SPOILER ALERT: I spill my guts about every little detail of the episode, so if you’ve DVRed itand haven’t watched it yet, stop reading now. (I know, I know,this is not that crucial. It’s not like this is Breaking Bad).
I arrive at the designated meeting place at 6am. I survey the competition. I bet they’re sizing me up. I know I’m sizing them up. No one’s too much taller than me so I’m not too worried. I see a couple of very professional looking knife rolls. My 7 allowed knives are rolled up in a blue and white kitchen towel and poking a hole in my handbag.
We walk through the beautiful Chelsea Market. There’s absolutely no one there but us. This is the calm before the storm.
We head up to the studio where all of our belongings are taken away from us and stashed in lockers. I feel so lost without my beloved cellphone – I mean, how will I know what the temperature is outside and how will I stay informed on the everyday minutiae of my 728 Facebook friends? We’re assigned numbers – I’m Chef #1. I do some quick mental rehashing of the episodes I’ve watched and figure out that I’ll probably be farthest away from the judges and closest to the pantry. Yay! I’m winning already! We’re given a very unremarkable breakfast – I’m not sure what I was expecting. I mean, this ain’t the Four Seasons. We’re miked up and then given the tour of the kitchen. “Here’s your station, your cutting board, your knives will be laid out here, here’s the ice-cream machine, here’s how you use it, here’s the anti-griddle, here’s the pressure cooker (yeah, like I really want to pressure cook something in 30 minutes), here’s the produce, the onions, the citrus, the oils, the vinegars, more tools, more kitchen implements. In case you cut yourself, here are your band-aids and gloves.” The whole tour takes about ten minutes. Ten outwardly calm minutes that are in fact ten incredibly frantic minutes while my brain tries to sock away all this information for use in the very near future.
I have to stop here for a minute and just tell you that the CHOPPED production team are the most well-organized bunch of people I have ever encountered. Every step of the day runs as smoothly as you can imagine while in the background there must be a thousand moving pieces that move in absolute concert with one another. Kudos to each and every one of you – you guys ROCK! And to whoever runs this show – you are a God/dess!
Finally, it’s time to walk down that famous black and orange hallway to what feels like THE GALLOWS. No, seriously. There’s so much nervous, excited energy and so much adrenaline coursing through my veins that I could BASE jump off the top of this building and run all the way home to Brooklyn now!
I’m the first to march to my station and the first person I see is Ted Allen – amiable, erudite Ted. Behind him I see Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian – OMG, the one judge I absolutely adore and admire. God, he’s so handsome IRL. Did I just call him God? Now on top of the excitement and nervousness, my heart is about to explode! Too bad I can’t just run up to him and give him a hug, huh? Next to him is the accomplished, James Beard Award-winning Chef Maneet Chauhan. She scares the living daylights out of me. This brings me back down to earth. Thank you Chef Chauhan! And finally, at the way end of the judges’ table is the ever-so-sweet Chef Marc Murphy cool as a cucumber and a wonderful calming presence for all of us.
We stand at our stations and are given all sorts of directions. The room is huge and seems pretty packed with people and machines. Each chef has their own camera guy and boom person – they stick pretty close to you while you’re in full-on panic mode. There are a total of 10 cameras and about 75 people working on this shoot. (No, I didn’t count them, I stole that info from a Food Network “behind-the-scenes at CHOPPED” blog post!)
Ted does his usual spiel – you know, where he lays out the rules, tells us we have 20 minutes for this round and then he says “Chefs, open your baskets!” Holy hell, it’s game ON! I see chicken wings (yay), an Asian pear (yay), Peri Peri Rub (yay), and Stroopwafels (WTF?) I discard the tips of the wings, count 9 of them into a large bowl, dump some of the spicy Peri Peri in, some salt, some honey to balance the heat. I toss them with tongs then dump them into the deep fryer. (Oh, before the round begins, the deep fryer is set to 325°, the oven is set to 500° and each chef has a large pot of water at a rolling boil). I hear the camera operator or the dude next to him say “WE HAVE FRYER ACTION!” and I giggle a little inside. It sounds like there’s an emergency or something.
I blanch the Asian pear with some star anise and cloves, dress some arugula, pull the wings out of the fryer, and then go “WTBLEEP am I going to do with these Stroopwafels?” I know, croutons for the salad!! I throw them into the fryer imagining that they will come out crispy. Instead they come out of the fryer in one goopy mess so I just rough chop them and hope if I call them croutons the judges will believe me. Time to plate, time to plate, time to plate…. I plate up four even looking plates. I step back – time is up, and I am happy to at least have gotten to this point with no major mishaps, no bloody fingers tossing salad, no food falling to the floor, no forgotten ingredients.
