Shooting Baskets: Behind the Scenes of Chopped

Competing on Chopped is tough, but putting together the show is even tougher.

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So has Ted, but he's not playing around. He's pacing, sipping water and practicing his lines: "Chefs, please open your baskets? Chefs, please open your baskets." When Ted is ready, he hides his water bottle in a special cubby marked "TED ALLEN DRINKS ONLY" and takes his place. The contestants file in once, twice, three times, filmed each time from different angles. Ted welcomes them and the judges, and introduces the all-important baskets. For the basket opening, a producer—looking for the most interesting set of hands to shoot—asks the competitors, "Who has hand tattoos?" No one does.

Everything so far (at least on camera) has been calm, controlled and by the book. But the cooking is the wild card on Chopped, the part that no one can predict or script. "Time starts? Now!" Ted says, and all hell breaks loose. A camera on a giant crane swoops through the studio, and camera operators run up to the stations, standing inches from the chefs' faces, while Sara wanders the floor, giving a play-by-play to the producers through her headset. She sees one contestant grab a roll of supermarket dough. She whispers into her mic, and like magic, Ted says, "I think we're getting some kind of pizza or flatbread here."

Meanwhile, Sara brings the judges samples of the basket ingredients so they can discuss. Marcus thinks a pickled protein will be tough to manage, flavor-wise. Alex thinks it's going to be difficult to balance cooked and uncooked ingredients in the dish.

When Ted calls time and the contestants file out, the judging begins (the judges fill out actual scorecards). Today they have an easy time reaching a consensus ("It's not always that way," Ted says). When the contestants return, Ted does his best to coax one of them out of his shell, while producers remind the guy: "Don't wander off your mark! Don't look at Ted—look at the judges!" It's intimidating for most of them. Another competitor gets emotional when Ted asks him, kindly, about his speech impediment. "It's all about chemistry on this show," Ted explains. "These competitors are everything from falafel-stand guys to executive chefs with Michelin stars. Some cut loose and some don't. It's all about the mix."

Ask Ted to single out the hardest part of his job and he'll give you two answers. One: standing on a concrete floor for hours on end (he recently had a gel floor pad installed to help with the back pain). And two: chopping someone, even though he's done it hundreds of times. "I have so much respect for chefs—I really do," he says. The judges have a hard time with it, too. "Sometimes they fight over who has to explain the decision," Ted says. But they do it. On this day, Marcus addresses the loser of the appetizer round, and minutes later the Chopped crew is back in the game. Alex and Aarón start going at it, the culinary team brings out new baskets and Ted heads off to a corner to practice his intro for the next round. Only about nine more hours and they'll all be done...until tomorrow.