When Kids Face the Chopping Block: Ted Allen on the Astonishing Maturity of Chopped Junior Competitors
"I’m over-the-moon excited with how fun this series is," said Ted Allen when we chatted on the set of the new kids' competition show, Chopped Junior, premiering on Tuesday, Oct. 27 at 8|7c. Ted hosts the series, in which 10- to 14 -year-olds compete in a very mature arena. The Chopped set may be decked out in primary colors, but the challenge is the same: Transform a set of basket ingredients into a cohesive dish that's flavorful and well-presented. But these kids, unlike most, can do just that — they're halfway to being adults when it comes to knowing food.
"These are kids who really love to cook, who have been inculcated with the values of chefs," said Ted, adding that just like professional chefs, the kid competitors want to cook real, fresh, unprocessed foods. Give them a frozen pizza bite, Ted gave as an example, and they will "lecture you about the ingredients that are in processed foods." These kids know their stuff, whether it's how to use a unique ingredient like lemongrass or how to dice an onion like a pro. And Ted was floored by the kids' mastery of tastes. "They know that if something’s too sweet, you have to balance it with something acidic, like lemon juice or lime juice or vinegar. They like vinegar. They like things that are bitter." Is there anything that these kids are bad at?
On a show like Chopped, there's almost always an accident waiting to happen, especially when you add children and knives to the mix. But, surprisingly, Ted disagreed; he said there have been few injuries. "I think the reason for that is these kids are watching shows like Chopped, and other instructional cooking shows, and reading magazines, and using the Internet, and learning how to do things properly." These kids are just surpassing expectation when it comes to culinary knowledge and technique. But it doesn't mean they don't sometimes need help. "I’ve had to open a lot of jars for these kids, and some of them want me to carry the food processor into the kitchen for them," Ted said.
The worst thing Ted has seen is a meltdown or two, as the stress of competition isn't easy for anyone to bear. But he's been ready to step in to comfort the young competitors and offer them a helpful reminder: "Nobody gets a one hundred percent score on a competition like Chopped. It’s just too hard. Just to complete a round is a giant achievement." And the most-interesting thing Ted underlined was that youth paired with a lack of structure is even more of a benefit to these competitors than anyone might have realized:
"It’s my observation that younger people tend to do better here, and kids, perhaps, the best of all. Now, despite their lack of experience and training, what they have that ... might make up for that is an open-mindedness. If you spend your career cooking French cuisine, and we give you, you know, sea urchin and soba noodles, you might not really know what to do with that. ... Kids are more willing to try something crazy, and often crazy is exactly what you need to succeed ... on a competition like Chopped."
What's Ted's best advice for the competitors? The old saying "practice makes perfect" rings true here. But Ted pointed out where that practice should be directed: "Don’t worry so much about practicing specific ingredients, because you’re never going to be able to predict what’s in the basket." His advice is to practice the time constraints: "See what you can make in 20 minutes, because you can’t make much. I can make a ham sandwich — maybe a toasted ham sandwich. That’s about it."