With an impressive 257 episodes of Food Network’s mainstay competition series Chopped under his belt, the show’s host Ted Allen says his gig is only getting better.
“We have a team of 12 editors and they spend 37 days on each episode,” Allen says, “and the current run that they’re working on, the one that is going to be coming out soon — I feel like we just keep getting better at it. All of us. The judges. The camera operators. The directors. The music. And particularly the casting. Things are just cutting together really, really pretty!”
Beginning Sunday, Allen and a rotating roster of Chopped judges — including Maneet Chauhan, Amanda Freitag, Alex Guarnaschelli, Marc Murphy, Chris Santos and Geoffrey Zakarian — will welcome Olympic athletes Brandi Chastain, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Greg Louganis; actors Lou Diamond Phillips, Peter Scolari and Michael Imperioli; funny guys Sinbad and Tommy Davidson; and other formidable (and famous) amateur cooks taking on the show’s notorious mystery baskets in the five-episode Chopped Tournament of Stars.
“Jackie Joyner-Kersee — are you kidding me?! Greg Louganis?” Allen says. “These people are legends! And they watch our show! They know what the judges’ likes and dislikes are! It’s crazy.”
Still, Allen admits, viewers aren’t the only ones who might wonder if the tourney’s famous field of actors, superjocks, comedians and past Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off competitors — all vying for a $50,000 payout to the charity of the winner’s choice — really have the chops to create something tasty from the Chopped baskets’ notorious “what IS that?” offerings.
“I’ll tell you who else is suspicious of their cooking abilities,” he laughs, “Us. Myself. The judges. You do these things because you want to mix things up and keep the series fresh without killing what makes it good, so I see a list of Brandi Chastain, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Penn Jillette, Coolio and I just didn’t know! I knew [Rachael vs. Guy Season 1 winner] Lou Diamond Phillips cooks. I’ve judged Iron Chef with him and I’ve seen him compete. He could have his own restaurant. But Carnie Wilson? I didn’t know!”
Pressed for which group was most competitive amongst themselves, Allen gives it to the sports stars.
“All of their fields are very competitive,” he explains, “but, for example, if you’re a stand-up comedian, there is nothing you can do to try to damage your opponent. I guess you could feed them a bunch of drinks or something, but it’s not like in car racing where you can smash someone into the wall. It’s really all about what you do as a person. And by the way, the day we had the comedians, our first assistant director — who is like the wrangler and he’s excellent and I love him — but that first day there was no way he was going to keep a group of four comedians under control. They’re not about being controlled. They’re about being hilarious and irreverent and … it was really challenging that day to get finished on time. I don’t actually think we did.”
Still, he says, the mere fundamentals of the competition can be enough to vanquish the most disciplined athlete or talented celebrity home cook.
“What people don’t seem to get is that most of these people end up with us — aside from the fact that they are celebrities — because they like the show and because their friends like their cooking,” Allen explains. “They get that feedback from their family and friends: “Oh, you’re such a great cook. You should be on Chopped!” Well, succeeding on Chopped only has so much to do with you being a good cook. There are plenty of great cooks and great chefs in this city where I am standing right now who would fall flat on their face in our competition. It’s a very specific skill. How quickly can you gel an idea with really challenging ingredients and how accurate are you at gauging what you can accomplish in 20 minutes?
“I always tell people who are coming on the show — you can’t anticipate what the ingredients are going to be. So, aside from memorizing a few good cake recipes, what you should be doing is thinking about fast techniques. What can you do in 20 minutes? What are some things that can be cooked in 20 minutes? Are you going to make homemade tortillas? Probably not. To me, that’s what it boils down to. It’s really more about the 20 minutes than anything else.”
Then Allen is distracted from treating me to a little Chopped 101 by a Chopped surprise of his own.
“I’m in one of our editors’ office and I just found a Chopped bathrobe!” he announces happily. “I didn’t know there was a Chopped bathrobe. Why don’t I have a Chopped bathrobe? Wait, it’s not a bathrobe. It’s more like a — what are those things called? — it’s, like, a slanket! I gotta take a picture of that!”
Here’s what else Allen, who will next host America’s Best Cook beginning in April, told us about the do’s and don’ts of being a Chopped champ, the travesty of vegan pepperoni and what he’d put in those baskets if he was in charge.
Channel Guide Magazine: Theoretically, this show could go on forever, because there is no end to the basket combinations or the chefs and cooks out there who are dying to try their hand at the game. Have you and the judges discussed the prospect of growing old and gray together on the set?
