What it’s like to compete on — and win—Food Network’s “Chopped”
In the first 3 seconds of footage of me cooking in the Chopped kitchen (Season 33, Episode 4), I’m cursing like a drunk frat kid. I believe the actual words out of my mouth were, “I make god damned cupcakes for a living. This is fucking ridiculous.” TV magic edited it down to simply, “This is f****** ridiculous.”
It’s not a great look, but give me break. I had been up since 4:30am, there were 40 cameras in my face, and I was living my worst nightmare with a basketful of soft shelled crabs. I’d spent months preparing for Chopped, regularly convincing my friends to come over for a dinner party in which it was their job to scour the grocery store for four absurd ingredients so I could practice on the fly. During my practice runs, I made pasta out of marshmallows, yellow peppers, and Pirate’s Booty. I transformed crab cakes into crab fried rice with pickled strawberries. And Oreo fried chicken is a thing now, thanks to my fourth run through. Like many Chopped contestants, my goal wasn’t necessarily to win — I simply wanted to get through the first round without embarrassing myself in the process.
As it turns out, I didn’t reach my goals that day. I embarrassed the hell out of myself. And oh, spoiler alert: I won.
But back to that first basket. Over twenty minutes, I mutilated a basket of beautiful crabs, burned a pan full of chocolate olive oil, forgot every knife skill I’d ever learned, and after finally getting my shit together long enough to take a breath, I dropped one of my four panko and paprika crusted crabs on the Chopped floor.
Lightening speed came to a halt, and for a nano second, I considered picking up the crab. Not that I was going to serve it, though I did wonder if I was more likely to get chopped for Floor Crab Du Jour or for No Crab Du Jour. Mostly, I just wanted to get it out of the way so no one slipped on a rogue crab on the way to the pantry. Getting chopped seemed inevitable at this point, and I didn’t want to be responsible for a twisted ankle as well as culinary embarrassment. Especially because at this rate, I was going to be the one to slip on my crab and go down like a tree.
I reached to the floor to pick the poor thing up when I heard the executive producer bellow through the clangs of clumsy pots and pans, “LEEEAAAAVE ITTTT!” Some camera guy came out of nowhere, crouched onto the floor, and zoomed into my crab. Suddenly I could hear the DUN DUN DUUNNNNNN music in my head, the singular notes that would inevitably be inserted in post production to inform viewers that a Chopped tragedy had occurred. I knew in that moment that my inability to control my crabs was going to be part of the episode teaser. My clumsiness was to be immortalized, perhaps even syndicated. Hell, this could end up on god damned Netflix. Or worse…I could become a meme.
It’s been one year since filming wrapped for Chopped, the world’s weirdest cooking competition. Thanks to a hefty contract and a $750,000 fine for blabbing, I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone what went down in Food Network’s expansive television studio, located on top of the Chelsea Market in New York City. Now that the episode has aired, I’m free to spill allllllll the secrets and announce to the world, I AM A CHOPPED CHAMPION!
Woot woot. Har har.
If you’ve never seen the show, Chopped is the one where Ted Allen, a.k.a. Generally Awesome Dude, narrates as four doe eyed chefs attempt to make edible food out of mystery baskets that contain such ingredients as fish collars, peach pits, leftover Kung Pao Chicken, and the tears of virgins. In 20 to 30 minutes, the chefs run around a TV kitchen in search of pantry ingredients to make that tear reduction really pop on the plate, while a trio of celebrity chefs commentate on the entire debacle and wince at the chefs’ cooking like they’re witnessing an ACL tear in the Super Bowl. Inevitably, someone cries or cuts a finger off or gasp, forgets a mystery basket ingredient, leading to a barrage of dramatic music and quick scene cuts that makes a plate of spaghetti look like the latest Breaking News on CNN.
Becoming a Chopped Champion is rough. The experience, I think, was the most acutely stressful and emotional day of my entire life. I know that seems like a ridiculous statement — it was only one day, after all — but I’ve never been in a situation that managed to bring out so many different emotions in constant, unending succession. The 14 hours of physical toll is difficult on its own, but that part isn’t all that different from a typical day at work in the kitchen. We’re all used to standing in a sweltering kitchen for most of the day, attempting to eat lunch in between customers and getting yelled at (or doing the yelling. Either way, someone is always yelling.)
You expect the inherent nature of the show — specifically, the mystery ingredients and precarious time limits — to test your ability to think creatively and quickly. If you’re lucky, you’re only cooking for a maximum of 80 minutes (20 minute appetizer, 30 minute entree, and 30 minute dessert.) The rest of the day, you assume, will be a bunch of waiting around.
