Food Network’s Chopped invokes a certain kind of screaming-at-your-TV-screen carnal energy — the baskets! the knife injuries! the leaving an ingredient off the plate when it’s sitting RIGHT THERE!
After 10 years and 40 seasons on the air, Chopped still delivers some of the most whiplash-inducing twists on television. Like say when host Ted Allen reads out a seemingly cohesive basket, only to have the last ingredient be something like pickle-flavored cupcakes.
In Chopped‘s world of televised culinary surprises, there are still a number of things that always go predictably wrong. As the host of Chopped, Ted Allen has stood front and center for just about every kitchen disaster you can imagine, so we asked him to dish on the most common mistakes made by chefs tackling the unforgiving beast that is a Chopped basket.
“It’s a whole bunch of traps.” Allen says. “It’s nothing but traps.”
1. Whenever anyone attempts to make risotto in under 20 minutes.
“Planning comes into play,” Allen says. “Let’s say you’re in the appetizer round. It takes about 20 minutes to cook arborio rice. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but that’s probably not the best choice in round one.”
Not only does the chef have to constantly stir the arborio rice to cook it to the right consistency, but then they have zero time to do anything else creative. Risotto is a labor of love — ask any Italian nona!
Lesson: The judges won’t be happy with your undercooked rice.
2. Trying to save face when the plates come out looking less than desirable.
Don’t say it. Please don’t say it. We know you’re going to, and no one wants this, and yet here we are. You used the dreaded ‘D’ work. There it is…deconstructed.
There are absolutely other words to describe the way the a dish looks. Maybe it’s Rushed. Sloppy. Mismatched. But the word you’re looking for is not the ‘D’ one, and it’s certainly not the ‘R’ word either (Rustic).
Time management is key here, or as Allen calls it, rational innovation. “We want you to do something creative, but you have to recognize the incredible limitations you’re up against.”
Lesson: Take the time when plating (it’s one-third of the judging criteria, after all) and be honest when the presentation isn’t its best.
3. Forgetting a basket ingredient.
Okay, so…you know that feeling during the Big Game when the quarterback throws a perfect spiral, and the receiver is wide open, but he drops the ball anyway? Doesn’t that make you tear your hair out?
No? You know when a chef forgets a basket ingredient? The camera zooms in, and it’s sitting right there on the table? Same range of emotion.
“We’ve almost never had a chef that didn’t get 4 plates made that are reasonably plausible,” Allen says. “But we did have one guy who did plenty of cooking, but he just judged his time so poorly that he got nothing at all on except for three edamame on one plate. Yeah, that was a rough one.”
Lesson: It’s not the end of the world. Someone else’s dish could have literal raw bones and trash in it.
Why would this go wrong? Everyone loves ice cream, right? But the other chef is inevitably going to be making an ice cream too — it’s the easiest way to hide a funky ingredient, or showcase an ingredient with a milder flavor profile. But you can’t ALL use the ice cream machine, people, it’s just not possible.
It’s also a documented fact that there is purposefully only one ice cream machine, just for the chaos of it all. That’s very Cutthroat Kitchen of you, Ted.
Lesson: Make cookies or something. NOT ice cream.
5. Leaving bones, seeds, or otherwise hazardous material in the dish.
One of the first rules new chefs learn is to taste their food as they go along.
The hustle of the Chopped kitchen can cause even the most experienced of chefs to forget this tried and true rule.
If the judges have to spend their precious time picking fish bones or seeds out of the dish, they will not be happy campers. For chefs that are unfamiliar with an ingredient, it’s even more paramount to check and check again. Because something inedible might be left over. Or something possibly deadly (Fugu fish, anyone?)
Lesson: Taste it now. Taste it again. When in doubt, taste it.
6. Trying to make bread pudding during the dessert round.
Bread pudding is such a popular dish during the dessert round, it might as well be made a requirement to win (please, no).
The dish became so popular, Allen reveals that “we did have a ban on bread pudding for a while. But it seems to have been allowed to creep back in. It’s just that you don’t want a show where everybody always goes to that, so we kinda had to push people to be more creative and think of other approaches to things.”
The Chopped kitchen god himself has spoken.
Lesson: Get creative, even if you’re not a pastry chef. Make something no-bake! Elbow your opponent for the ice cream machine! Make some candy, anything!
7. Not cleaning off the counter space.
One thing Allen says that viewers rarely consider when thinking about the difficulty of the kitchen is the small counter space. Most of which, he says, is taken up by the 7 knives chefs are allowed to bring.
“One pitfall that is often a giveaway [of who will be chopped] is people that don’t clean off their stations after they’ve done something, because of that lack of space. It’s always a good sign if somebody chops the onion, they put the chopped onion in a bowl, and then they clear off everything, and move on the next [task].”
Lesson: A clean station denotes an organized chef. And if you don’t believe Allen, Ratatouille makes a pretty great point.
8. Calling anything with chocolate and chili a “mole”.
Every time a Chopped chef introduces a “mole,” the judging table reacts with grace, but you can see it in their eyes: Your mole sits on a throne of lies.
There’s a wide variety of traditional mole sauces from different parts of Mexico, but the most ubiquitous kind typically includes roasted red chilis, nuts, spices such as coriander, cloves, and anise, and of course, chocolate. But very little chocolate is actually used, and it’s added more like a spice.
Lesson: Of course no one’s going to be judging on complete culinary purity when the basket ingredients are a wild mix. But if you melt a Hershey’s bar and put some cayenne in it, don’t call it a mole. You will be in the wrong.
