Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

What it’s like to compete in the Chopped kitchen

Illustration for article titled What it’s like to compete in the Chopped kitchen

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

The Food Network staple Chopped—which recently finished its 23rd season despite only premiering in 2009—is like a shot of pure adrenaline for cooking show fans, featuring almost none of the inflated drama of reality shows. There are rarely personality conflicts between contestants, as in Top Chef, and no challenges that distract from the key focus of getting something on the plate. The show’s rules are simple: four chefs, who have ranged in experience from Michelin-star-winning executives to self-employed caterers, are pitted against each other in a high-intensity bout of culinary improvisation. Each round, the contestants receive a “mystery basket” of four ingredients that they must use in the preparation of either an appetizer, an entree, or a dessert. A trio of judges evaluate each offering, with the loser getting “chopped,” and the others moving onto the next round, vying for a $10,000 prize.

Chef Josh Lewis appeared on the show in December, making it to the final round but failing to emerge victorious, all for want of some coconut milk. The A.V. Club talked to him about the experience, the bad food on hand at the Food Network, and the process of turning random ingredients into something you’d want to eat.


The A.V. Club: How familiar were you with Chopped before you went on?

Josh Lewis: I watched it on and off. Not regularly, since I work so much, but I’ve been aware of it since it started airing. I liked the concept of it. It’s more real than Top Chef, which is more like a personality battle. Chopped is really about cooking, about what sets a good chef apart from a bad one. I liked that it’s kind of a heat-of-the-moment thing.

AVC: What was the audition process like? It seems like it airs often enough that they must constantly be looking for chefs, especially since they need four new ones per episode.

JL: It actually took me about two years from when I first applied to when I got on. Basically I filled out an application with some background information, some photos, whatever fun things you can say about yourself to get the producers interested. If they are, they set up a formal video interview at their offices. I made it to this stage when I first applied, though I didn’t get on then. I met the producers and they talked to me about some more personal things, because they’re trying to tell a story with each contestant and they want something that will appeal to the audience. I have some anxiety issues, and this is when that came up. When I eventually got on, that was kind of my story, that I was there to overcome my anxiety. That story was true; one of the reasons I wanted to be on in the first place was to prove to myself that I could do something like that. Anyway, they didn’t pick me then, but I guess they liked me enough that they kept me on file. It was later on that they brought me in again, and that time I made it on the show.


AVC: How long did you have between knowing you’d be on the show and actually filming your episode? Were you able to practice at all, or develop some kind of strategy?

JL: I think it was about four months until I went on. I did strategize some; a friend and I met up and we kind of talked about what I would do if given certain ingredients or certain types of ingredients, basically breaking them down into different flavor profiles. My plan was that if I got a type of candy, something that was both sweet and sour, I would melt that down and use it as a sauce. If there was a fat in the basket, I had a plan to use that a certain way. I knew from watching the show what the common pitfalls were, but I didn’t think about it too much to be honest. It’s hard to practice for it, because you don’t know the ingredients, and I was working a lot, though I guess that’s kind of like practice. I didn’t want to psyche myself out. Those four months went by really quickly. All of a sudden it was like, “Oh, shit, time to go on.”


AVC: So no researching weird ingredients or practicing how to clean a squid.

JL: Well, I did go to culinary school, so I wasn’t too concerned about that kind of thing. I know technique, I know a lot of ingredients, and I know how to prep stuff. That didn’t concern me.


AVC: You were on a theme episode, which in this case meant you had to make sandwiches each round. Was that disappointing?

JL: A bit. We didn’t learn that we’d be doing sandwiches until right before the first round of the competition started, just like it appeared on TV, so I didn’t have a lot of time to be disappointed. When [the contestants] were talking later and we all realized we had some connection to sandwiches through the restaurants we worked at—which I guess is why we were chosen for that episode. At the time I was working at a place called Better Being Underground, which specializes in sandwiches that are more upscale and out-of-the-box. We made them with some unusual ingredients and made our own sauces and things, so I guess that gave me an advantage, because the theme was familiar ground, but I wanted to do other stuff and didn’t want to be coined as a sandwich guy.


AVC: Sandwiches are a pretty broad category, though. You can do a lot of things with them.

JL: Right. You can show your type of food style with a sandwich, but not as adeptly as with a plate of food.


AVC: How did the day of shooting begin?

JL: We got there around 6 a.m. and basically met everyone and drank a lot of coffee. We were in a separate room from the set, and they kept bringing in people from the show who would introduce themselves to us and try to put us at ease. We were all pretty nervous.


AVC: Did you meet the judges?

JL: Not until the first round of judging.

AVC: When you know who you’re cooking for, are you able to factor that into what you prepare? If you know a judge dislikes a certain ingredient or style, can you avoid that?