We head to the judges’ table. We each introduce ourselves and talk about our culinary journey. We are asked what winning on CHOPPED would mean to us. There’s a lot more blahblahblah than you actually see on TV. I think you see something like 15% of what actually goes on at the judges’ table. Perhaps even less. They have to make it all fit into 44 minutes.
We then present our dishes to the judges and receive their critiques. I was surprised at just how nice they were to all of us. I guess none of us chefs were mouthy weisenheimers, so the judges didn’t really have the need to take anyone down a peg or two. The dressing downs do make for some good TV, but you won’t see any judgy snark in this episode.
We are sherpherded off to the chef’s holding tank. There’s a camera in there too and we’ve been instructed to walk in, sit down and talk about how we felt we did in the first round. While the judges deliberate, each chef is whisked away to an interview room. A producer asks us a ton of questions including who we think our biggest competition is and who we think will be eliminated first. I don’t really feel like answering these questions, but if you don’t answer them they will ask them again and again until you do answer them. I answered the question about who would go home first without mentioning the name of a chef and was instructed to repeat my answer and say the chef’s name. You know, when you watch the show and you’re amazed at all these chefs talking trash? “I’m going to win CHOPPED because….” or “So-and-so is definitely going home…” it’s because the producers work very hard to draw it out of them. I loved every aspect of being on this show with the exception of these interrogations which were clearly designed to up the drama factor which in turn scores the higher ratings.
We head back to the judges’ table. Ted has that infernal cloche over someone’s dish. I feel pretty confident that I’m not going home in this round considering there was a mention of slightly raw chicken and two of the chefs did not trim the tips off the wings. Ted does his very dramatic lifting of the cloche (I wonder if he practices that flourish at home in front of a mirror?), and I live to cook another round. Woohoo!
The crew resets the entire kitchen, removing one chef’s station. We are now three. If I thought the sitting around waiting was intense before the first round, it’s much worse now. It feels like my stomach is in knots. I have no idea what time it is. My mind darts about like a bird that accidently flew into a brightly-lit cathedral and is flying into windows trying to find a way out. Whoa – where did that metaphor come from?
It’s time for the entrée round. We march to our stations again. We wait for Ted’s direction to open our baskets. All hell breaks loose. Again.
Inside I find a whole breast of lamb (bleepbleepbleepbleepBLEEP!!!), sunflower seed butter (okay), Speck (hmmmmmm), and blueberries (these don’t register at all). Now where the #*&% does one find the meat on this whole side of an animal? I cut a little here, I cut a little there, running my fingers along the edges and flats trying to figure out just where the meat is on this BLEEPer. I’m pulling little pieces of meat off from wherever I see it. While I’m doing this I conceive of a lamb curry that I’ll use the sunflower seed butter in. I’m very aware that I can’t afford to spend ten minutes butchering this thing. I finally have a handful of meat off the bones – I grab the entire lamb breast and shove it onto the shelf below my station. I hear snippets of a conversation between my camera guy and the boom dude – “where’s the rest of her meat?”, “wait where’s… what happened to all that meat?” I know they’re trying to tell me I haven’t gotten enough meat off those bones but I honestly don’t know where to find more and I just can’t spend any more time on my own personal “Where’s the Meat?” show. I turn the chopping board over and run for some onions, garlic, ginger – the trifecta with which every good curry must begin. Chop those, get them into a large saucepan, add some cardamom pods and whole cinnamon sticks. Throw the meat in, add some curry powder, then coconut milk. I think somewhere at this point, Ted appears on my right and asks me a question. Those who know me know not to talk to me when I’m deeply focused on something. Poor Ted – I think I bark “I’m making a curry” and then proceed to ignore him. (I’m so glad they didn’t show this part!) I want something green in here – I run to the refrigerator and get zukes and asparagus. I decide to go with just the asparagus – I bias cut those babies and throw them into the pan along with a heaping tablespoon of the sunflower seed butter. I give the whole thing a taste – yum! You can’t go wrong with a good curry.
I realize I’m going to need some sort of starch since this is the entrée course. I run for the red bliss potatoes, render the speck down in an ovenproof pan, and throw the cut up potatoes into the same pan. I season it, give it a toss and throw that into the hothothot (ie. very hot) oven and hope to whomever’s listening that the potatoes will be done in time. We’re twenty-two minutes in and I realize I haven’t given a thought to the blueberries. I get another saucepan and decide I’ll make some sort of blueberry chutney – in go the blueys, the sugar, some ginger, salt, pepper, and then I have the brilliant idea of adding some lemongrass – you know, for that Malaysian flavor. Brilliant, right? The lemongrass gets chopped and dropped into the pan – big, bad mistake #1. Very. Bad. Mistake.
Ted gives us the 2 minute warning. I pull the potatoes out of the oven, stick a fork in one and it’s cooked to perfection. I plate the potatoes. I go for the chutney and realize the woody bits of lemongrass make the chutney rough and almost inedible – I realize I should have simply bruised the lemongrass and left it whole so it would impart its flavor to the chutney, but still be easy to remove. As Mum would say “Aiyo, bodoh-lah!” (Google translate that please.)