Ted Allen: Every time we do something well or someone says something smart or we feel like we’ve had a good episode, Alex Guarnaschelli loves to say, ‘Yep! That’s how you get to 500!’ And we have currently shot 257. So, sure we joke about that, and there are worst things that could happen. And amazingly to me, I don’t get bored doing this — because of what you just said. Sure, there are things about it that I don’t like. I don’t like standing all day — it’s a twelve-hour day. That gets a little old. Sometimes there’s a basket that I don’t like. But if you’re interested in food, having some of the greatest chefs in New York City to talk to all day long about ‘what would you do with this food’ is just never dull to me. We’re lucky to have this job. I don’t know if I want it to go forever — but for a good long time would be good.
CGM: One of my favorite parts of the show is the social-studies aspect — the backstories, the strategies or lack of them, the way the chefs handle a misstep or an ingredient they have no idea what do with …
TA: Sociology is a big part of the interest for me, as well, on a number of levels. One of which is, there aren’t that many situations in which you get critiqued to your face under intense competitive circumstances and also being given terrible ingredients. Terrible difficult and sometimes just terrible. Chicken feet. Rocky Mountain oysters. And then we yell at you if you didn’t cook something yummy out of it! To watch the different ways that people respond to that criticism is a really interesting exercise for me.
And it’s something that chefs have to learn to do. It’s a skill. You can’t be too obsequious. And you can’t be too cocky. You have to be yourself. I love to watch people do that. I’ve always wanted to sit down and write a guide to winning Chopped — or how to lose Chopped — but I don’t think the network wants me to do that [laughs].
CGM: For real? You think that there is a reasonably fool-proof way to win?
TA: Oh my God! I’ve been there for every one of them! I’ll just give you an example.
I have a long, long list of bullet points of things to do and not to do, but the one thing I would tell people not to do is never say, “Oh, I don’t really care if I win or not — I still feel like this has been a successful experience for me. I don’t mind if I get chopped because I feel like I’ve already won.” Never say that. Because psychologically that just opens the door for the judges to go “Oh, OK, he can get chopped next because he doesn’t even mind!” Obviously, they’re basing their decisions on the food, but they’re humans, too. And if you know that someone’s OK with being cut …?
I remember when I was judging Top Chef with Richard Blais — and we would have cut him anyway — but he lost the finale when he said, “Oh, I choked!” And I thought, “Oh, you shouldn’t have said that! All the time on Chopped we have contestants who are trying to apologize for their dish and tell you all the things they did wrong and we’re always telling them, “Don’t do that! Why are you giving the judges ammunition?! They might not have noticed that you burned the potatoes! Don’t tell them you did!”
CGM: But it also drives my husband right up out of his chair when people say they’ve made a “perfectly prepared” something or other.
TA: Setting expectations is a critical part of the restaurant business and if you tell somebody that something is perfectly cooked — or if you tell them that you’ve made a paella when ya haven’t, judges can be sticklers about it.
CGM: You’re a pretty chill guy throughout the competition, but I just watched an episode in which you could not hide your disgust for vegan pepperoni.
TA: Vegan pepperoni, for God’s sake! I haven’t see that one yet, but when we shot it, they opened the baskets, I announced the ingredients and when I announced it, I said it like [adopts a disgusted tone of voice] vegan pepperoni — and I said, “Yes, that is how I feel about that ingredient.” They shot it again with me just saying it straight, but it sounds like they used the first one.
CGM: They did. And it was apparent that you were appalled even after the chefs tried to transform it.
TA: Well, that is appalling! I really love pepperoni and I really love charcuterie and sausage — and I have nothing but the greatest respect for vegetarians and I think that vegans are doing something that is difficult. What freaks me out is, if you’re a vegan, why do you even want something that tastes like pepperoni? Its an ingredient that is missing a little integrity for me. It’s not real food. One time we had a vegan lobster, which was, like, seitan or something like that that had just been molded in the shape of a lobster and sprayed with something orange. But it’s good for TV. It’s fun TV.
CGM: OK, then let’s put you in charge of the baskets. What would you love to see the chefs pull out of there?
TA: What I would love to see? The ingredients I want to see are delicious foods. And by the way, I think our executive producer has reduced the number of processed, boxed, canned items — there’s not quite as much of that as there once was. But what I want to see? I want to see a bone-in rib-eye. A chunk of Parmesan cheese. Some lemons. And a head of garlic. Natural yumminess. This is the difference between me and the producers of the show [laughs].
