Last week, my gigantic head was plastered on televisions across the country when I appeared as a contestant on Food Network’s Chopped. I’m sure you’ve all seen the show at least once. You’ve said things like “Well, that’s not too bad! Surely I could do that!”
You poor bastards have absolutely no freaking idea how awful competing on that show is.
Chopped is not a “cooking competition.” Chopped is a game show. It doesn’t have as much to do with making good, or, hell, even edible food; it has everything to do with navigating an obstacle course in a small amount of time, with unknown supplies and constant surprises. Chopped was, without question, one of the most physically and emotionally torturous experiences of my entire life. Yet, somehow, I managed to survive three rounds before losing in the final.
Now that my episode has aired, many months after I actually filmed the darn thing, I can finally tell the world all about what it’s like to be a contestant on Chopped — or, I can recount whatever few memories I have of the experience, since I pretty much committed myself to drinking heavily in the weeks afterwards so I’d black most of it out.
Obviously, if you’re making your national television debut, you want to look so hot that all the people at home are going to start licking their screens, and then Tweet you things like, “I can’t wait to buy thousands of copies of your cookbook you ravishing porcelain ginger goddess,” because oozing sex all over television so that one day you can sleep on a bed made of hundred-dollar bills and shove your success down the throats of your enemies are the two things that every red-blooded American girl dreams about.
I wake up to start making the magic happen at 3:30 am. You read that right: three thirty in the fucking morning. Know what I’m usually doing at that hour? I’m working, sleeping, or hiding under the covers playing The Simpsons: Tapped Out on my iPhone; I am not giving my breasts their daily pep talk while accidentally stabbing myself in the eye with mascara.
Chopped, you see, has plenty of hair and makeup for the judges, but none for the sleep-deprived contestants who are being thrown into a hot kitchen. So while your average male chef can walk into a kitchen with a five o’clock shadow and a few wrinkles around his eyes, and come off like a rugged stallion, I, after ten minutes of cooking, will look like a drag version of Carrot Top on methamphetamines.
When we arrive at Food Network Studios, we’re given incredibly lousy coffee and very dry, rubbery eggs. For lunch, we’re served what is likely the worst salad I have ever had in my entire life. I am now cursed to have that fucking Alanis Morissette song stuck in my head all day. (Perhaps this is part of the game?)
It is important to know that I, on an average day, consume a minimum of six cups of coffee. Years ago, I gave up cigarettes and all other things I thought were “fun” in exchange for coffee, my secret lover. Considering the call time is super early, I know that I’m likely not the only person there operating on four hours of sleep, and the fact that I’ve seen the Chopped green room on television dozens of times and its a goddamn kitchen, I was anticipating having access to some sort of magical coffee urn that would flow freely during the day. This was not the case.
I’m sure many of you could give two craps about the coffee situation and you’re reading this article to find out what my opinions were of Ted Allen or what my favorite ingredient was, but seriously, this coffee shit is important. They knew how tired we were, and yet I had to order coffee through a PA, who radioed it into another PA, who finally procured the teensy little styrofoam cup of coffee after four hours (I’m a little hazy on the exact timing, but this feels like it could be accurate) — point is, it is a major victory that I did not actually physically attack Ted Allen and start eating him like a kalua pig. Because I may have thought about it at least twice.
Now enough with digression — back to Chopped.
Okay, I lied. At this moment, we’re going to have to take a quick little break from this riveting narrative, so that we may tell another story that non-foodies will not be aware of.
In early January, the following appeared on Craigslist:
This is just a screengrab — the entirety of this glorious post, which I encourage you to read in full, has been archived as a “Best of Craigslist”; if you’re short on time, highlights include color coding his farts, and describing the types of foods he needed to eat to create this rainbow of flatulence.
Who was this chef? To this day the mystery remains unsolved and has been gathering dust in the cold-case files of internet gossip. The week before my episode taped, however, this was all the blogosphere could talk about. And based on the clues provided, it was generally assumed the serial farter in question was a chef by the name of Scott Conant.
…and Scott Conant.
And I’m officially spending my entire day thinking of him farting all over Alex Guarnachelli.
