Behind the All-Star Chopping Block With Claire Robinson
The premiere of Chopped All-Stars scorched TV screens Sunday night, posting the highest-rated, most-watched episode in series history and the highest-rated March night in network history. Keep watching, because it only gets better...
As the host of Food Network Challenge and 5 Ingredient Fix, Claire Robinson knows a thing or two about intense competition shows and is used to cooking on camera. But Chopped All-Stars is Claire’s first foray into cooking as a competitor. Before she goes up against fellow FN rockstars Anne Burrell, Duff Goldman and Robert Irvine this Sunday night at 9pm/8c, Claire gave us an insider's look at the Chopped experience. In short: It’s no joke, even for these All-Stars.
What motivated you to sign on for Chopped All-Stars?
I’m a competitive person. I did competitive slalom water skiing and am an athlete at heart, so that comes with a competitive spirit. I live for that stuff — win or lose, I love every second. It’s the adrenaline that I love. I chose St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital as my charity. I’m from Memphis, so I’ve seen what amazing things that hospital does for so many.
Ha, actually when we filmed Chopped I was kind of in a crazy shooting period. I was in Denver shooting FN Challenge, so I flew in the night before and I landed at almost 2 am the morning of the show. Of course, my flight was delayed. So I slept for a few hours, got up and went straight to the Chopped set for 5:30 am. We had no idea what to expect, we didn’t know anything in advance about the baskets, but I watch and love the show so I knew it could be anything. I told everyone on the Challenge set that I was going to be doing Chopped and their suggestion was a really smart one. I went to eat at this one place in Denver that’s known for avant-garde pairings. They put pop rocks on sashimi, things like that. It opens your mind to think about the possibilities of how delicious some unusual ingredients can be. If you think really out of the box, it’s not that it’s really weird for weird’s sake, it’s actually really delicious, pop rocks on sashimi! It got me thinking about how can I actually play with an ingredient rather than just sneak it in. So I didn’t do much to prepare, but that one dinner I had, I was glad I did that because it really helped.
Make sure you're well-rested. It’s a physical challenge; you’re rushing and racing and you need to be thinking smart and working smart. I would also make sure to be hands-on cooking a lot before the competition. Cooking to me is just like anything else; if you don’t do it a lot, you start to lose your edge; you’re not able to work as fast and smart. The more I cook, the more I’m able to think of new things faster. You get into the groove and the motion. Shooting Challenge, I’m a host and not cooking, so I hadn’t had my hands on a knife in a while. Make sure you’re cooking the days leading up to it so your skill and craft is on top of its game. I think I would probably also say to eat as many unusual foods as possible; that would help with the inspiration.
Who were you most intimidated by among your fellow competitors? Do you know these guys well?
Yes I do, they’re all very good friends of mine, all three of them. That was the fun part, walking in knowing my competitors. I think this episode of Chopped is one of the most unique out of the entire series, because we’re all chefs and competitive people in general, but we are all friends and know each other’s level of experience and cooking ability. It was less of a competitive drive to beat someone else and more about competing against myself. There was no element of “I want her to go down!” It was more like, they’d ask me about Anne Burrell and I’d say “Man, she rocks!” I really respected the chefs around me. A lot of people don’t know that Duff is a rocking savory chef, and Robert Irvine, he’s a big teddy bear. I remember when I was doing my first live demo at Sobe ( South Beach Wine & Food Festival), Robert and Anne were in the front row to make me feel comfortable. They’ve been cheerleaders for me and welcomed me and helped me do what I do better every day. They’re people that I respect. I thought if I’m in the position that I could be considered a competitor among such amazing chefs, then I’m honored. I feel like in cooking you can only beat yourself, because it is such an opinion when you feed other people and they choose who wins or loses.
It was insanely difficult! I remember looking up at Anne, and I was sweating. I was trying to get the plates plated, and Anne and I look up at each other and she just comes over and gives me the biggest hug. She said, “I’ve done Iron Chef, but this is hard! This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” The time factor, and to have no idea what you’re walking into…it’s crazy. On purpose to make it more difficult, there’s only one carton of eggs, only one blender, so you have to share. I’m thinking, what if you were in that situation with people who were really hard-core competitors and aren’t going to be nice to you? We were sharing and being more friendly, and it was still insane. I want to do Iron Chef now. That’s my goal. I want to be a sous chef or do an Iron Chef battle after this experience.
Last night I wrapped another season of 5 Ingredient Fix, and later this afternoon I’m off again to shoot Challenge in Denver. We shoot in Colorado because we’re doing all those sugars and cakes, and the cool and dry climate is really good for these structures. I’m not a baker, so for me it’s amazing to see these incredible pastry chefs and what they can do. I will have shot 52 shows as the host by the end of this month. I really feel a part of it now; I’ve gotten to know a lot of the competitors so it’s really neat when I see repeat competitors. They’re long shoots, so you have to love it to do it. I’m working on a second cookbook, writing new 5-ingredient recipes — I’m constantly recipe testing or shooting or both. I’m loving every second of it.