Shooting Baskets: Behind the Scenes of Chopped
It's almost noon on the set of Chopped in New York City, and host Ted Allen is having a problem. He's ready for his big moment: the first of three times during every episode when, with a flourish, he grabs the handle of a metal cover and lifts it to reveal the dish of the chef who has been chopped.
But as Ted practices his signature move (yes, even after taping more than 200 episodes, he still practices his lift), he's concerned. "The handle is loose, guys," he says to no one in particular, hoping that someone will make a note to fix it because there is no time to stop production now.
Ted resets the cover and clenches the handle in his hand. The set goes quiet. And, just as you see on TV, he yanks it up and a chef is chopped. ("Oh, he looks really sad!" one of the producers whispers as the chef walks off.) But what you don't see is how it took a swarm of black-shirted crew members—camera operators on set, a culinary team behind the scenes, producers in the control booth—hours and hours to make just 42 minutes of TV happen. They have been here since 6 a.m., setting up cameras and lights, prepping the pantry and pre-interviewing the contestants, then filming the chefs' introductions and the appetizer round of the show. It's only noon and there's a lot more to go: They'll shoot about 80 hours of footage for a single Chopped episode.
Culinary producer Sara Hormi's day started at sunrise in Food Network Kitchens, where she filled the episode's baskets. The baskets are the centerpiece of every Chopped challenge: each one holds four ingredients that the contestants must include in a dish. It's Sara's job (along with Food Network Kitchens' Executive Chef Rob Bleifer) to choose the ingredients for each challenge, and she has come up with some doozies: chicken intestines, gummy fried eggs, a sports drink? Nothing is off-limits. But the choices aren't entirely random. She creates each basket so there is an inherent problem to solve—a protein that might not cook in time, a strong ingredient that could overpower the others or maybe one that is unfamiliar. Sara anticipates what the chefs might do and clues in the producers and judges so they're prepared for whatever drama may ensue.
The pantry is also Sara's domain. She makes sure it is stocked and camera-ready, then she gives the contestants a tour so they know what foods and appliances are available when the clock starts. One competitor eyes the anti-griddle, a machine that flash-freezes anything put on top of it. "You ever used one?" she asks him. He shakes his head. "Then I don't suggest you start now," she says. The four contestants inspect their stations—each gets to start with a pot of boiling water and an oven heated to 500 degrees. One of them notices that his pepper grinder is out of pepper. "Good catch," Sara says.
Soon the judges file in. "Nothing like fish heads at 8 a.m.!" shouts a shoeless Aarón Sánchez, host of Heat Seekers, guessing (incorrectly) at one of the day's ingredients. Judges Marcus Samuelsson and Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli soon join him. Alex backhandedly compliments Marcus, who's known for his fashion-forwardness, on his "girl tie" (he's wearing a cravat) and suggests a special episode of Chopped in which Marcus dresses the rest of the judges. Aarón starts playing a video game on his phone. Marcus is texting. They all have obviously done this a million times before.
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.