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. bellyofthesouth says:

    Well, it is interesting to see some of the behind the scenes info on the basket choices but here is my one overriding problem with the selections. Most of the ingredients that go into the baskets are of European meaning french, Italian demography or Asian. Since I assume that most people watching this show are in America I would like to see some more traditional or esoteric American ingredients. Take for example rainbow char or straight char which I have see repeatedly why not mustard or collard greens. Most of the fish that is used within the show are of European stock, why not yellow-fin tuna or gaf-topsail catfish, Spanish mackerel, amber-jack, redfish, and mullet. There is a wealth of food stuffs indicative to America that is routinely being ignored. I hear constantly from the judges speaking in terms of refined pallets but those pallets seemed to be refined in the European or Mexican cuisines. And yes, I do know that in cooking schools they teach mostly french and Italian styles with a smattering of Asian thrown in for good measure, but what about representing pure American food stuffs as well. Frankly I can get a little disappointed in the view that only fine foods are European or Asian, to illustrate this is several comments on two shows regarding the use of cornmeal in the breading of fish which is in many house holds in the south, a way to bread their fish were purely judgmental based upon the judges concept of proper fish breading not on true taste based upon regional pallets.. I truly feel that the concept behind the show is both unique and enjoyable to watch, I would like to see more emphasis put upon a more world wise selection within the mystery baskets as well as a more open minded judging that is not all about french, Italian, Asian Mexican taste style I mean has any of them tasted hogs-head-cheese?

    • Kimmi says:

      There was an episode where they did collard greens. But, I agree with the rest of your commentary.

    • Dan says:

      Well if you have been watching the show, they use ingredients that are unfamiliar, hence more challenging, to the chefs. It would not be as interesting to watch them cooking tilapia, corn, peanut butter…..

      • BiteMaster says:

        I disagree Dan, Just because two of your basket ingredients are peanut butter and jelly, I don’t think the Judges are going to allow you to get by with simply making a PB&J sandwich do you. There are many fine dining possibilities with simple ingredients; they are made every day in restaurants all over America in fact. Where do you eat? If you are limiting yourself to those experiences of only foreign menus, you are doing yourself a great disservice. You should come home and enjoy the flavors of the United States; you don’t know what you’ve been missing.

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  3. cyndy martino says:

    I have to agree the ingredients are getting to out there. Please make them for average folks. What about vegetarians? The cooks should have on a sweat band. Cleanliness is next to godliness.

  4. peachis says:

    It always blows my mind that these people are supposed to be chefs but they don't salt the food, get the oil hot right away, cook the potatoes through, get the food crisp, etc. And how many times do they have to hear "do one thing well instead of two poorly" before they get it. It seems like a lot of them don't even watch the show, because the judges have the same comments over and over but the contestants don't listen to them.

    I also can't stand the personal sob stories of the contestants.

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  7. John says:

    "We wouldn't put any dangerous or toxic food there."

    Really? Then explain to me how cherimoya ended up being a basket ingredient three times, which each and every single time one of the two chefs leave it in or attempting to use seeds?

    • zoemoire says:

      exactly ! It was not until the host mentioned it on one show I saw that one contestant made a change. What if the kitchen was too noisy for others or they were too far away from the host to hear? Uhm. Problematic indeed. One other complaint – if you are going to have a food, perhaps contestants could chime in if they themselves have an allergy. If I look at shrimp, crab or lobster 00 I get illll. OK, that's not right, but I can not get near it.

  8. compugraphd says:

    B"H

    I would like to see a show that is either: all vegetarian/vegan, wheat free, low calorie, diabetic (no sugar or white flour products), Kosher, etc. It's easy to come up with something when you don't have constraints — it's a lot harder when you have dietary constraints (I'm a diabetic vegan who keeps Kosher and I never see things I can eat).

  9. Betsy says:

    I would like to see an episode with home cooks. Not school lunch ladies….just working moms who cook for their families. Although the school lunch lady episode is my all time favorite!

  10. Steve Baker says:

    I cook for the homeless in a homeless shelter. I would like to see an episode (and maybe even be a contestant in it) featuring chefs to the homeless as I am. The baskets would have to contain items of donated value. Things people donate out of their cupboard because they bought it and found that they don't know what it is or don't like it so they give it to homeless shelters. I routienley make beautiful meals for the homeless people of my center from ingredients like black beans, oddly flavored mainara sauces and heart of palm. The most common meat is always chicken or pork. Sometimes deer meat is donated. Seldom is beef or fish with the exception of canned salmon. We get lots of canned salmon. This would be fun and the $10,000.00 would come in real handy to feed even more people a better diet.

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