Oh no. Nice try.
Every aspect of the Chopped kitchen is designed to keep you alert and mess with you psychologically, because that’s what makes you say stupid things that make riveting TV. Or, you’ll just get so tired that you blurt out some cheesy one liner like, “Winning will be a cakewalk” just because you really want to go to sleep, and moving along the interview process is the only way to make that happen. (I apparently actually said because it’s immortalized on TV, but I definitely did not say it in the context that it appears.)
Making it from round to round is equally exhilarating and terrifying. You go from YES, STILL ALIVE! to OH SHIT, THIS MEANS I HAVE TO DO THIS AGAIN? in a matter of seconds, and you can’t entirely be sure which of these options is the better choice. On the one hand, you have the chance to redeem yourself from floor crab and potentially compete for $10,000. On the other hand, you’re not allowed to pee without an escort and you’re currently wondering how the hell you’ve managed to create a career out of cooking given that you can’t even make a potato puree properly, so it only seems natural to question the life choices that led to this particular moment of doom.
I asked myself what I did to convince myself that Chopped was a good idea every time I walked toward the judge’s table. In reality, judging is a long process, so I had oodles of time to ruminate over the poor decisions that lead me to this moment. TV edits the judgement down to about five seconds per dish per round, but in real time, for every plate you present, three people tell you how much your dish sucks for about a half and hour. The most frustrating part about it is that you know when you’ve screwed up. Sometimes you even know you’re about to screw up before you screw up. I knew the second I put my potatoes in a blender that not only were they undercooked but that I shouldn’t be using a blender in the first place. But, I didn’t have time to do it any other way, and I needed my potato puree as the base of my pulled pork because I wanted a starchy element to pull the dish together, instead of just having a plate of pork and spinach. I should have just put the whole damn thing on a hamburger bun, but at the time that felt like a cop out.
During each judging, I wanted to make a list of “Things I Fucked Up On This Weird-Ass Dish” and just hand it to the judges and say, Okay, look, this is what’s wrong. The potato puree is gummy, the almonds are totally unnecessary, and my station is a total mess. Can we just blow over that and talk about something else so I can learn from your expertise instead of just feeling my self esteem plummet into soft-shell crab induced Hell? But no, instead I made great TV by trying to play off my potatoes as “al dente” while Maneet Chauhan was like, “um, there’s no such thing as ‘al dente potatoes’ ” as the DUN DUN DUUUUUNNNNN music silently chimed through my head again.
That’s about the time I noticed a big whiteboard looming near the judges heads with all four of our names written on it. One of those names had a giant slash through it, and I imagine there’s an elaborate ceremony after each round where some PA finds a fresh, thick, Expo marker, climbs up a ladder, and dramatically crosses off the latest chef to be chopped.
Back in the sequester room, myself and the two other remaining chefs “discussed” what went down in the entree round, and by “discussed” I mean the producers guided us back to usable TV conversation, because footage of us talking over each other while burying our heads in amusement and shame is not what the people want. This is how spirit fingers end up on national TV.
After two rounds, no one on set had eaten lunch yet, so I wasn’t surprised when we were quickly guided back to the chopping block. This time, the executed chef was by far the most experienced and knowledgeable of all of us, but if you serve something that literally looks like shit on a plate, experience doesn’t matter. Sorry dude.
And then there were two.
Well, not quite. So the thing about TV is that it’s Union based, which means when it’s time for lunch, it’s time for nothing but lunch, and everything shuts down. After a chef is chopped, the chef has to sit for an exit interview, and that’s where all the floating head footage comes from. Think about that, you’ve just gone through an emotional beating and feel like you slaughtered your own career on national television, and then you have to go sit with a producer for a few hours and relive the whole thing. This is why you see so many cheesy comments in the confessionals, because people just want to get out of there so they can go home, get drunk, and Google “how to make a career change.”
Most of the time, the chopped chef is whisked away to wherever the chopped chefs go before the remaining chefs get back to the sequester room. All of their stuff and their chair also goes missing, so it’s like this weird magic trick where you exit the room with three people, return with two, and then ask yourself if you just hallucinated the whole thing. You don’t even get to say goodbye or exchange last names so you can find each other on Facebook.
