How 'Chopped' Became TV's Greatest Cooking Show
Chihuahuas, chicken in a can, and other surprising insights from Food Network's crown jewel.
Credit: Food Network
Just over ten years ago, executives for the Food Network deemed a cooking competition pilot so wacky that it didn't even air. The pilot was filmed in a mansion, had a butler for a host, featured chef contestants pulling up in limos, and a pet chihuahua that was fed the losing chef's dish. Unfortunately, there isn't much additional information (or video evidence) of this pilot, which would eventually become Chopped, the cooking competition show that's since helped Food Network to maintain consecutive ratings growth. In fact, the only information available comes from the show's host himself.
"I wish I knew the chihuahua's name," Ted Allen, the charming host of Chopped, tells me about the unaired pilot. "Food Network got the pilot—which they spent actual money to make—and I think they kinda rolled their eyes and said, 'Okay, that's a little weird for us.'" But in 2009, Food Network executive producer Linda Lea stripped away the extraneous elements and realized the potential. Allen says Lea thought, "'Let's just have a straight up competition about chefs.'" In the ten years since the unaired pilot, and the eight years since its first official season, Chopped has built a foundation that has cemented itself as just that.
The quick-moving cooking game show challenges four chefs in three rounds to make an appetizer, entree, and dessert using mystery basket ingredients for a $10,000 prize. One chef is eliminated after each round by a panel of judges who base their decisions on the merits of presentation, taste, and creativity. The challenge comes from the lightening-fast rounds (20, 30, and 30 minutes respectively) and the wackiness of the mystery baskets, which usually include at least one ingredient meant to throw the chefs off—think sardines paired with banana chips for the appetizer course; American cheese for the dessert round.
Unlike some of the other cooking competition shows that focus on season-long character development and a variety of culinary challenges (and all the drama that ensues), Chopped has proven itself to be an entirely different breed of cooking game show. Resembling more of a sporting event featuring chefs as the athletes, Chopped has just one type of culinary challenge. Since the show's debut, there's been various Chopped specials added to Food Network's lineup: Chopped Champions (past contestants), Chopped All-Stars (past winners, Food Network celebrities, and celebrity chefs), and the fan-favorite Chopped Junior (four adolescent chefs).
"Chopped is relatable," Allen says. "We all have the experience of opening the fridge and needing to throw a meal together with what we have on hand." He's not wrong: Chopped and its spiritual predecessor Iron Chef are the only cooking competition shows where the biggest focus is on the ingredients themselves. They're additional characters of the show, and they bring the drama.
Allen says footage of the chefs' reactions to the baskets is shot at least twice. "We have four camera operators right in front of each of the chefs," he says, "We're looking for, 'Oh my god, it's chicken in a can.'" Allen is referring to the legendary 2013 "Viewers' Choice Baskets" episode in which the mystery ingredients were chosen by Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter users—an episode that taught me two things: Chopped social media users have a demented sense of humor, and chicken in a can is a thing that exists. Chopped's regular showcase of rare and unusual ingredients is one advantage it has over other cooking competition shows. You learn things—not just what those weird ingredients are, but also if you're on the receiving end of an open can of chicken, how to cook with it.
Allen says there's really very little you can do as far as preparation for the wackiness of the mystery baskets goes. "Obviously, being an experienced chef helps. Understanding how to cook a duck breast, how not to overcook a clam—that's gonna help you. But nothing can prepare you for what's in the basket."
Chopped fan Janette Park loves the show because it's simply about the food: "There's no focus on developing contestants as personalities and the accompanying rivalries, pettiness, infighting you can see on other reality shows," she tells me. "The format also doesn't depend on gimmicks or unfair advantages to make it compelling to the audience." Fashionista.com Audience Development Manager Liza Sokol cites the appeal of the creativity the chefs bring: "It's interesting how chefs presented with the same variables can do something so wildly different." Academic researcher Sava says, "I love how the judges change their expectations based on who is cooking. That really allows for amateur cooks to do what they do without the expectation of high level haute cuisine."
