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There’s just one spot left in the Chopped All-Stars finale battle on April 3, and four esteemed chefs are determined to lock it down. In the previous three All-Star battles, some chefs didn’t quite know what they were getting into when they stepped onto the Chopped set. In Round Four, however, these chefs are intimately familiar with the intensity of the show — but they’re usually seated on the judges’ panel.
Geoffrey Zakarian, Aaron Sanchez, Amanda Freitag and Maneet Chauhan are accustomed to doing the chopping, not being on the chopping block, but all four were excited to turn the tables and compete for their favorite charities. We chatted with Chef Geoffrey about the experience of being a Chopped competitor, the camaraderie among his fellow judges, and where he’ll be watching the battle unfold this Sunday night.
Did you hesitate at all before signing on to compete on Chopped All-Stars, since you know just how tough it is?
I didn’t hesitate a bit. It was terrific, although it’s very difficult. I’ve done Iron Chef and this I believe is more difficult. Everything is wilderness. I mean, 20 minutes? It’s borderline impossible when you really come to grips with what you’re trying to do. It was as hard as I thought it would be. I was ready to do it, but when you get there in the morning it’s very nerve-wracking.
Did the experience change the way you judge at all?
We always knew it was hard, but this just really emphasized how hard it actually is. The reality is whether you get bad ingredients or good ingredients, it’s hard. It’s almost harder when you get good ingredients! When you’ve got rack of lamb, sometimes all the plates turn out the same. With some wild stuff, you get a small chance of putting together some very interesting combinations.
What’s the craziest basket you’ve ever seen on Chopped?
There have been some really wild ones. Every year I think I see the hardest one and then they just get harder. We had one recently with durian. There’s no reason to eat that unless you’re starving and that’s all there is to eat. The combinations are what you really remember. We are not at all hungry when we come to that set!
Favorite — or most unexpectedly good — dish you’ve sampled as a judge?
There’s not one at the top of my head, but there have been some really surprising and creative moments. That’s what we all look for as judges. We hope one of them will come up with something that’s really delightful. We are often disappointed.
Have the bizarre combinations from Chopped ever inspired any dishes on your menus?
I’ve written down a few combinations that worked. One was avocado with sweet lime, and there were a few more. Sometimes magically they just work. I’ve never really implemented any of them; I’m still waiting for that perfect one to come.
Have you become friends with your fellow Chopped judges? You’re all chefs around New York — do you visit each others’ restaurants in NYC?
Very close. We are all pretty busy but we all support each others’ restaurants. It’s a great group; we’re all very different. That’s what’s so nice about it. There are some new judges on this season [like Next Iron Chef Season 3 contestant Maneet Chauhan] so we’re the older faculty; we help them through their initial few Chopped episodes. They get it right away; their voice comes out.
Where will you be watching Chopped All-Stars on Sunday?
I will be watching with the other chefs at a somewhat impromptu Chopped judges party at Tribeca Grill. It is a potluck so all the chefs have to bring something to eat. Should be fun!