Look, what I want is great cooking. What they want is great cooking AND stories and drama. And drama comes from people making mistakes and doing crazy things, which is often facilitated by giving them a tough cut of meat and only 20 minutes to prepare it.
CGM: Give us a hint of what’s to come on America’s Best Cook.
TA: It shoots in the same room that we shoot Chopped in — and the same room that Iron Chef shoots in, too — but you’d never know it. It’s a big black box with an X-shaped catwalk in the middle of it that’s elevated five or six feet up. And in the quadrants of that X, there are four kitchens and the amateurs are cooking in those kitchens. The mentors [Guarnaschelli, Michael Symon, Cat Cora and Tyler Florence] are pacing like caged animals on that catwalk while the amateurs are cooking, and the amateurs are representing their mentor. So if one mentor loses all of his or her cooks, they’re gone, too. And these guys do not like losing.
You get to see how much it drives Alex Guarnaschelli crazy to have somebody else representing her. And somebody who is not even a professional cook. So it becomes her personal mission to hammer a good cook out of these people — to somehow badger them into being good cooks. And she’s feeling it. It’s always personal with these guys. But this time, this game requires them to get that out of somebody else. And that is a very interesting tension to watch.
Chopped Tournament of Stars airs Sundays at 9/8CT on Food Network. Episodes include:
Premiering Sunday, March 9th at 9pm ET/PT
Four famous athletes bring their fierceness and passion to the Chopped Kitchen for a five-part $50,000 celebrity tournament! With the charities they are playing for in their minds, the competitors open the first basket to find a scary ingredient – alligator. Then in the entrée round, the celebs must cook with some strange eggs and some tiny limes. The final two sports stars that make it to the dessert round put their athleticism and enthusiasm into making a great final dish that includes crystallized ginger and wafer cookies.
Competitors: Brandi Chastain, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Greg Louganis, Charles Oakley
Judges: Alex Guarnaschelli, Marc Murphy, Geoffrey Zakarian
Premiering Sunday, March 16th at 9pm ET/PT
“Rachael vs. Guy!”
These four competitors are all cooking-competition veterans, alums of Food Network’s Rachael vs. Guy: Celebrity Cook-Off, but they have never stepped foot in the Chopped Kitchen! How will they do with beef tongue and microwaveable chocolate cake in the appetizer basket? Then the stars have a pizza party in the entrée round after they discover leftover slices in the basket. With hopes of making it to the $50,000 finale, two competitors must make desserts using chocolate bars and banana chips.
Competitors: Penn Jillette, Coolio, Lou Diamond Phillips, Carnie Wilson
Judges: Maneet Chauhan, Marc Murphy, Chris Santos
Premiering Sunday, March 23rd at 9pm ET/PT
Bringing the funny to the Chopped Kitchen, four comedians compete for a chance to move on to the $50,000 finale. Playing for their favorite charities, the stars open up the first basket and get a pork delicacy and a gummy candy. Then in the entrée round, the three comedians left must make jalapeño poppers palatable with beer can chicken. With vanilla cupcakes in the final basket, transforming the ingredient becomes key for the two finalists.
Competitors: Tommy Davidson, Sinbad, Gillian Vigman, Robert Wuhl
Judges: Maneet Chauhan, Chris Santos, Geoffrey Zakarian
Premiering Sunday, March 30th at 9pm ET/PT
With only one spot left in the $50,000 charity tournament, four actors bravely take on the role of chef. In the first round, one competitor tries desperately to figure out the right cooking technique for a tricky ingredient. A pretty citrus fruit and a spiny lobster are two of the mystery ingredients that the competitors must demystify in the entrée round. In the final round, the two remaining stars make a mess in the kitchen with some very creative desserts with mascarpone and strawberries.
Competitors: Lucas Grabeel, Michael Imperioli, Peter Scolari, Tasha Smith
Judges: Maneet Chauhan, Amanda Freitag, Alex Guarnaschelli
Premiering Sunday, April 6th at 9pm ET/PT
The four amazing finalists open the first basket and get a drive-thru snack and a cold dessert. $50,000 is destined to go to one of the last three celebrities’ favorite charities, but which stars will have good luck with the duck in the entrée basket? The final round of the celebrity tournament is bound to be intense as the competitors must have enough culinary stamina left to make something tasty, beautiful and creative from churros and champagne.
Judges: Alex Guarnaschelli, Marc Murphy, Geoffrey Zakarian