The Chopped Basket Revealed: The Masterminds Behind the Mystery Ingredients

by in Behind the Scenes, Shows, April 20th, 2012

chopped basket rob bleifer
“Ugh! Who comes up with these crazy basket ingredients?” This is a statement that I commonly hear and read after watching an episode of Chopped. But the truth is, someone does have to research and choose what four ingredients will go into a Chopped basket — three different baskets per episode. Do the ingredients get tested first? Has there ever been a repeated ingredient? And why are four ingredients the magic number and not three or five? These are all questions I asked Food Network Executive Chef Rob Bleifer last week when I sat down with him in Food Network Kitchens.

How are the ingredients picked?
Sara Nahas, the culinary producer of the show, and myself sometimes work together, sometimes work apart, but then come together to compare each other’s work. We’ll sit across from each other weeks in advance and knock out themed shows or random baskets — potential flavor and color combinations that will end up on the plate and, of course, that one ingredient that will get people talking. We have a list of ingredients we’ve already used in front of us, which is around 15 pages long, so I cross-reference that. In the past, we may have used an ingredient twice, but sometimes it’s intentional.

Is there a secret to a good Chopped basket (one part this, two parts that, etc.)?
While we’re creating the baskets, if we have to think too long about the possibilities of dishes, the baskets go away. If it takes us more than 15 seconds for a solution, it’s out. The contestants don’t have that much time.

We’ll often try, certainly in an entrée, to have a grain or starch or one ingredient that is substantial, whether it’s a protein or produce. But there’s no hard and fast rule that there has to be this, there has to be that.

How did you or the producers realize four ingredients was the perfect number?
We worked together. In the very beginning we bounced back and forth between three and four. The entrée always had four ingredients, but the appetizer and dessert round would vary. Eventually, four became the magic number.

What are supplies that are always in the pantry?
That’s a pretty big list. The pantry has had minor changes and has slightly evolved over the years. For example, we took out red and green cabbage in the first season because everyone would make a slaw or wilted cabbage.

Has there ever been an ingredient you’ve chosen that got rejected that you really wanted to see?
We’ve had the hardest time convincing people that certain herbs and spices merit being in the basket. Other than that, the only thing that keeps ingredients out are:

1. Time constraints on cooking the actual ingredient
2. Ingredients that are not deemed appropriate (not humanely raised or on the seafood watch list)

Was there ever an ingredient that a Chopped judge would not eat? Do the judges ever weigh in on ingredient selection?
There was one instance when an ingredient happened to be something one of our judges was allergic to. Other than that, the only thing they wouldn’t try is if someone didn’t handle the food properly (like raw chicken) or if blood got into the food. They are professionals, so they know what could potentially make them sick.

The judges have all sorts of comments about the ingredients, but we don’t let them weigh in.

How much info, if any, do you provide the contestants about an ingredient? If parts are inedible, do you tell the chefs?
No. The only info they are given is the pantry list. They are given a full pantry list so they know what items exist — they don’t know where they are placed, but they know they are there. Anything else, we’re under the assumption that they should know. We would never put an ingredient in the basket that is toxic, etc.

Which Food Network chef would you least want to face head-to-head in a Chopped challenge?
Any of the Iron Chefs, but it’s a tossup between Jose Garces and Bobby Flay. They’re used to the time constraints of Kitchen Stadium, they’re fierce competitors and they have amazing palates.

What would you like to see Chopped do next?
Honestly, I would love to see the contestants have two minutes after they’re told the basket ingredients to think about them before the clock starts instead of immediately cooking. I just feel like if they’re given that chance to think and plan, they can come up with food that’s even more outstanding than what they can already pull off.

(Pictured: Food Network Executive Chef Rob Bleifer/ Courtesy of Roberto Ferdman)

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Comments (181)

  1. Loretta says:

    I just watched the chopped episode where the viewers selected the basket items. Unreal….I could not believe such awful ingredients were selected. It has gotten to the point that I do not enjoy the show because of the basket ingredients. I think it is awful and painful to watch the chefs struggle with some of the ingredients which have gotten more and more ridiculous and then to hear the judges comments i.e. where is the cheese whiz? Give me a break! My daughter is a chef and has stopped watching the show because of the mystery basket ingredients get more and more insane. It is a if the show whats to make a fool out of good chef. The mystery basket could be made challenging but yet realistic. Putting meat that needs to cook the entire day in a basket is just plain mean especially when the judges comment "it is tough" well no joke. I believe it has become a really cruel show.

  2. Hobbit42 says:

    I would like to see two different things on Chopped. First, I would like to see a show where the baskets contained the same ingredients for all three rounds. I'm sure they could come up with a combination that would, or could work for all three rounds. Also, I would like to see one show, or maybe a special behind the scene show that would explain, among other things, how the judges actually come to their decisions. On the show, they say something like "we have made our decision", but we never really see them "vote" or in any way really discuss who is chopped and who wins.

  3. seez3 says:

    can you make basket requests?
    if so i'd like to see lefsa, and potato sausage in the basket

  4. angela cole says:

    I think it will be pretty funny to see what a chef can do on chopped if they did had the ingredient of corn beef hash or liver pudding and see how they play on that and see how creative they can be

  5. gprthemom says:

    I love watching Chopped. The ingredients they come up with are crazy !! I read a blog that someone wrote that the ingredients were TOO crazy. Well, I think that’s part of the point of the show. The contestants know what they’re walking into and obvioulsy think that it’s a challenge to their personal skills. The only thing I would want to give them is like a minute after the baskets are opened to when they start the clock so they can collect their thoughts. The dishes then might be a little more interesting.

  6. kera says:

    I would love to see any of these ingredient combinations for a show.

    Appetizer basket ingredient ideas: sauerkraut; canned tuna; roma tomatoes; hot dog buns

    Entree basket ingredient ideas: ground pork; canned peaches; horehound candy sticks; Asian green mizuna

    Dessert basket ingredient ideas: cassava root; loganberries; saltine crackers; lemon lime soda

  7. Sheila says:

    I would like all of the basket have freeze dried ingredients for the chefs to create something that would really take some creativity. An entire show with only freeze dried foods to use. Nothing fresh except water. I think it would be a great challenge and give decent viewing to those who do actually use these ingredients in their homes.

  8. Starla says:

    I've noticed that the "chefs" sweating, wiping their face, putting their hand on their face & hair. YUCK… and that episode with the chicken intestines! Ew. I do love the show!

  9. Sharon Newton says:

    I always wondered what the chefs would do with Marmite as a basket ingredient.

  10. Maggie S says:

    It would be nice to see a challenge with all organic ingredients, or baskets for diabetics, salt free/ herbs only, or some other specialty cooking for people on special diets. The ingredients are getting too weird and I'm losing interest because I'm not getting great ideas for meals on the run when there's not much to choose from in my fridge.

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