Our Dark Summertime Binge: “Chopped” Season One

Chopped season 1!

Aphrodisiac or poison? YOU make the call!

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: with weeks to go till vacation and no pressing obligations, my wife Anne and I have been bingeing a few different shows together, while I’ve done some additional grim watching on the side. Certainly not through careful planning on our part, each of the shows has had their own depressing and/or tragic aspects. Veronica Mars season 4 had its mad-bomber mystery and its upsetting finale. Season 2 of Hulu’s Light as a Feather made teen horror out of a slumber party game. The Netflix documelodrama The Last Czars reminded us Russian history is grimmer than many of our TV stories, and trying to cheer your audience up with cult orgies doesn’t help.

This summer we’ve even managed to find oppression and despondency in the things we’ve loved and watched for years. We expected nothing less from Veronica Mars. It paled before the dark side of Chopped.

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99 Ways to Get Chopped from “Chopped”: A Handy Tips-‘n’-Tricks Checklist


Who among us has never looked at a bag of Cheetos and thought, “I bet I could turn this into haute cuisine”?

For years my wife Anne and I have been addicted to the Food Network’s cooking-competition series Chopped, in which four chefs must outcook each other under strictly timed conditions using four specific ingredients. Inside every Chopped basket of goods lurks a surprising combination of the rare, the delicate, the expensive, the complicated, the whimsical, the outlandish, and/or the thoroughly disgusting. Every substance can be used, though not every substance is very good.

Food Network continues gifting us with new episodes every week hosted by the amazing colossal Ted Allen, who presides over this fast-paced showcase for chefs of every conceivable demographic from various American restaurants, caterers, bakeries, or other private businesses, each of whom keeps their eyes on the $10,000 prize to be had if they’re the last entrant remaining after three grueling courses of speed-heating, kitchen-racing, and power-serving.

After watching several dozen episodes, Anne and I began to notice recurring patterns and tried to capture those observations and our fandom back in 2014 with a previous MCC entry called “How Not to Get Chopped from ‘Chopped’: A Starter Guide“. I’ve been meaning to overhaul that entry for a while now that we’re four years and literally 200+ episodes later, which includes every episode of the kids-only spinoff Chopped Junior and a handful of episodes of Chopped Canada, which was an interesting effort with its own angle and demeanor but wasn’t quite the same thing. I’m ashamed to confess it was tough to watch for more than a few minutes before I started poking fun in a goofy faux-Fargo accent.

The following compilation is our revised armchair-chef advice for future would-be competitors on how not to do Chopped from where we sit. This list is doubtlessly 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 trained gourmet by any stretch, we hope this helps someone out there anyway. If you raise a skeptical eyebrow at any of these, well…it’s positively flabbergasting how many of these downfalls we’ve seen happen in actual episodes at the hands of trained professionals who run fantastic eateries back home but who lose their poise in front of the cameras. Even the best can make mistakes or watch their plans spin out of control.

Enjoy! Learn! Win!

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Our Fantastic Food Fest 2018 Photos

Gallery Pastry Shop!

Fruit tarts from the Gallery Pastry Shop in Broad Ripple. At right, their almond cookies were among Anne’s favorite bites of the day.

This weekend my wife Anne and I had the pleasure of attending the third annual Fantastic Food Fest at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. This annual event bringing together the best and brightest providers from numerous restaurants, markets, farms, caterers, bakeries, and other tremendous sources of locally sourced ingredients and cuisine under one roof for foodies to gather and escape winter doldrums. Year One’s big show kicked off our new yearly tradition with the perfect headliner, Chopped host and hometown hero Ted Allen. Year Two brought us the immense pleasure of meeting Chopped judge and Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli.

This year, we weren’t there for TV personalities or jazz-hands photo ops. If you know who TV chef and NPR contributor Sara Moulton is, or if you’re a fan of celebrated Hoosier chefs or food bloggers, this was the show for you. For us, this time was all about the food.

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Indiana State Fair 2017 Photos #3: Breadbaskets Beyond Our Borders

Vertical Farming!

Hydroponics: the wave of the future! That’s what scientists have been trying to tell us since I was a kid, anyway. Are we finally getting on that yet?

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

It’s that time again! The Indiana State Fair is an annual celebration of Hoosier pride, farming, food, and 4-H, with amusement park rides, cooking demos, concerts by musicians that other people love, and farm animals competing for cash prizes and herd bragging rights. My wife Anne and I attend each year as a date-day to seek new forms of creativity and imagination within a local context. Usually we’re all about the food.

…and, in a bit of a bold departure for our State Fair, this time it’s not all about Hoosier crops and recipes. In collaboration with Manhattan’s own American Museum of Natural History, this year our fair presents a special exhibit called “Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture” — an in-depth look at how other countries and cultures, past and present, view and prepare ingredients and meals from farm to table and all the unique processes in between. Because this year at the fair, there’s more than corn in Indiana.

(Slight in-joke for the locals out there.)

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Cooking with Alex Guarnaschelli at Indy’s 2nd Fantastic Food Fest

Alex Guarnaschelli!

True story: Chef Alex is the first person we’ve ever met at a show who mentioned jazz hands in a Q&A before we even had the chance to ask.

Last year my wife Anne and I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Fantastic Food Fest at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, planned by its creators at Circle City Expos as an annual event bringing together the best and brightest providers from numerous restaurants, markets, farms, caterers, bakeries, and other tremendous sources of locally sourced ingredients and cuisine under one roof for foodies to gather and escape winter doldrums. Year One’s big show brought in a headliner we loved to meet, Chopped host and hometown hero Ted Allen. If the show was successful, we figured we’d return regardless of the guest list.

