Backstage secrets of chef-killer ‘Chopped’
- Last Updated: 12:03 AM, April 3, 2012
- Posted: 10:38 PM, April 1, 2012
Things have to go wrong for “Chopped” to work.
But they have to go wrong in the right way to ensure that “Chopped” remains the crown jewel of the Food Network and stays competitive with wrestling and SpongeBob as one of cable’s biggest regular series hits.
Too much personal drama gets in the way of the food. Too little makes the show as suspenseful as Ina Garten driving to the vintner in her BMW.
Until now, the show has never allowed an outsider on the set to see how the sausage is made.
The ground rules were that the contestants’ identities would not be revealed — much less who wins. The show is very protective of its results until airtime.
But a behind-the-scenes visit to a taping last week reveals why it takes a full day to create a single show that works dramatically — and some of the answers to fan questions that range from “Why do chefs mostly ignore what the judges say” to “Do the producers concoct the mystery baskets while consuming special brownies?”
Contestants, who’ve starred in home videos since their childhood, don’t seem to be intimidated by actual TV cameras — until the baskets appear and they have to do a few set-up shots before opening them.
When a chef misunderstands a cue and nearly opens the basket too soon, everyone on the set lunges forward as if Michael Jackson were dangling his baby off the hotel balcony.
Contestants are given only two head starts: first, ovens are cranked to 500 degrees before filming begins, and second, there’s a stockpot just off camera filled with boiling water. No waiting.
The first 20-minute round — for appetizers — starts and contestants, who have invariably laughed at the stupidity of previous competitors are suddenly making the same mistakes.
They have to strain a bit to hear most of what host Ted Allen and the judges are saying a few feet away.
Frequent chef judges Alex Guarnaschelli, Geoffrey Zakarian and Chris Santos observe that contestants are usually too worried about getting things done to listen to their comments while the cooking is going on — and make the same rookie mistakes of not remembering to heat pans, tackle the hardest ingredient first or add spices.
When time is up, plates and contestants are whisked away (chefs to a back room, plates to a table for filming) to prepare for the judging.
Since all four plates are accounted for (three for the judges and one for the camera), select staffers and some judges descend on the kitchen to see what’s left in the pans to get a preview of the dishes.
At a recent taping, everyone was quietly suspicious that two out of three contestants may have left out a mystery ingredient — potentially fresher drama than if only one had.
Taping the judges’ comments takes at least 20 to 30 minutes, so food is rarely judged on whether it’s hot enough or exactly medium-rare.
Zakarian and his fellow panelists say they’re used to tasting lukewarm or cold food. The lag time really doesn’t really help or hinder anyone.
Deciding on whom to chop can be a matter of minutes, or can push the show’s all-day taping schedule well past nightfall.
While the show’s signature mystery baskets appear to be completely random, they aren’t.
Four lousy dishes can make for 20 minutes of bad TV — and backfires with viewers.
Food Network executive chef Rob Bleifer and a culinary producer from the show experiment weeks in advance with every proposed basket and must come up with two dramatically different, edible meals.
Every episode includes at least one over-the-top “watercooler” ingredient — for example, tripe or Good & Plentys — that will cause chatter and/or gross out fans.
(The judges have, in the past, begged Bleifer to stop using cured meats for dessert, and tofu doesn’t seem to interest anyone.)
Over time, certain pantry items have been removed: phyllo dough, which got turned into one too many four-ingredient, stacked “napoleons,” and red peppers, which invariably went into countless “colorful and vibrant” slaws.
The show’s executive producer, Linda Lea, would love to have celebrities who cook — like Gwyneth Paltrow or Trisha Yearwood — but believes that fans would rebel at an episode that contained the “isn’t it funny that the celeb can’t cook?” shtick.
What’s next? A new mini season of “Chopped All-Stars” debuts Sunday night at 9.
The five-part elimination tournament for charity is an all-Food Network affair between “Iron Chef” competitors, on-air personalities, frequent “Chopped” judges and loved and loathed “Food Network Star” losers, including Justin Balmes and Penny Davidi.