And the rigorousness of Chopped does stand out, even in the world of cooking competitions. The time constraints means chef contestants are constantly running around the kitchen, and each other. Injuries are common—slips and falls while running to collect plates, knife cuts with various degrees of seriousness, and the one I find the hardest to watch: a slip of a knuckle or finger across the blade of a mandolin slicer.
"Competitive cooking is a very specific skill that one can learn," Allen tells me. "Alex Guarnaschelli has learned it, Chris Santos has learned it. Not many people can do it. It's staggeringly hard." Allen, who after 33 seasons, just competed for the first time in the Chopped kitchens with his mom for this year's special Mother's Day episode. (Spoiler: The judges ended up chopping him and his mom in the entree round, to which he playfully responded, "You jerks.")
From the drama of the baskets to the personalities of the judges and chef contestants, Chopped also has a certain meme-friendliness to it, allowing it to permeate popular culture through the internet and social media. If the memes are any indication (which they are), Chopped is a hit with millennials; the show's popularity with young people is a no-brainer, as Generation Y is often reported on as being food-obsessed. And when you think about it, the nine individual personalities that exude from the judges do make for good meme content—just think of Alex Guarnaschelli telling contestants, "Mayonnaise can be a powerful force in the universe."
"The judges are the stars of the show," Allen tells me, touching on a big aspect of Chopped's success. Tom Holzerman, a wrestling writer, sees parallels between Chopped and professional wrestling: "A lot of the same beats that draw me in with wrestling are present in Chopped. Personalities tend to be inflated, especially on the judge panel. It's a show with stakes."
Chopped fans know more or less what to expect when it comes to the judges. We know Alex Guarnaschelli's most likely to be referred to by contestants as "scary"; Amanda Freitag is the chocolate-loving judge most likely to cry about a contestant's back story, and Aarón Sánchez is most likely to side-eye you about your mole (which is probably not even really a mole). Chopped's recurring judges makes viewers feel like they have a chance to get to know the people deciding the fate of the contestants.
And no other cooking competition show does drama better than Chopped. On a Chopped Tournament of Stars episode in 2014, Brandi Chastain got emotional about the charity she was on the show competing for; as she stopped herself before the inevitable water works began, she said, "This is a cooking show, not a crying show." Not missing a beat, Alex Guarnaschelli told her, "It's probably both."
Over the years, the Chopped sob story has become a source of exasperation for some viewers, as evidenced in this 154-comment thread on Reddit, with a consensus that producers should get rid of the sob story and focus entirely on the cooking. (This ignores that Chopped is a television show, and needs an emotional element.)
While the Chopped sob story does seem to have reached an annoying peak as of late, there have been at least some instances when they've been truly heartwarming. In the season eight episode "Sweet Second Chance!", the winning chef gave his $10,000 to the runner-up so she could visit her ill grandmother in France, which I'm pretty sure is the only time this has happened in Chopped's 34 seasons. I cried! Even Geoffrey Zakarian seemed to tear up! I rewatched that scene as I was writing this, and I cried again.
The landscape of cooking competition shows would look much different without the influence of Chopped. Even as ratings for Food Network have downtrended over the years, Chopped's popularity with viewers has been ongoing. While food purists often blame Food Network for the decline of home cooking in this country, it's hard for me to deny that, at least on Chopped, the enthusiasm about cooking and ingredients is contagious. When I see something like chicken in a can transformed into a well-rounded dish, it's potent and effective food television. Near the end of our phone call, Allen tells me, "The longer I do this, the more I appreciate getting to work with people I love. Our judges—for whom cooking is not just their job, it's their life—believe cooking matters, the food matters." This is exactly the kind of foundation an endearing cooking competition show needs. Luckily for fans, Chopped is as strong as ever.
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