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There’s never been an episode of Chopped that wasn’t intense, but starting this Sunday night, things are about to get crazy. Alex Guarnaschelli is a fixture on the judges’ panel for Chopped All-Stars, where she’ll taste the mystery basket creations of Food Network heavyweights (Robert Irvine, Claire Robinson, Anne Burrell, Duff Goldman), some of The Next Food Network Star’s most memorable finalists (Brad Sorenson, Michael Proietti, Lisa Garza, Debbie Lee), celebrity chefs (Beau MacMillan, Nate Appleman, Jacques Torres, Anita Lo) and even fellow Chopped judges (Geoffrey Zakarian, Aarón Sanchez, Amanda Freitag, Maneet Chauhan).
The chefs will compete in four rounds, tournament-style, and the winner of each will go on to the finale battle on April 3. Before the five-week mini-series kicks off this Sunday at 9pm/8c, we chatted with Alex about what it was like to critique the food of her peers and friends, whether she’d ever throw her own hat in the ring, and the difficulty of Chopped vs. Iron Chef America.
Were these Chopped All-Star battles more intense than “regular” rounds? Or did the chefs come to have fun and play for charity?
Honestly, every episode of Chopped is insanely stressful. When people are colleagues and know each other and then engage in a competition like this, it adds a whole other layer. People are amped up. They want to get along and they also want to win. That really added more complexity and tension, which is cool.
Did you have to judge chefs you know well?
Many. I didn’t enjoy it at all. It’s very painful to factor in. Anyone who competes on Chopped, you end up developing a personal relationship because you go through the whole thing with them. When you add knowing them personally on top of that, it makes decisions much more complicated.
How did you handle that with no hard feelings?
Everybody’s a professional; you know no matter what happens you’ll have a beer after. That helps.
Would you ever compete on Chopped?
Definitely. Being on TV, you’re always putting yourself out there at one point or another. It comes with the territory; you have to have an acceptance of your own strengths and weaknesses. I think to be a complete and whole judge, you need to compete and make yourself vulnerable to criticism, put yourself in their shoes.
What’s the hardest basket you’ve seen throughout the seasons?
So many. Just because you’re a judge doesn’t mean you can do everything perfectly or know everything.
Do you usually think about what you would’ve done with the ingredients?
No, not necessarily. I’m not thinking about what I’d do with the basket; I’m imagining myself in their shoes. I have a lot of empathy for the competitors; that’s very important to me. The judges on Chopped are pretty supportive; I think that’s a lot of what drives the show.
You’ve competed as a challenger on Iron Chef America. Do you think Chopped is harder?
They’re very different. Some days I’d say Chopped; some days I’d say Iron Chef. There are a lot of moving parts to both shows. Chopped always has multiple ingredients and multiple rounds. On the other hand, on Iron Chef you only have one ingredient, but you have to showcase one ingredient in five dishes. For every reason I say Chopped is harder, I could give you one why Iron Chef is harder. They’re both very dynamic and charged, very surprising emotionally. That’s why they resonate with the viewers. I’m interested in that kind of complexity more than whether you can make wasabi and golden raisins edible in five minutes. The emotional components require such drive, adrenaline and courage. Chopped is young, up-and-coming chefs, so it’s different. On Iron Chef, you’ve got somebody like Morimoto, and then you’ve got a young excited kid from Chicago who has a few years of experience under his belt and is looking to win Chopped. So it’s kind of apples and oranges.
Have the bizarre combinations featured on Chopped ever inspired any dishes on your menus?
No, no, no. It makes me think about certain ingredients I wouldn’t have thought to use, but not combinations. Grape leaves, I thought about doing something with them and then saw it in a basket and I was like wow, there’s a lot you can do with it. So it does spark certain things.
Favorite, or most unexpectedly good dish you’ve sampled as a judge?
Many, again. There are many highs, many lows. It’s a show of extremes. Sometimes you taste something and think, how did this happen? Sometimes you can’t believe how magical this is. This is the sixth season….that’s a lot of food.