When it’s lunchtime, though, this protocol disappears, so the poor chef who got chopped after the entree round not only had to do the usual exit interview, but he had to wait out lunchtime and make small talk with the two people who out cooked him before he could go relive his day. It’s like the goddamn Stanford Prison Experiment, but with matching chef’s jackets and surprisingly bad catering. (Seriously, Food Network, we all know that Guy Fieri is busy making donkey sauce a few floors down, so can you do us all a favor and send some of that on up? Please and thank you.)
After a quick smoke break, in which I was transported back to my days as a line cook where I pretended to smoke just to get a five minutes of fresh air, we shuffled back in and our third chef wheel was whisked away, never to be seen or heard from again. By this point, my remaining competitor — Doug Wetzel — and I had formed a sort of bond that can only be compared to the bond you make with your fellow pledges during Greek Week. Together we had seen things that no one else will ever understand, and we marched into the dessert round together, ready to kick each other’s ass but okay with losing to one another.
We would have gotten to the dessert round a lot quicker, but Ted kept flubbing his words. The poor guy was having an off day, but by this point the environment in the Chopped kitchen had relaxed, and Doug and I amused ourselves by trying to intimidatingly stare down each other without bursting out laughing. All on camera, of course.
We opened our baskets and got to work. Doug and I were working on opposite ends of the set, so I had no idea how he was doing or what he was making. Stove placement, which I’m assuming is random, has its surprising advantages and disadvantages. The closer you are to the pantry, the easier it is to ping pong back and forth as needed without having to play kitchen Frogger. If I needed to head to the fridge, I just went to the fridge. It took five seconds. If Doug needed to head to the fridge, he had to to go through my station to get there, and the whole trip could eat up thirty seconds or more.
But, the closest person to the pantry can’t hear Ted and the judges, which can be a huge advantage because the judges tend to mention tips and pitfalls of mystery ingredients or make suggestions on how something should be prepared. They’ll say, with all the confidence in the world, that “Squirrel bacon is surprisingly delicious and pairs really well with nuts and citrus” and since you didn’t even realize that squirrel bacon was a thing until you opened your basket, you now have the brilliant idea to make an quick apple cobbler with a caramelized squirrel bacon, cashew, and orange crumble. Never mind that you have no idea what squirrel bacon tastes like.
And that, kiddos, is how you win Chopped, by sticking to a basic train of thought and integrating mystery basket items into what you instinctively already know how to do. It also helps if you have a sparkling personality or an interesting backstory, because we were told that during the final chopping block, the judges were not unanimous in their decision, which meant that the producers came in and made the final call. If only we were privy to seeing bloodbath that must have occurred between the judges, choosing their sides like the world did for Merriweather vs. McGregor. The white chocolate seaweed sauce was clearly superior to the apricot and mint coulis! But what was worse, the naked crab or a failure to make toast? Clearly, they’re both shams! Eenie-meenie-minee-mo, someone gets a fat check and then we gots to GO.
At the moment Ted lifted the cover and revealed that my dish was not chopped, I felt the heat of twenty cameras on me and fought every instinct inside of me that said, “Who got drunk on the break and accidentally switched the dishes?” I couldn’t believe that I’d actually won, and briefly entertained the idea that I was actually in some sort of Inception Reality TV and at any point, Ashton Kutcher was going to time travel back from 2003 and tell me that I’d been Punk’d. But no, I said a quick goodbye to Doug, chatted with the judges for a few minutes, and was whisked off for a two hour long interview. A few months later I got a check for $10,000 in the mail, which made my bank account look awesome for about 12 hours, until it disappeared into the grubby hands of Uncle Sam.
A year after filming Chopped, Doug Wetzel is still the executive chef at Gertrude’s in Baltimore, but his latest project is Donut Stop Belevin’, a popup donut shop that not only serves up delicious donuts, but does it for a good cause — proceeds are regularly donated to organ donation foundations that helped save Doug’s life, including The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland.
Jenny Dorsey is in NYC kicking all of the culinary ass, dabbling in augmented reality and winning James Beard grants in between running her NYC supper club, Wednesdays. She also wrote about her Chopped experience recently, which can be found here.
I have no idea what Arnaud is doing, but presumably he’s still at Ayza Chocolate Bar.
As for me, I sold my bakery and secured a book deal, so these days, most of my cooking involves frying an egg before my morning writing. Ironically, I am the only chef on our episode who is no longer working as a professional chef. It’s okay, though, because according to one guy on the internet who watched my episode, I am a former stripper. This also explains all the friend requests from men named “Doug Douglas” and “Steve Steveson.” I’m glad I solved that mystery, and it’s good to know I have a backup career in case this writing thing doesn’t work out.