The final semi-final round of Chopped‘s Champions season airs tonight, before the four winners face off for $50,000, the show’s biggest prize, next Tuesday. Over its life, the competition has really grown on me from my initial ambivalent impression, and while it used to be nice to have when Top Chef wasn’t on, I now look forward to it every week–and thus have grown more and more curious about how exactly the show works.
I talked to judge Amanda Freitag last week, and she gave me a lot of insight, which added to what I learned from my conversation with Chopped judge Scott Conant, the red onion guy. First, Amanda said, this season is an improvement over the usual episodes. “Food wise, it’s a lot better. Suspense-wise, it’s better, because none of them have ever been chopped.”
She said the judges really experience the suspense because while the chefs get a tour of the pantry before the competition starts, she told me, “some people get really lost in the pantry. They do circles, and before they know it, five minutes is up.” She said they tend to get over-confident: “You think, okay, I got this, but as soon as you start, everything changes.”
Amanda said that decisions often come down to little things. “Unfortunately, sometimes I’m just looking for the basics, and then I’m wowed by the standouts,” she said. Those basics can include serving raw meat or having “bad butchery. Sometimes it is about the basics,” while other times, a contestant just adds “an element to the plate without doing anything at all to it.” But, she said, “you can pretty much tell right away.”
The judges deliberations are “incredibly long deliberations where none of us agree on anything,” and when it’s two against one, “usually when it comes down to the winner, those are the most heated deliberations,” she said. “We try not to spend an hour, but there’s been times when there’s been at least 30 to 40 minutes. We really all have to be on the same page, and we really all feel strongly about that.”
In other words, decisions are unanimous. “The first round the contestants really show themselves, and sometimes that can be a little easier” than later rounds, she said. But the judges always work hard to “convey to the contestants how we got to that stage. They want to know what went wrong.”
How do they manage to critique food that’s just been prepared and is in danger of cooling off, melting, or worse? “We really do try to go through it as quickly as possible without sacrificing anything from that person’s dish,” but she said they really try to get to that last dish” quickly.
Most interesting to me was that the judges preview the food before starting to eat and judge, and make their decisions on that first impression. “We definitely look at all the plates before we taste them,” Amanda told me, so that way, the judges know “how the sauce is supposed to have been” and that sort of thing. “If it’s a whipped cream that’s in a beautiful [shape], we’re going to remember it that way. When we’re eating, we never stop to be as fair as we can,” she said.
As to the show’s signature mystery baskets, Amanda said they’re a surprise to the judges, too, although many viewers think the “judges have something to do with the ingredients. We are pretty much as surprised as the contestants are and we are eating the ingredients,” so it’s “just as hard on us. I’m not asking for sympathy, but we’re at the hands” of the contestants and producers, she said. When I asked who picks out those ingredients, she said it’s probably a combination of culinary people and producers, but she wasn’t sure.
When I asked about the potential for the judges to be featured as chefs on an episode, she said, “I hope so. I want in! I want in! I would be the first person behind that stove.” Amanda appeared on The Next Iron Chef last year, and said she did it because “I wanted to see if i could do it, I wanted to challenge myself. Why bother in life if you’re not challenging yourself?” She said it was “a personal challenge. I feel like I have a lot more street cred with the cooks now that they saw that I did it.” She also takes away what it feels like to be judged, because she took “very careful mental notes when I was being judged” like “what it feels like to stand in front of the judges table. Holy cow! There’s no saliva, your heart is racing. What happens if I faint? Everyone looks much calmer standing in front of that judges’ table than they are,” she said. Also, she learned from “others judges’ comments on what they look for, which helped me learn what to look for and what to focus on, and what’s really real.”
The next season of Chopped “starts filming soon,” Amanda said, and she said she’s “so excited because every season gets better and better. As it goes on the, ingredients have to get more interesting. They’re learning, so we have to try to trip them up.”