JL: I didn’t do anything like that. Really, you just have to cook for yourself. The judges want to eat what you decide you’re going to cook for them. They did say, however, that we shouldn’t make bread pudding in the dessert round. Apparently everyone does that and the judges are sick of it. They want you to be more creative.

AVC: On Chopped you have the mystery ingredients you need to use, but also the pantry for more common ingredients. Did they give you an inventory of what was in there or show you around?


JL: Yeah, they gave you about five or 10 minutes to walk around the pantry and familiarize yourself with everything. Actually they do this before each round, because the pantry ingredients change periodically between segments. Not totally, but some. They also show you how to use everything in case you don’t know, which surprised me. Like, “Here’s how you get ice cream out of the ice cream maker.”

AVC: Are the ovens on when each round starts?

JL: Yes, they’re preheated at 350. The ovens weren’t great, actually. Not poor quality, exactly, but you needed to watch them. There was also a pot of boiling water so you don’t have to waste time doing that. That’s it.


AVC: The show provided all your equipment?

JL: We brought whatever knives we wanted, but they supplied everything else.

AVC: How does the space compare to a restaurant kitchen?

JL: Are you kidding? I had a table all to myself. It was luxurious. So much more room. And there was never an issue with other people trying to squeeze by, although there was this army of cameras hovering over you. They’re pretty good about staying out of the way and staying on their side of the table, but one guy got so close that I accidentally hit him with a frying pan. Whoops. It kind of pissed me off, but after that he stayed away. Same with [Chopped host] Ted Allen. They actually warn you about him, because he gets close when he comes in to do his interview about what you’re making. It’s kind of his thing—he wants to see if he can distract you or get in your head. The producers tell you that if he’s bothering you to tell him to go away and he will. That’s what happened when he came to me. He asked, “Chef, what are you making?” and I said, “No idea! But when I know I will let you know!” He’s like, “Okay!” and that was it.


AVC: What’s the process like for improvising a dish like this? In the first round your ingredients were a polenta log, tomatillos, braised beef brisket, and Araucana eggs [which are from a particular breed of chicken]. Those at least seem pretty familiar.

JL: I was lucky with that. I probably gave myself about 10 seconds to plan out what I was going to do each round, and the way I approached it was by taking the raw ingredients I wasn’t sure about, like the polenta and tomatillos in the first round, and figuring out what I was going to do with those first, if they were going to be a spread or some other kind of component. I ended up using the polenta as a kind of mayo, and made a salsa out of the tomatillos. The meat, obviously, was the meat. That was easy.


AVC: How much do you have to keep your eye on the clock?

JL: Well they shout out the time every so often, and I paid attention to it on my own, but I actually finished with about a minute to spare each round. I debated doing something more each course, thinking that if everyone else was still working I should do something more as well, but I always decided against it. I didn’t want to make things too complicated.


AVC: In the second round you had pork shoulder, thousand island dressing, pâté, and mango licorice. Does it change the equation at all when you have processed ingredients instead of raw ones, or when you have something you don’t like or aren’t familiar with?

JL: The process doesn’t change, no. The mango licorice was the only thing I wasn’t really familiar with, though obviously I know what mango tastes like and I know what licorice tastes like. In that case I just tasted it and moved on. I ended up melting it down like I had planned on doing.


If you know what something tastes like, you can find a way to use it. My thing was to make sure the judges could taste everything, because they look for every single ingredient. They don’t want you to mask a flavor or hide it; they want you to somehow transform it into something pleasant and palatable. In this case, I don’t really like pâté, but I know what it tastes like and I know what can be done with it. My job was to take it from its raw form and turn it into something that made sense.

AVC: In the dessert round you had Thai curry paste as an ingredient, which isn’t very dessert-like.


JL: The green curry paste, yeah. It’s very garlicky and is often made with fish sauce, so it was very difficult to use in a dessert. However, curry paste is very aromatic, with a lot of florals, and if you can bring out those aromatics and florals, you can find a way to use it in a dessert. But that was a tricky round, because they also gave us peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches as an ingredient we had to use, and we had to somehow make a sandwich out of a sandwich. I don’t have a ton of pastry experience, and ended up making a kind of French toast.

AVC: Why do you have to make four plates when there are only three judges?

JL: One is for them to photograph, or to have revealed when someone gets chopped.


AVC: Was there a sense of competitiveness between the contestants? Were you aware of what they were doing?

JL: You can be aware of what they’re cooking if you pay attention, but I didn’t. I was pretty hyper-focused on my own food. As for our group, I’d say we were about half-supportive of each other when we talked in the huddles between each rounds, and the other half was the fact that we pretty much knew what was going to happen. Everyone was focused on the flaws of their own dish, but obviously there were people who made mistakes like leaving a basket ingredient off, so you kind of knew [they would be eliminated]. After the first round, [judge] Chris Santos, the bald one, actually told me that I didn’t have anything to worry about. That was a relief, obviously.