9. Not planning out a dish before jumping into the cooking.
This one is hard. According to Allen, chefs get, at most, a minute or two to think after they open the basket, and they certainly don’t know what’s in the basket beforehand. The four ingredients are often so wildly different (such as Korean short ribs, canned spaghetti, purple artichokes, and baby pineapple) that there’s no obvious connection.
“What often indicates that someone might do well is, instead of just jumping right in, taking a moment to plan. If you pointed to an 8-pound Peruvian leg of lamb, I mean I’ve literally seen people salt it and pepper it, then throw it in the oven whole before it occurred to them that, wait a minute, that’s never gonna work.”
Lesson: It’s all about taking a second to think about what is doable before it’s 5 minutes left and you have an inedible raw lamb.
10. The goddamn siphon (aka the whipped cream canister).
Why does this one piece of kitchen equipment never seem to work? It might just be that chefs don’t typically come into contact with a siphon on a daily basis, now that we’ve moved beyond non-dessert ‘foams’ and ‘whips’ that dominated the trend of molecular gastronomy. Or it could just be cursed.
Lesson: Shake it like a polaroid picture, or prepare to just see a spittle of sad sauce drip out.
11. Throwing any of the basket ingredients on the plate at the last minute, or as a garnish.
Part of the beauty (and the challenge) of Chopped is to take four disparate ingredients and transform them into one cohesive unit. But the keyword here is transform.
The chefs are under immense pressure, so it’s easy to get all knees weak, arms spaghetti and forget a basket ingredient. But sometimes chefs will knowingly leave an ingredient to use at the last minute as a garnish.
Where’s the showmanship? The pizzaz? You are not dripping in any culinary finesse if you don’t figure out a way to incorporate all the ingredients.
Lesson: “Have the judgement to fit those mismatched pieces into a puzzle without masking them with too [sic] much with items from the pantry,” Allen says.
12. Relying too heavily on the pantry ingredients.
Leaning heavily into the basket ingredients tends to score bigger points with the judges, however strange they might at first glance. You might not want to touch that black chicken, but at this point, what choice do you have?
Depending on what’s given to the chefs, though, they might actually do worse the “better” the basket might seem.
“When you’ve been given a basic basket — with a T-bone steak, and a sweet potato, and butter, and a carton of heavy cream — it seems like such a layup, but it almost seems like [the chefs] do the worst job when they don’t have enough of a challenge.”
Allen says that while something like pickled giblets might not be “the first thing you’d ask for,” it might force chefs to get more creative.
Lesson: You don’t always get what you want, but you might just get what you need.
13. Using rookie culinary techniques, such as adding truffle oil or a mint leaf.
If a Chopped judge utters the words “why are they going to the pantry, oh god, there’s only 30 seconds left,” you know this isn’t going to be good.
Most of the time these last-minute additions are at best, superfluous, and at worse, ruin the integrity of the dish as a whole. The perfectionist anxiety to add ingredient upon ingredient in search of making your dish stand out is understandable.
“I mean this in a positive way, a chef is generally a control freak,” says Allen. “Someone who has a strong point of view, something that they want to say with food. On Chopped, we take away all of that control, all of it.”
Lesson: At a certain point, the dish is going to be what it is. And tossing something like truffle oil or saffron on top with five seconds left won’t make your dish any fancier.
14. Trying to hide your basket ingredient through the magic of blending.
Blending is the one technique that shows you’re either the smartest person in the Chopped kitchen, or you have no idea what the hell is going on.
Okay, sometimes there’s really nothing left to do when there’s a basket that’s mostly normal, but has one giant curveball. In that case, feel free to hit the judges with some foot-long oversized gummy worm gastrique.
Lesson: If the Chopped judges have to ask where you a put an ingredient, and the answer is “…it’s in the sauce”, perhaps the blender was not your best friend.
15. Starting to cook ANYTHING, or plating, with less than a minute left.
Hmm, I think my dish is missing something. Let me just whip up a little salad dressing real quick…oh, I should probably get my stuff on the plate too. How much time do I have left? 45 seconds? I got time!
Then, shockingly, they did not have time. And there is never really enough time. But as we’ve established, the secret ingredient to winning Chopped isn’t necessarily killer cooking skills, it’s killer time management.
Listen to Ted Allen on this one, kids: “If it’s going to take 20 minutes to make something, I might be able to pull off a ham sandwich. 20 minutes is nothing. It’s just nothing. Take a second to plan and realize that you’re gonna have to slice something smaller or make something that’s doable.”
Lesson: Don’t do the culinary crime if you can’t manage your kitchen time.
Sure, we’d love to think we know everything about goes down during Chopped‘s intense 20-30 minute rounds, but we’re just Average Joes yelling about coulis and beurre blanc to a screen. The Chopped competition turns us all into pseudo-culinary experts, while perched on the sofa eating half-frozen chicken nuggets.
Allen says that if you ever find yourself getting frustrated at the chefs, “set the clock to 20 minutes, and ask your wife or husband to take out four weird ingredients, and see how you do. ‘Cause it could be an eye-opener for you.”
But that’s the fun part! Chopped manages to show us a life lesson best expressed in Ratatouille: Anyone can cook. And, just as important, anyone can think they can whip up a risotto in 20 minutes and fail miserably.
“In this business, you’re only as good as the last plate you cooked. So the stakes are pretty high.”
Ted Allen is right — the chopping block is a great, delicious equalizer.