Ted Allen on What Makes Chopped So Popular, and Why He Could Never Compete

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What makes Chopped such a successful competition show, one that, to this day, still excites fans and keeps unsuspecting chefs on their toes? According to host Ted Allen, a number of factors add up to make Chopped great television, but at the heart of it is an unyielding passion for food that’s on display every time a chef opens a basket of mystery ingredients.

Whether you watch Chopped, Chopped Junior or the tournaments (Champions, All-Stars, Grill Masters or Teens), the format is the same: There are three rounds of mystery baskets, and each chef has only so much time to cook the ingredients. What changes are the chefs, who each bring their stories to the kitchen and cook with boundless energy and deep passion that emanates in their plates. That’s what makes Chopped one of the best food competition shows on TV.

FN dish caught up with the indomitable host to chat about what makes the show so special, what goes into preparing for an episode, what’s changed over the many seasons — because he’s been there since its inception — and what would happen if he suddenly had to compete. Hint: Ted characterizes his skills as the complete opposite of the competitors’ abilities. Find out what he had to say about the long-running series and more.

Chopped has been on TV for quite a while. What do you think is its staying power?

Ted Allen: Well, you can never tell what’s going to resonate with people. But for me I think this show is the cleanest, simplest competition in food TV. We give you four difficult ingredients that don’t necessarily go together well. And it all comes down to: Can you cook that into something beautiful in 20 or 30 minutes or can’t you? We have great casting. We bring in terrific chefs and interesting people. Many can’t do this very difficult game.

We have a fantastic panel of amazing chefs who serve as our judges, with whom I am now great, great friends. I think we have a wonderful chemistry together. Put us together, any collection of us, with or without there being a bottle of wine, and we will go on and on in ways that I think are really fun, talking about food or anything else for that matter.

I think at its core, Food Network is the best producer of television because everyone involved in these shows, from Cutthroat Kitchen to The Kitchen, [is] deeply knowledgeable about food, deeply passionate about food. There’s nothing we would rather talk about, except to cook it and to eat it. That passion and that intensity would never wane for anybody on Chopped in the [countless] episodes we’ve made. And I think you can sense that through the screen, and you can sense when people don’t have that passion. Even though Chopped is the same every single episode, I like that it’s the same basically every episode. We’re still very much driven by food and chefs, and excellence, and craziness. And you can feel that passion when you watch us.

You’ve stood there as the host for all those seasons, from the very beginning. Is there anything different now compared to day one?

TA: Making a competitive cooking show is much more complicated than it looks in the edit. We have a staff member whose job it is to make sure the ingredients are there — that they’re fresh. What has changed, though? … [In] a thousand little ways we get better every single season. … I think we make this show faster and more interesting for viewers. We use better quality cameras. We have robot cams that can be operated with a joystick to zoom in on the cooking action.

One thing that’s changed, and here’s a fun fact: We shot the first 120 episodes in a different studio in Queens, in Long Island City. Food Network moved us to its flagship studio, and when they did that, they had to rebuild the set to make it look just like the original set. So when someone gets chopped and they walk down that hallway, that’s a re-creation of the actual hallway that came in the old studio in L.I. City. We adopted that hallway as a part of our set from the very beginning, so when we moved, we had to replicate that. And they were also able to make the set larger so our camera operators have more room to run around.

What’s the best part about your job as the host — and the worst?

TA: Well, anybody who works in TV can tell you there’s usually a lot of “hurry up and wait,” a lot of sitting around. We are such an efficient show at this point that there’s very little sitting around. In fact, my complaint might be that there’s not enough sitting around. There’s not enough time to rest. I have to stand up the whole show, and I’m in every shot, so I would like a chance to, you know, sit down and catch my breath and, I don’t know, take a nap or something. We drink a lot of espresso at work. There aren’t many bad things about it. 

