs were you most excited to see face-off?
Ted: I'm super-excited about the whole All-Stars series, but I am definitely most excited about people seeing the Chopped judges perform under the gun! It is the number one fan request we've had from the beginning of the show: turn the tables and let us see what these persnickety people can do when the whisk is in their hand. Geoffrey, Amanda, Aarón, and Maneet absolutely did us proud; the difference in the ideas and the speed and dexterity between them and a regular group of contestants is mind-blowing. But even better, they showed such enthusiasm and heart. They kicked booty.
Alex: Honestly, I was excited about every chef during All-Stars. It definitely adds another layer when people you know personally have the courage to compete. Another important aspect was that the winnings went to the charity of the winner's choice. That really makes it about personal stories and values, and adds even more meaning to the competition!
Which chefs would you like to see face off in the future?
Ted: In future All-Stars series, I would most like to see the remaining Chopped judges that didn't compete this time take their turn in the kitchen! So I guess that would be Chris, Scott, Alex, and Marc!
Alex: I would like to see some Iron Chefs do Chopped (even though they have enough pressure in their lives as it is!). But I also think anyone who really loves the show and wants to do it should be given a chance. I could definitely see myself competing too... But, that being said, I love that Chopped showcases up-and-coming chefs. I think it is one of the many great missions Chopped has.
What does being Chopped champion mean for chefs in terms of how they view their talents and skills?
I think all chefs are competitive by nature — obviously, the marketplace requires that. I'm not sure viewers fully understand how incredibly difficult this contest is; and for my money, surviving even one round is an accomplishment. Aside from the mystery ingredients that don't go well together in an obvious way, there's so much pressure from all the cameras and lights, the tiny workspace, the fact that the pantry is really far away, and that plates are on the other side of the room, the fact that the pantry is sometimes missing something you'd really like to have, the fact that it feels like it's 150 degrees in the studio, to say nothing of being exhausted because you worked the line the night before and then we got you out of bed at 5 a.m. Anybody who can make it through all that and beat three other chefs has something to be seriously proud of.
Alex: I think becoming a Chopped champion is an amazing feat! I think the more seasons the show gets under its belt, the more the meaning of winning increases. People know the show. I have friends who have Chopped challenges for fun at home! It is like a riddle, a puzzle, and an Olympic obstacle course all rolled into one. I also think chefs consider their friends, family, and colleagues watching their episode and think about how amazing it would be to show everyone what they have achieved. The stakes are high, the winnings big, and the emotional aspect huge.
So, we've heard from Ted and Alex. Time to hear from some contestants. Two questions were posed to three of the chefs: Claire Robinson, Geoffrey Zakarian, and Nate Appleman. What advice would they give to future Chopped contestants? How would they turn the tables on the judges? Read on.
What, if any, advice would you give someone going into this challenge for the first time?
Claire Robinson: Just remember to keep an open mind and have fun! It is a competition, but still it's a challenge in the kitchen with unexpected ingredients and discerning palates at bay... and that's the adrenaline that most of us cooks thrive on! It's totally worth the fun experience!!!
Geoffrey: You need a game plan. Set a course for each challenge. Determine beforehand the appetizer you are doing — a soup, a salad, or a pasta. Do the same for each course and make the ingredients fit YOUR plan, not vice versa. This might be a bit awkward, but it avoids lots of brain damage when the items in the basket are revealed!
Nate Appleman: Go in with an open mind and don't have a preconceived idea of what you will cook.
Which items would you put in a basket if you could turn the tables on the judges?
Claire: I was so excited and truly honored to have the judges that were chosen before me and would not even think to put them in any other role. The judges were in a tough boat already, as it's harder than you think to judge your peers.
Geoffrey: I would make the basket deceptively easy like a rack of lamb, rosemary, garlic, and green beans. A basket with simple ingredients is actually more difficult, because it challenges all your known habits and knowledge. It is the difficult and silly baskets that allow you wiggle room.
Nate: The ingredients are not the hard part of the competition. It is the timing and the surprise.