The Non-Farting Judges
Marcus Samuelsson is intimidating, period. He was the first person I saw when I walked into the kitchen, and immediately my stomach dropped. For one thing, as I’m 50% Norwegian (thanks, Mom), I have long been a fan of his interpretations of modern Scandinavian cuisine, which, when I ate the classic version in my youth, seemed mostly like stewed fish balls with gelatinized fish sauce, covered with a robust fistful (or two) of dill. Second, the man was wearing an ascot, and not only that, he was actually pulling it off. Please name me another Ethiopian born Swede who can look good in a polka-dotted neckerchief. When you encounter something like that in person, your body physically does not know how to react. In my case, or in Scott Conant’s case, that reaction would be classified as “purple.”
And Alex Guarnachelli was just fine, I suppose. I’m sure she’s an amazing woman, but it’s really hard to find adjectives for someone who’s neither a candidate for New York City’s most famous serial farter, nor wearing an ascot. Maybe she’ll come on next season in a coconut bra and tiara, and then we’ll have something to talk about.
The Judging of the Judges
No matter what they were wearing, or doing, all three of them are incredible chefs who I’ve admired for a long time, and have the utmost respect for. Cooking for them is intimidating enough. But I’m not just cooking for them; I’m cooking to be judged by them. Even worse than that, I can hear them talking about me the entire time.
Picture this — you’re at desk today doing your job, when suddenly your boss comes in with all the bigwigs in your company. They stand behind your desk, tell you to ignore them and continue going about your day as usual. And then, as you begin working, you hear things like:
“Ooooooh, what do you think she’s going to do now?”
“It looks like he’s about to expense a client!”
“Oh my God, I can’t watch! This is brave stuff right here. Brave stuff.”
“I’m really scared for her right now. One wrong move and she’s out of here.”
“I don’t know if I’d do that if I was her. But there’s no turning back now — she just better pray that choice pans out.”
That’s exactly what it feels like to be on Chopped. It’s impossible to make a strong decision, or remember if you’re doing something correctly (regardless of the fact you’ve been doing those things professionally for over a decade), because under that sort of scrutiny, you’re constantly second-guessing yourself.
The most common question I’ve been asked since my appearance was “How could you think of something to make with ________ ingredient?” Honestly, that wasn’t the biggest problem. I develop recipes for a living— some with “crazy” ingredients— so it’s somewhat easy for me to come up with ideas for recipes, good recipes one that incorporate the four secret basket ingredients. What prevents the dishes from being successful, and. in my case, keeps them from coming remotely close to what I envisioned is:
1. The Pantry
First, the pantry. We were allowed to tour the kitchen facilities, pantry included, for about five minutes before shooting started. Most of that time was devoted to a producer, who gave us instructions on how to operate the most expensive equipment — the anti-griddle or sous vide, for example — without breaking them. (Of course, nobody uses these things.) We spent a few minutes trying to memorize everything that’s in stock. Contents range from staples, like flour, to more exotic ingredients, none of which I could remember, which is precisely why my three rounds on Chopped were a fucking shitshow. As the first round kicked off, I was doing fine. I’d designed a great dish in my head; it hinged on a gastrique made from plum jam. Sounds like a solid plan, right? It would have been, if there had been a jar of plum jam anywhere on set. There wasn’t. As panic set in, lost every shred of professional competency; my inner monologue quickly changed from quickly changed from “I am a great chef, and by golly, I can do this!” to “fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck!”
Next, the biggest issue, and the thing the judges admitted to us is the single greatest reason Chopped contestants fall— time. You are given twenty minutes for the appetizer round; thirty for the entree and dessert face-offs. I didn’t see what the big deal was, as I was expecting each of these minutes to pass by the same way they do when I’m microwaving some leftover lo mein (by time it’s finally hot, I always feel like I probably could have walked to Chinatown and scored a bowl of freshly made noodles instead — maybe even taken in a movie, too).
You know how fast twenty minutes flies when you’re holding a rack of wild boar, having a panic attack, and listening to Marcus Samuelsson loudly question every single one of your choices while you have a half dozen television cameras in your face?
I very quickly got to a point where my goal was not to make the most outstanding dish in the competition, but merely to finish. The kitchen is gigantic, there’s tons of running around, and the process is both physically and mentally exhausting. While the judging and interviews all happen in TV time and something as simple as grabbing a fork can take all of twenty minutes before directors get “just the right shot,” the actual cooking takes place in real time — three rounds in eighty minutes. I arrived in the studio at 5 a.m. and didn’t leave until around 11 p.m. That’s exactly one thousand minutes of “standing around waiting” between full-fledged sprints.
