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“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)