But we were supportive of each other. The producers actually wanted us to trash-talk, so to speak. They want you to engage in something for the people watching, and actually said, “Try saying this,” or, “What do you think of the way this person did this? How would you have done it? Did they screw up?” I refused. That’s not me. I’ve seen trash talk on other episodes, but there wasn’t any with us. It was more, “I made this mistake,” not, “You made this mistake.”

AVC: Was it a relief to be done with each round?

JL: Such a relief. But then there’s the terror before the next round. When the timer for each round finishes you have about 10 minutes or so while they get things ready for the judging, and they sit you down in the set, in front of the pantry. The only time I was really annoyed during the shoot was after the dessert round, which is when I got cut, because I really think I would’ve won the whole thing had I been able to find coconut milk for my dish. I couldn’t find it during the competition, but when we were sitting there I saw it and had to spend the next 10 minutes staring at it. That’s the only time I was really annoyed.


AVC: What’s the judging process like?

JL: It’s pretty nerve-wracking, even though I felt pretty good about all my dishes. After everything is prepared they take you over to the Chopping Block, and the judges actually spend about 10 or 15 minutes on each person’s dish. It’s pretty in-depth, not just, “needs more salt.” At first they tell you everything they think about the dish, but then you have an opportunity to speak back to them. I guess you can argue with them if you want, but I thought all the comments were pretty fair. I learned a lot. The only thing I disagreed with was that in the second round they said my pork was too rare, which it wasn’t. Any chef knows the minimum for cooking pork, and mine was past that. I wasn’t chopped that round, but I did disagree with that.


But like I said, you do have the opportunity to explain yourself if you leave an ingredient off or if something doesn’t come out the way you intended. Like in my dessert, a lot more of my sandwich filling came out than I expected, and I was able to talk about that and explain my side of it. Then, after they’ve said their piece and we’ve said ours, we go off into the side room for our huddle and the judges actually go inspect our work stations. They’re looking to see how clean we are, they make sure we flipped the cutting board if we used it after having raw meat on it, that kind of thing. If we made something that we didn’t end up putting on the plate then they’ll taste that, or they’ll taste the stuff we left in the pan, which could be burnt or whatever. All that can play into their decision, along with your explanation. You can’t convince someone that something tastes good if it doesn’t, but if they like you and you argue for your stuff, all that can help.

AVC: When did you film the talking-head portions of the show, where you comment on what you did each round?


JL: That was after you finished your segments. So the first person chopped did it right away, then the next person did it after the second round, and I did it at the end of the day. The show writes down everything you did in each round and they ask you to talk about them. I was shocked by how much they wrote down and asked me about. They had stuff that I hadn’t even realized happened while filming. Like, apparently I freaked out. I couldn’t find something and my hands started flailing and I kept repeating the same thing over and over again. I did not remember that happening until they asked me about it, and actually I was shocked when they didn’t include that in the final broadcast. Shocked and pleased, since I actually think I came off pretty professionally. There was another time when they thought I had cut myself, and they kept asking me about that, but I hadn’t. I just had some onion skin on myself.

AVC: How long did filming take?

JL: I was there all day, from 6 a.m. to maybe 8:30 p.m., so more than 14 hours. The rounds are exactly what they appear to be: 20 minutes for appetizers, then 30 minutes each for entree and dessert. So that’s over an hour of just cooking. We had a lot of downtime while they set things up. A lot of waiting, a lot of coffee and water. Some snacking, a break for lunch.


AVC: How’s the food at the Food Network?

JL: Not good, actually. Surprisingly. It wasn’t them; the network has some off-site catering company they use. I don’t know who it was, but it wasn’t good. We were all shocked. No one ate much of it. The network doesn’t actually own the studio, they rent it, so I think that’s why they weren’t fully set up to do something in it. Incidentally, the room where the contestants have their huddle, none of the equipment you see there works. None of it is hooked up.


AVC: You lost the final round. Did you see that coming?

JL: I didn’t fully expect to be cut, but I had premonitions from the judges’ faces. But it was a fair fight, so I didn’t take it to heart. They said it was down to a very fine line between the two of us.


AVC: Did you have plans for the $10,000 prize?

JL: Oh yeah. A friend and I were going to start a catering company, and while we’re still planning to, we’re waiting on the money. However, because I did well on the show the producers asked if I would come back for a Chopped Redemption Competition episode and play again, and I said yes. I don’t know when that will happen, but there is that.


AVC: And outside of that, you have an interesting coda to your appearance.

JL: Yep. One of the judges on my show was Amanda Freitag, who was very supportive of me in all three of my rounds. About a month after I was on the show, she emailed me and asked if I was interested in a job. I was, so now I work for her at Empire Diner. In fact, she added a tomatillo salsa to the menu that is basically the one I made on the show.


AVC: So as your boss, she now judges you everyday.

JL: Oh, yes.


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