[Special note for this historic occasion: 70% of the following entry was written by Midlife Crisis Crossover’s very first guest contributor, my wife Anne. She knows I welcome her input anytime — above and beyond her ongoing, invaluable photo contributions — but she’s never taken me up on my standing offer on a writing basis till now. Remember: the more you applaud and embrace this entry, the more leverage I’ll have in wheedling her for more contributions in the future.]
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Blame our 2013 road trip for this entry. We discovered the Food Network’s Chopped while flipping channels late Tuesday night in our Boston hotel room. The concept of this cooking-competition series is cerebral and daffy at once: four chefs are given a basket filled with four different ingredients that must be transformed and worked together into a single course, even if they don’t go together, even if they don’t go with the course in question (e.g., meats in the dessert rounds), even if they’re the vilest substance on Earth (durian!), even if mishandling the ingredients might kill put one of the judges in the hospital. (We’ve never thought that last one was a good idea…) The winner selected by three judges earns $10,000.00. The rest are treated to an empty-handed walk down the Hallway of Disappointment, with reactions ranging from excited letdown to disgusted fury to indignant self-hatred to horrific realization that defeat has destroyed their livelihood. The show can be funny and inspiring and tear-jerking and tragic in the space of a single episode.
After vacation we marathoned every Chopped episode available On Demand, caught many of the Tuesday and Thursday reruns, and are now keeping up with new episodes each week. Even though we’re recent converts, we’ve been taking mental notes along the way of the errors and omissions that occur with the most frequency, from the stupefyingly obvious to the obscure-but-fatal. Just in time for the upcoming Chopped five-part “Tournament of Stars” miniseries (yay celebrity contestants!), the following compilation is our armchair-cook advice for future would-be Chopped competitors based on the dozens of episodes we’ve devoured to date. This list is far from complete, and we welcome any additions in the comments below, especially from those among you who can truly cook. Though neither of us is a fancy gourmet chef by any stretch, we hope this helps anyway.
1) Leaving off a basket ingredient: bad or really bad? Theoretically, this should be a no-brainer. If a basket ingredient is mandatory, leaving it off should eliminate a contestant. Host Ted Allen tells the contestants at the beginning of each episode that they must use every ingredient in the mystery basket in some way. However, when it inevitably happens, he adds that it’s not an immediate disqualification. While leaving a basket ingredient out of the dish certainly can get you chopped, you might be safe if one of your fellow contestants makes a more serious error. Don’t put all of your hopes on another contestant serving contaminated or unsafe food, though. If the other contestants do everything right, you’re doomed. There also seems to be some leeway given for those who create something with the ingredient and run out of time getting it on the plate, as opposed to contestants who just don’t even get the package open in the first place.
Caveat: In the dessert round, the judges consider all of the dishes you made during the competition when making their final decision as to the winner. Just because you make it through the appetizer round with a missing ingredient doesn’t mean it’s not taken into consideration when determining the winner of the entire contest. If you’re thinking about omitting an ingredient because its existence violates your beliefs or culinary ethics, you’re dooming yourself in the long run.
2) Serving raw, undercooked, or overcooked food: try not to. One of the cardinal sins of Chopped. You must make certain that what you serve isn’t underdone. Meat is, obviously, one of the biggest culprits here. It’s not uncommon for a contestant to slap a thick cut of meat in a hot skillet with 15-20 minutes to go. Oddly enough, many of them toss the meat they’ve been searing on the skillet into the oven, which rarely succeeds in getting most anything stuck in it done. Though ovens are allegedly preheated and water is set to boiling before the timer starts, food still takes time. Vegetables and rice are guilty parties, too. Very few competitors have ever actually served properly cooked risotto on this show.
By the same token, overcooked or burned food is also judged harshly. Keep an eye on your food, but not so much that you inhibit its ability to get done. I’m talking to all those contestants who constantly open the oven door or peer under the lid of a pot.
3) Don’t be afraid of seasoning, even the ordinary ones. I’m not sure why they can’t just put a shaker of salt on the judges’ table as everyone has their own tastes when it comes to food, but failing to salt the food is a common complaint in the entree round. It’s nice that you want to impress Aarón Sanchez with a powerfully spicy dish on the high end of the Scoville scale, but that effort will be wasted if you’re overlooking the basics and refuse to accept that salt tastes great on beef.