I’d say the best thing for me is the relationships that I have with all of our judges and our camera operators in particular and our director and our staff. I mean, we’re tight friends; we finish each other’s sentences, and we joke all day and it’s fun. It’s just rowdy fun. It’s fun to hear from fans, people who watch. It’s fun to see what they’re saying online. It’s fun to see kids doing Chopped birthday parties and try to re-enact Chopped competitions at home — that’s fun. I mean, there is very little about it that isn’t fun. Actually, the only thing I hate about that job is that I have to get up really early in the morning and work a 12-hour day, and I am not a morning guy.

How do you and the judges prepare prior to taping an episode?

TA: That actually illuminates another part of the complexity of the show that people would not realize. The culinary staff at Food Network … [prepares] the research document about the basket ingredients that they give us in the morning before we start. So, even though our judges are deeply knowledgeable about ingredients, [the culinary staff’s] job is to try to trip [the judges] up with things they’ve never had before, and [the staff] does a great job. And believe me, after all these baskets, it isn’t easy finding something new, but the world of food is so huge that [they find] new things, new flavors, new ingredients, new weird things that we’d never seen. And so because of that, someone has to write a research document that arms us with information about all those basket ingredients so we can talk about their history, if they happen to be a nostalgic American item like a Twinkie, which we amusingly have to refer to as a prefilled sponge cake, snack cake or whatever. We don’t use brand names. I get a copy of the scripts, which I go over and make sure I’m comfortable with it, and change it if I’m not. We have coffee and breakfast. They serve us a nice yummy breakfast. And we go through hair and makeup, and we try to be “wheels up,” as we say. We try to start the cameras rolling at 8 a.m., and we usually make it or come close.

Do you have any superstitious thing you do before going on camera?

TA: No, absolutely not. I am not a superstitious guy. No, I don’t even believe in astrology. I’m a science person. I believe in research, fact, I mean, I’m an art person as well — I love art. But … I’m not a superstitious guy at all. Nope. Let’s just shoot this thing. Let’s get into this.

You’ve cooked on After Hours a couple of times. How did it feel being on the other side?

TA: It was awesome. It was super fun. … We talk the talk all day long about what we would cook with a basket; this gives myself and the judges a chance to actually do it. I love to cook. I’m a good cook. I’m a decent cook. With the pressure off and with it being After Hours, I’m more than happy to do that once in a while — not very often. But I think I look pretty good in a Chopped jacket.

Will fans ever see you sitting behind the judges’ table doling critiques?

TA: Oh, I’d love that. Absolutely. Let’s not forget that the only reason I ended up on Food Network in the first place is because Food Network asked me to be a judge on Iron Chef America, which I did about 40 something times. … I’ve been judging and tasting food for a long time, and that’s the whole reason Food Network ever hired me was because they liked the way that I judged food.

Would you ever compete on Chopped proper?

TA: I’m probably never, almost certainly never, going to compete in an actual episode of Chopped for several reasons. One is I’m not a professional chef, and I’m not going to cook against Alex Guarnaschelli. … The people who are the best competitive cooks on Food Network, who of course are the best competitive cooks anywhere — the Anne Burrells of the world, the Geoffrey Zakarians, the Robert Irvines, you know, the Morimotos for God’s sake — have such a deep wealth [of knowledge]. …These are people around and raised in restaurants … that cost a ton of money to eat at. And they also possess the additional skill to cook very quickly on a food show in tight quarters where they don’t know what the ingredients are going to be and the kitchen is laid out ridiculously with the plates on one end and the refrigerator on the other, 60 feet away. I have no chance of winning in that situation. I’m not a fast cook at all.

Ironically, when you consider where I work, I’m very much a slow food guy. We’re personal friends as well, the judges and myself, and we get together and cook in [one another’s] homes, and I’ve had Marc Murphy and Amanda Freitag shove me out of my own kitchen because I was moving too slowly and it frustrated them. I cook with the stereo on and a glass of wine in one hand, and I have a great time doing it, but I like to cook things — I don’t even want to cook food that’s fast. I like to watch flavor develop. I spend hours in the kitchen any chance I get.

Watch Chopped on Tuesdays at 10|9c, and visit the Chopped main page for more behind-the-scenes takes on the show from the judges, plus watch After Hours episodes, take the judges’ personality quiz and more.