As you are all well aware of by now, we can’t get enough cooking reality TV here at ES. Fortunately, Food Network is feeding our addiction with a brand new season of Chopped, which premieres tonight (Tuesday, September 8), at 10pm ET. ES caught up with host Ted Allen to ask about cooking with string cheese, whether he misses Top Chef, and what he’s doing with all his tomatoes.
ES: So tell us about this new mini-season of Chopped.
Ted Allen: One of the things that sets Chopped apart from other cooking shows is that we have different chefs each week – it’s kind of like a culinary game show. But people have expressed a lot of interest in seeing particular contestants — for example, James Briscione from the first season — return. So what we’re doing is having four episodes where all the winners from season one return and compete against each other. These contestants have never been chopped before, they’ve only won, so it raises the stakes. And of course they’re the winners so they’re all great chefs.
Any other changes in store for this season?
One thing that’s different is the mystery ingredients. Last season we did a lot of processed junk food — gummy bears, string cheese — the network thought it was funny to ask real chefs to cook with fake food. But this year they decided to do less of that. We still have some junk food ingredients like root beer and donuts, but we’re moving away from the string cheese and gummy bears. There’s just not much good cooking you can do with string cheese. So we’re no longer driving them insane with string cheese, instead we’re driving them insane with sea urchin and eel.
What’s the key to making a winning dish on Chopped?
You have to figure out the ingredients. The ingredients are chosen very carefully — the producers sit around and if they can’t think of something that could feasibly be made from them, they empty out the basket and start over. The thing is they set a trap. So let’s say they give you three Asian ingredients — bok choy, soy sauce and sesame seeds — and then they throw something in like blue cheese. Some chefs are gonna plow ahead and make an Asian dish and then crumble a little bit of blue cheese on top, hoping the judges won’t notice it. But the person who wins will be the one who figures out how to make a blue cheese souffle that works — I don’t know what that would be like, but if they can do it, they will win.
Do you watch other shows on Food Network?
Yes, I love the Barefoot Contessa. She definitely knows what she’s doing, and she has all these friends who are fancy gay guys in the Hamptons, so she always does something like “Hank and Bob are coming back from 10 days in Paris, so I’ve got to make them dinner.” How great is that? Who does that? I can’t even get my friends to walk my dog!
I have to ask — do you still watch Top Chef?
I do. I love Top Chef. I’ve never stopped watching it. I think this season’s contestants look really, really good. My money is on Kevin or Jen. I wish I could still be on both shows. I was given the opportunity to host my own show or to be on Top Chef for 30 seconds every week, so it was kind of a no-brainer.
Now that you’re on the Food Network basically 24/7, do you still have time to cook at home?
Well not when we’re in production, because those are very long days, but whenever I can. I would cook all day if I could. Right now what I’m really into is tomatoes. Barry and I joined this CSA. We know our farmers, Chris and Eve on Long Island, and right now they are dumping tons of beautiful ripe tomatoes on us. Yesterday I had some leftover cooked pasta so I went down to the organic market by my house and they make these turkey meatballs — I browned those, chopped up some tomatoes and made some fresh sauce. Large chunks of tomatoes – throw in some red wine vinegar, olive oil, basil, garlic, salt and just cook it for a few minutes. I don’t want it cooked down – I want that fresh tomato flavor. So I’m doing a lot of that – either that or caprese salad. Don’t you hate it when you go out to a restaurant in February and someone is serving caprese salad? Now is the time to make that. And we’ve only got about another week left. Doesn’t that suck?
Will we be getting more Chopped after these four episodes?
Yep – we’re calling these four episodes season two, and then we just shot season three – we did 26 episodes in May, so that will be coming later this year. It’s doing very well in the ratings and must be catching on, because I travel a lot and when I’m in the TSA line, people used to go, “Hey you’re that guy,” and now they say “Hey Ted, I loved Chopped last night!”
Chopped premieres on the Food Network tonight, September 8 at 10pm Eastern.