4) Avoid the kind of epic-fail sins you’d expect from a teenage Dairy Queen employee. These are the bad ones. Contaminated food, for example. Several chefs have cut themselves and, because of time, just pulled a plastic glove over the hand and continued to cook while the audience watched the glove fill up with blood. When this happens, the contestant risks getting drops of blood on the plate or on the utensils and dishes used to prep the food. The judges will not eat your food at all if this happens. Other contestants have served food they’ve dropped on the floor, cross-contaminated, double-dipped in, or failed to notice a hair on the plate. If you are spotted doing any of these things, your competitors would have to put nothing on their plates to keep you from being chopped.
5) Time management: important in life and here. Choose a dish that can actually be realistically prepared in the time allotted. Make sure you don’t spend a lot of time cutting, peeling, and chopping food, leaving little time to boil or bake it. Cut meat into thinner or smaller portions to make sure it gets done. Leave yourself at least one full minute to plate your food, taking special care to make sure all of your food items, especially the mystery ingredients, make it on the plate.
Important corollary: if a certain recipe takes hours to cook in real life, trying to cram it into a half-hour rush job is folly. Many are the chefs who swore up and down that their entree was a quote-unquote molé, only to watch the judges scoff and take off points.
6) The basket ingredients should be your stars. A common complaint is that a contestant hasn’t incorporated a basket ingredient successfully into the dish. This occurs when a contestant either doesn’t know what to do with it and just dumps fragments of it on top of the dish or uses it in such an odd way that it simply doesn’t work. Of course, they also complain if you lose the integrity of the ingredient by pureeing it to the dark side of the moon so that it can’t be tasted at all. If they can’t detect the basket ingredient in the dish, even if you promise it’s in there somewhere, they often treat it as if it was left off the plate entirely.
7) Non-basket ingredients should be the sidekicks, not the stars. While contestants are encouraged to incorporate food from the Chopped pantry and refrigerator, they shouldn’t fixate so much on an off-basket item that they fail to treat the essential ingredients properly. The judges may not care that you were craving sweet potato fries, especially if they’re the only part of the meal you did right.
8) See that bottle of white truffle oil in the pantry? IT’S A TRAP. We’ve seen at least three episodes in which a contestant reached for the white truffle oil and added it to their meal, despite the groans and protests coming from the judges’ table. In all three instances, the contestants were chopped specifically because the white truffle oil overwhelmed every other flavor on the plate. We’ve never tasted it, but apparently it’s either disgusting or outlawed in thirty-nine states. Even if you know how to use white truffle oil, even if your daddy was a white truffle oil baron and Momma served white truffle oil with every meal, even if your restaurant is a five-star bistro called Chez White Truffle Oil, step away from the white truffle oil.
9) You’ll need a lot more than fifteen seconds to plate your food. Because the plate is judged on how it looks, watch the time. Slopping or tossing food on the plate makes for an unappetizing dish that could be the difference between winning and losing. Make sure to wipe the plate after adding the food, and remove chunks of inedible bits like shells, stalks, stray hairs, and packaging. Seriously, people.
10) Paint with all the colors of the food. Not everything on your plate should be beige and orange. Little accessories can make a difference, as long as they don’t overwhelm or distract. It’s not just about variety of colors, either; try to avoid ugly tones. Purees are popular on this show, but you don’t want a gray soup sitting underneath your perfectly seared cod.
11) Mechanical failure will strike when you least expect it. Not “if”. The ovens are notorious for producing underdone foods, but the ice cream machine and blast chiller so regularly kick out product that is milky, soggy or hard as a rock that the presentation suffers. The one and only time a contestant approached the cappuccino maker (who knew the kitchen even had one?), it proved useless and had to be abandoned. The recent beef-themed episode featured a quartet of meat grinders that unanimously malfunctioned and turned the appetizer round into a joke. If possible, keep a contingency plan in mind in case your bright idea blows up in your face. And if you’ve never used a given machine before at your restaurant, the Chopped kitchen may not be the right place for a training course.
