The cast and producers of Chopped get this all the time from fans, on Facebook, on the street, at festivals: Yeah, sure, those judges of yours can pick apart a dish all day long—but could they handle the pressure on the HOT side of the chopping block? For four of our judges, this episode finally put that question to rest for good.
From our newest regular critic, Maneet Chauhan, to veterans Amanda Freitag, Geoffrey Zakarian and Aarón Sanchez, the energy and enthusiasm was incredible—and so were the nerves! In the judges’ lounge before the battle, Geoffrey acted cool as a cucumber (as always), but I didn’t believe him. Aarón was hopping up and down with nervous energy and even more bluster than usual—a different person than the sensitive, hilarious judge you see seated at the Block. Amanda confessed to some butterflies, too, but as a formidable competitor who came in third on The Next Iron Chef, we knew she would be vicious at the stove. Maneet, also a NIC veteran, seemed the least ruffled to me.
For me, this battle was the most anticipated of the whole series. But for the judges, it was the most dreaded. It is not easy to criticize the work of your friends, colleagues and peers, face-to-face, on national television, let alone to chop three out of the four, and Alex Guarnaschelli, in particular, was not looking forward to it. But everybody came in knowing that this was for charity and for fun, and that only one Chopped judge was going to come out on top. So we started the clock and got down to business.
Of course, our judge/competitors had a huge advantage over the average Chopped contestant — they’re all top-flight New York City chefs with years of experience, they know the palates of their colleagues, they know the kitchen inside and out, and not only are they not afraid of cameras, they know how to seduce them.
When fish is in the basket, getting rid of the bones is always a major hazard. Having bitten into plenty of bones at the chopping block, Geoffrey worked hard to avoid subjecting anyone to puncture wounds. His colleagues were less successful in that department. But it was Maneet’s overexuberance with tequila and too-spicy raita that sent her packing. Now, if I may, it is never easy for me to chop somebody (unless that somebody is annoying—which happens). But it was so, so difficult for us to make that first chop of one of our own! Sorry, Maneet; can I still get a reservation at Vermillion? (She promised me yes.)
On to the entrée round: Occasionally on Chopped, we’ll add a few minutes to the clock if a mystery ingredient takes extra time (in this case, whole ducks). But as Geoffrey pointed out, he knows his way around a duck; actually, all three chefs know this venerable bird inside and out. So the basket was very promising. Chef Amanda Freitag has made jokes at the expense of “pantry people” before – those contestants who waste all their time running in circles in the pantry – so it was funny to see her spending so much time shopping for ingredients.
It was an emotional judges table. Aarón created a dish that was so personal that Alex recognized the statement he was making about his craft just by tasting it. The clean plates at the judges table spoke volumes about how difficult the deliberations were going to be. Ultimately, the judges decided that Amanda overdid it a bit with her relish, leaving Aarón and Geoffrey to duke it out in the dessert round.
Aarón’s fist pump at opening his basket was a good sign for Sanchez fans (Sancheezies?), and understandable, since the beloved Latin favorite, green plantains, were in the mix. But—amazingly—the dessert round turned into a never-before-seen battle of soufflé versus soufflé, the dessert that strikes fear into the hearts of so many cooks, and never more so than when you’re working in a hot room and your dish has to sit a while before consumption, meaning that it is very likely to fall. And this development might lead you to think that Geoffrey would have the advantage, having made countless soufflés at the famous Le Cirque. But Aarón is a Culinary Institute of America-trained master, and he knows a lot more than just tortillas and chiles.
I loved this episode—the genuine competitiveness, coupled with genuine affection, heart and skill. Even at the final moments of the dessert round, Geoffrey shared his powdered sugar with Aarón and the two colleagues-turned-competitors shared a toast when time ran out.
In the final round of deliberations, the judges really struggled with picking one of their own over another; They would have loved to call a tie, but could not be allowed off the hook that easily. And after a seemingly endless dissection of the tiniest details, it came down to degrees of something Geoffrey talks about all the time: Yumminess. Simple crave-ability. And this time, on this day, it was the great Aarón Sanchez who earned the right to carry the Chopped home-team torch into the finale. We were all so excited and proud, from the producers and judges to the production assistants: Get ‘em, Sanchy!
And so, at last, we’re almost there! Next Sunday, April 3, the ultimate Chopped All-Stars face-off: Chefs Aarón Sanchez, Nate Appleman, Anne Burrell and Michael Proietti duke it out, once and for all, to win $50,000 for their favorite charitable organization. Don’t miss it!
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