I run for the Vitamix – big, bad mistake #2. I plop the chutney into the Vitamix and give it a whirr. I look down through the peephole and see large bits of lemongrass still in there. Vitamix fail – my trusty 1000-watt Cuisinart Elite at home would have made short work of that lemongrass. Now the judges and a chorus of angels and demons from the entire breadth of human history are yelling at me to GET THE FOOD ON THE PLATE. I pick up the pot of curry and begin flinging my delicious curry onto the plates. I wasn’t using the right spoon to do it, but the time to find the right spoon to serve the curry had come and gone. Finally, I reach for the Vitamix container and attempt to get the blueberry chutney with lemongrass razorblades on the plates – I manage to get it on one plate, perhaps two before Ted calls “Time’s up, chefs please step back.” I honestly cannot remember. I look down at my plates in absolute disappointment. Waaaaaaaaah, Mummyyyyy! (Yes, I know. I’m a woman in her 40s – tell me, do we ever stop wanting our mummies?)
I know that this round at the judges’ table is not going to be fun. I begin to present my dish and in the middle of telling the judges what I made, I feel the hottest tears ever begin to roll down my face. Ugh, I’m totally disgusted with myself. Here we go AGAIN with these tears. I hear there’s a water shortage in California – they need to fly me out there ASAP because I’m sure I can remedy that (sorry Cali, I don’t mean to trivialize your situation!) And you know, where there are tears, there’s always snot. Loads of it. Crying, snorting, sniffling – not in any sort of sadness but in absolute rage at not getting it done in time. Previously, whenever I had seen a chef crying at the judges’ table, I always thought “now that’s one thing I am NOT going to do”. Why? Because it’s lame – in some cases, it looks as if the chef is making a bid for a sympathy pass into the next round. In other cases, it’s just a wuss move. As I think of it now though, since I’ve cried through every other important part of this process, why did I think I was going to make it through today without some tears?
They let me compose myself and present my dish to the judges – their critique was that 1. there wasn’t enough meat on each plate to make an entrée portion and 2. not all the plates got the blueberry mess. Iron Chef Zakarian complimented me on my curry – “The lamb is delicious. The fact that you got this done in thirty minutes and it’s soaked up all that flavor is miraculous”.
One of my competitor’s was criticized for her butchering of the lamb breast as well. She was told that the parts of the breast that she served were the inedible gristle and bone. When we left the judges’ table, I was sure that I was going home in this round, and my competitor was also sure that she was going home. We limped into the chefs’ room and both shared that we felt the same way. Next we endured an almost two hour wait for the upcoming elimination while we broke for lunch and to reset the kitchen. Hurry up and wait. The three of us sequestered in a room. The three of us eating lunch. The three of us were allowed to go up to the roof of the building. We stepped out into the ultra-bright light of day squinting like long-buried moles. I think by now it was about 2pm.
Finally, we were directed to walk back to the judges’ table for the next elimination. Ugh, throw up time. And yet, another part of me was strangely calm. It will be what it will be. Ted lifts up the cloche and there under it is my yummy curry, roasted Speck potatoes and ridiculous blueberry mess. It took me about a second to realize it was my dish! “Chef Auria, you’ve been Chopped!” Five little words that no cheftestant wants to ever hear. I wished the two remaining chefs all the best and did my loser’s walk down that hallway one last time. No tears, no snot at this moment – a victory of sorts!
What followed next was a ninety minute interview – this is where they ask you questions about every part of the day thus far. They ask for your reaction to the basket ingredients, your thought process, what the toughest part of the challenge was etc. This is where the audio that accompanies the shots of chefs cooking comes from. You know, when you’re seeing the chefs running about in absolute panic, and their relatively calm voice narrates “I open the basket and I see chicken wings, I immediately think – fried chicken wings. I decide to make a warm Asian pear salad to go with them.” After we re-cap my two rounds on the show, the producer then begins asking me questions about my mum. We talk about my mother for 45 minutes – I bet by now I don’t have to tell you what I was doing the entire 45 minutes. Finally I had had enough of it, and I barked “Listen, you know asking me about my mother is going to make me cry and you just keep asking me question after question about her!” The producer’s reply was “Yes, you’re right. One more question about your mum and we’ll move on.” I guess she was just doing her job, wasn’t she? I’m so glad they left most of this out – thank you editors for making me look somewhat like a composed professional. After all is said and done, I’m SO glad I did this. Where do I send the great big Edible Arrangement?
After the interview, I gathered my things and as I was leaving with my 7 knives poking another hole in my bag and a decision to never eat blueberries again, someone from the show came up to me and said “thank you SO much, you gave us such great TV!” You’re welcome CHOPPED, you’re welcome. I thank you for one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.