12) In the dessert round, just say no to bread pudding and napoleons. The sad thing about the ice cream machine is that the judges looooove ice cream. In older episodes they got positively giddy when they saw someone making it. French toast, napoleons and, especially bread pudding, are such common desserts on this show that it’s not unusual for the judges to have both finalists present bread puddings to critique. Try to think outside the snack box.
13) Don’t play it too safe. None of your three courses should be the same kind of dish. If you keep your appetizer basic and use only the basket ingredients, you’ll need to broaden your scope in the entrée round and dive into those pantry extras. Resist the temptation to make a dish that’s so super-simple to make that even we uncouth Hamburger Helper fans could manage it at home.
By the same token, the judges do note when a contestant serves them food that is not as complicated as what they know that chef can produce. Many chefs have a signature food. It’s fine to put something you make very well on a plate, so long as it goes well with the other items you’ve prepared. Think again if you just want to get praise for your specialty on national television. More than one contestant has taken up valuable time needed for working on the essential basket ingredients by being too eager to put their specialty in front of the panel. In the end, the judges often deem that it adds nothing to the dish.
14) Two different recipes on a plate may not a course make. The judges applaud creativity, but they also want all of the ingredients on the plate to be tied together in some way. A random side dish that does not meld well with an entrée or a sauce can work against you. This is where it’s important to choose pantry ingredients with care. Put a plan in force before running to the pantry. We groan when someone is halfway through plating their dish, then decides to add another pantry ingredient to the plate. The judges do, too. Last-minute additions often fail and cost valuable plating time that could be better used for perfecting presentation.
15) Get to know your judges. Though the panel rotates judges from episode to episode, viewers tend to see the same ones regularly. Some prefer bold flavors; others prefer light seasoning. Some like sweet food; some like spicy. Some run screaming from either. Watch many episodes of the show, not just one. Get a good idea of the specific preferences of the most common judges on the panel. Make note of any food item a judge singles out as not liking and don’t put that on your plate unless it’s a basket ingredient.
We mentioned above the need to be careful about serving your signature foods. The judges are often experts on certain types of foods as well. A good rule of thumb is to avoid making a judge’s specialty food unless you are certain you can properly cook it. If you’re brave enough to serve pasta to Scott Conant, we can’t be held responsible for the humiliating consequences if you achieve anything less than letter-perfect noodles.
16) Work on your backstory. We’ve seen chefs who’ve dealt with terminally-ill relatives, combated personal illness or injury, incurred financial blows and buried parents the day before their appearance on the show. Inevitably, these stories come up when Ted asks them why they are competing. The judges like a good “pulled myself up by my bootstraps” story as much as anyone. There have been occasions in which it seemed the judges pushed through a contestant with an inspiring story. Be wary, though, about turning on the waterworks too much. The first time you tell your story, you will have their sympathy. Bursting into tears over your childhood dog the minute a judge points out you left the bloody stub of your thumb on the plate won’t work.
17) Attitude makes for lively reality TV, but poor customer service. If there are contestants who inspire the judges, there are ones that irritate them, too. There have been unlikeable, arrogant contestants who’ve won the game, but I’ve noticed overall that the cocky ones tend to be chopped eventually. While it remains a secret if the judges’ scorecard includes a category for demoting those with nasty attitudes, we don’t recommend being overly boastful, dismissive of your colleagues or argumentative when the judges critique your plate. We’ve seen episodes where a judge seems to champion a particular contestant. We’ve also seen judges take contestants to task over blatant superiority complexes. If overcoming adversity can give a chef a little extra boost from the judges, it follows that it’s possible the panel could tire of an arrogant contestant and find enough fault with a dish to warrant elimination.
18) If you forget everything else, remember this much: If it’s meat, pan-sear it. If it’s a liquid or a candy, turn it into a reduction sauce or gastrique. If it’s a starch, that’s your breading or croutons. If it’s a fruit or veggie, do anything besides just slicing and serving it.
Now go out there and become the next Chopped champion! But first we’re going to have to ask you to put down the white truffle oil.