As Chopped fans, we weren’t disappointed. Year 2 brought in a related special guest all the way from New York City, Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli, the Chopped judge most likely to deliver a ruling composed entirely of clever metaphors. Alex summed up the order of the day as she opened her 1:30 cooking demo: “It’s time to eat and cook and forget about a whole lotta other things for a while.”

Right this way for a photo gallery of amazing colossal foodstuffs!

Before You Throw Away Those Cappuccino Potato Chips…

Lay's Cappuccino Potato Chips!

The mandatory “sinister side” pic from their upcoming episode of the Oxygen true-food-crime series Snacked.

A few weeks ago we culinary daredevils here at Midlife Crisis Crossover ignored societal customs and tried two of the new flavors of Lay’s Potato Chips that they designed at the suggestion of folks outside the food industry who may have come up with their ideas by pointing to random words in a cookbook.

One contender in particular, their Cappuccino Potato Chips, seems to be the most taboo-breaking of these next-wave snacks. In a recent Yahoo! article, New York Times coffee authority Oliver Strand was called in from whatever he was doing at the time that had to be more important than this, and was asked to test these chips for coffee authenticity. His conclusion is unsurprising yet apt (“The chips smell like the coffee candy your grandmother kept in a glass bowl in the living room”), but he also delves into the background of the company that provided Frito-Lay with the food-science technology necessary to pull off this modern anomaly. It’s a short, recommended reading that foreshadows other unprecedented, amalgamated endeavors in the future, except maybe those will be popular and people won’t scrunch up their noses at them.

I get the impression the Cappuccino Chips may not be flying off store shelves and will soon be relegated to Dollar General clearance bins within the next six to twelve months. My wife and I have been slowly working our way through the bag we bought, a chore prolonged by my reading comprehension failure that caused me to buy a party-sized bag. Why that size exists, I’ve no idea. Maybe they satisfy a fine-print contractual obligation. Good luck finding a crowd of twenty to one hundred friends and relatives who’d love you enough to unite and eat the entire bag for you in a single month, let alone in one party.

I don’t loathe them, but as Strand points out, they lack the enchanting loyalty that a classic potato chip commands. Anyone who’s ever tried to eat a single Pringle knows those sensations — the surprise hunger pang that wasn’t there a few minutes ago, and the sudden, insatiable craving that demands you eat at least another pound of them before you reseal the container. Unlike Pringles or actual caffeinated products, the cappuccino chips have an addiction factor near zero. They’re okay, but they’re becoming a chore for us to finish.

After a few other food-synthesis experiments that proved unappealing, this past Tuesday night I stumbled across one use for them that truly, sincerely clicked. I like to think every foodstuff exists for a reason, and I believe I’ve discovered the Cappuccino Chip’s true calling. And hopefully this doesn’t lead us into a darker future fraught with French-fry lattes or hazelnut casserole or mocha tots.

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Thinking Like a “Chopped” Contestant Can Save Any Dull Pitch-In


The picture and my plate both looked too plain, so I added Crow for garnish. Maybe it’s not something you would do, but I’m an otherwise reasonable adult and I’m perfectly happy with my garnish choices.

Pictured above is my newest creation, inspired by frustrated circumstances. It’s a stale Marsh donut sliced in half bun-wise, filled with one layer of chipped-beef-‘n’-cream-cheese from the best kind of cheese ball, one layer of Ritz crackers, and one layer of plain cream cheese. I dubbed it the Good Afternoon Burger. It would’ve been even better if someone had thought ahead and brought in some rich, creamery butter to use as dressing. They had veggie dip, but that’s the absolute opposite.

And this wasn’t the worst thing I tried today…

The Three Best Quote-Unquote “Recipes” in My Repertoire

homemade chili

Your opinions about The Way Chili Should Be will vary. All I can tell you is my wife and son are fans of this version.

This is not now, nor will it ever be, a home cooking blog. I don’t mind cobbling together the occasional recipe, but I rarely have the patience or attention span to work with the kind of recipe that requires twenty-plus ingredients, some of which I can’t pronounce. Also, my wife does most of the cooking because she works less overtime than I do. In those select moments when I’m motivated and free to cook, three dishes are requested more often than any other. They’re not complicated compared to the average recipe, they’re not fancy, and they’re definitely not healthy, but they’re each a part of simple old me.

Please note: many of you are much better cooks than I am. Many of you will and should turn your nose up at these because of your vastly superior culinary skills. I’m not mocking you; I’m acknowledging your advanced knowledge in this field with utmost sincerity. I was in the fast-food industry for twelve years and developed above-average skills suitable for a fast-paced mass-production grill area, but that career path dead-ended thirteen years ago. Since that time, I’ve done the best I can with the fading talents, remaining free time, and affordable ingredients allotted to me.

(If you want to see me cooking something truly terrible, I’d be happy to share the nightmare fodder from several low-carb cookbooks I resorted to during my 2004-2005 diet. You haven’t known gastronomic misery until you’ve had a sugar-free dessert baked in a crust made from vanilla whey protein powder.)

This way for the secrets of my kitchen! What few there are!

How Not to Get Chopped from “Chopped”: a Starter Guide

Chopped, Food Network

[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.]

* * * * *

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.

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