And trust me, those thousand minutes were most definitely “lo mein minutes.”
Regarding my episode, behind-the-scenes gossiping among the contestants has probably drawn the most comments. I, in particular, was called out for talking too much (nothing new), which I knew was going to happen when, in my off-camera interview , I was asked “Do you think you talk too much?” That sort of felt like a cheap shot, seeing as how I had been instructed to talk as much as possible in the green room so that they’d have interesting footage to edit. Nobody is tuning in to watch four people sit silently around a table, staring at each other, eating cold, rubbery eggs.
Then they asked me detailed questions about the other contestants, and tried to get me to say nasty things about my competitors. I do not fault the producers for this at all, because this is exactly why people watch reality TV — drama and conflict. They probably would have liked me a thousand times a thousand times more, if I’d sat there ripping everyone else to shreds, accusing my fellow sufferers all of farting excessively. But I refused to do it. It might not be the popular choice, or the one that gets the highest ratings, but I’d much rather try to get attention by making people laugh than by hurting others in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I stand by that choice. I have far too much respect for everyone in my business, which, outside of the glamour of television, is as low-paying as it is hard, to disparage anyone in that way. We are in different kitchens, but on the same team. End of story.
The Worst Part
I don’t think there’s ever been a contestant that has been happier about being Chopped than I was, because my loss in the final meant that I would not have to return for Chopped Champions (this was a very real and intense fear I had throughout each round of judging). The producers kept asking me how I felt about losing the $10,000 grand prize; honestly, it was never even a thought.
Competing on this show is less like going on Wheel of Fortune and more like signing up for a marathon — it’s not as much about winning as it is about pushing and challenging yourself, and seeing what you’re capable of. I survived three rounds, and got my face on sixty minutes of television, which is a great commercial of sorts for my upcoming cookbook, which I haven’t mentioned for, like, six paragraphs now.
Lost money and thwarted victory aside, there was part of this day that broke my heart.
Another reason I keep mentioning my book is that I filmed Chopped this past winter, on the exact same day the first draft was due. This means the weeks prior were spent glued to my laptop for sixteen-plus hours each day, with no time for training or advanced preparation for Chopped, and worst of all, no time to spend with my children.
That morning, as I snuck out of the house at 4:30 am, my five year old son, Atticus, woke up and stopped me.
“Where are you going?”
“You’re always working.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“You’re not going to take me to school.”
“Your Daddy will. I love you, baby. I do. I promise I’ll be home soon.”
“Promise me you’ll kiss me tonight at bedtime and we can snuggle. I miss you, Mommy.”
“I promise, Buddy. Super duper promise.”
I didn’t know what it took to film a reality show. I didn’t know that television crews put in hours that make those of us in the culinary profession look like wimps by comparison. I didn’t know that I would be there for eighteen hours when I promised to kiss him goodnight.
I should have been excited that I kept advancing, but I kept looking at the clock. When we began the dessert round, I knew that Atticus was already safely in bed; that my husband had tucked him in and made up a bedtime story to explain where I was. All I wanted to do was go home.
How silly is that? To be invited to compete on one of the most popular cooking shows on television, and to have your thoughts consumed by tucking your son in? When I was a hotshot twenty-three year old line cook, I would have come in, guns blazing, ready to prove my mettle and take anyone down in the process. I would have been obsessed with walking out as nothing less than a champion. And now, as I stood at my station, setting up a shot for the beginning of the dessert round, I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that, at that moment, I was a failure, because I let my kid down. Atticus, however, more than likely felt like a success, since after this incident he got ice cream every day for two weeks.
Will I ever do a reality food competition again? Possibly, as it seems it’s the only type of food show anyone is producing anymore. But know, if you see me, I’m not there to be vicious or rude or controversial — I’m there to have fun. That is, until Food Network decides it’s finished with competition programming and finally starts producing some of my great, content-based ideas, like “Name That Soup,” “Cronuts Ahoy!”, or “Getting Wasted at an Airport with the Robicellis.”