This week, a fresh-faced crop of teen chefs bring their knives into the Chopped kitchen to compete for a culinary school scholarship in the first-ever Chopped Teen Tournament. And since we've spent a shameful number of hours watching Food Network's deliciously addictive cooking competition over the years, we thought we'd offer them a little advice before they open their baskets.
OK, teen chefs, we're assuming you already know the basics of Chopped: During each of three rounds (appetizer, entrée, and dessert), you'll receive a "mystery basket" of four random ingredients that all must be used in your dish. At the end of each round, if you're the chef with the worst dish...
Here are a few time-tested tips and tricks that will help keep your plate off the dreaded chopping block.
1. Make sure all four basket ingredients are in your dish.
This sounds simple enough, but Chopped chefs mess this up all the time, so we're underlining and bolding it: ALL FOUR BASKET INGREDIENTS MUST BE ON THE PLATE. (Yes, we've been known to shout this at the TV from time to time.)
Time flies in the Chopped kitchen, and it's easy to lose an ingredient in the chaos. So take a few seconds before the clock runs out and count "one, two, three, four" to make sure the entire basket is represented.
And remember, it's not enough to just sprinkle a basket ingredient over your plate at the last second. You have to transform the ingredient in some way and integrate it into the dish, or the judges will not be happy.
2. Don't let your personal dietary restrictions limit your dish.
We always shake our heads when we see chefs who only cook vegan food come into the Chopped kitchen and get stymied by a prime rib. What you choose to eat on your own time is your own business, of course, but Chopped involves ingredients from across the food spectrum, and cheftestants need to be ready for anything. So even if you're a strict vegetarian, be prepared to cook up some animal flesh if the basket calls for it.
3. Taste any basket ingredients you don't know before using them.
The Chopped basket is known to contain some culinary oddities — animal innards, unpronounceable exotic fruits — and it's entirely possible you've never heard of them before, let alone tasted them. So taste them. (Yes, even the animal innards.) You need to know what kind of flavor profile each ingredient has before putting it on your plate, or you could end up serving a hopelessly confused dish ripe for the chopping block.
4. Stick with what you know.
"I've never made this dish before" are often famous last words for a Chopped cheftestant. We've seen a stunning number of chefs abandon the food they know best and attempt to make a dish they're not familiar with on the fly, whether it's to impress the judges or just a brain-freeze brought on by the ever-ticking clock. The basket ingredients are bound to be strange enough; find a way to work them into a recipe you're comfortable making.
5. Don't get too ambitious.
You only have twenty minutes in the appetizer round and thirty minutes for entrées and desserts — so keep it simple, stupid. No slow roasts. No complicated, multi-layered creations. A basic dish with good flavor that utilizes all four ingredients is a much safer bet than an overly ambitious dish that you can't even finish in time.
(A corollary to this rule: Don't try to make risotto. Thirty minutes is not enough time to make anything resembling a decent risotto… although that hasn't stopped a number of foolhardy Chopped chefs from attempting it.)
6. Season your food.
This tip comes straight from our favorite Chopped judge, Geoffrey Zakarian, who told a group of Chopped fans that the most common mistake he sees on the show is "nobody puts salt and pepper in their food." So don't fall into that trap: Be sure to layer in seasoning at every stage of the dish, so the judges aren't stuck with a bland, flavorless plate. To be sure that doesn't happen…
7. Taste your dish before sending it out.
We can't count the number of times we've heard the Chopped judges ask chefs, "Did you taste this dish?" To be sure everything's properly seasoned and balanced, it's essential to sample your cuisine throughout the cooking process. If you don't know it tastes good, how can you expect anyone else to think it tastes good?
8. Save time for plating.
Remember: You not only need to cook a delicious dish; you also need to get it physically on the plate. There's always a lot of chaos as the final minute ticks down in each round, and if you're scrambling, you might leave an essential ingredient simmering on the stove. Plus, the judges don't look kindly on a sloppy plate with sauces spattered everywhere. So give yourself plenty of time to get everything on the plate and looking beautiful, so the judges don't have to be like this:
9. Don't put anything on the plate you don't want the judges to eat.
Do us a favor and just banish the word "garnish" from your vocabulary. The Chopped judges HATE it when chefs put something on the plate just to make it look nice, with no intention of it being eaten. Make sure everything in your dish is actually tasty and not just there for show. And seriously, don't even say the word "garnish" in the judges' presence; it's a sure-fire ticket to the chopping block.
10. Be careful what you name your dish.
If you're calling your entrée a "burrito," it'd damn well better resemble a burrito. Many chefs have stumbled by giving their dishes a name that set up expectations for the judges that the dish couldn't meet. If your "burrito" dish doesn't at least remind the judges of a burrito in some way, that's a problem. Oh, and don't just slap a bunch of ingredients on a plate and call it a "deconstructed" something or other. That's just lazy.
11. Don't mess with the ice cream machine.
If you're lucky enough to make it to the final dessert round, you may be tempted to wow the judges with a frozen concoction using the kitchen's ice cream machine. Don't do it.
No piece of equipment in the Chopped kitchen has backfired on chefs more often than the ice cream machine, leaving them to frantically scrape out chunks of gritty, half-formed ice cream as time ticks away. And there's only one ice cream machine, so it can lead to a clock-killing traffic jam if both chefs try to use it. Better to stick with a quick bread pudding: a versatile dessert that can absorb some savory ingredients and always seems to turn out well for Chopped chefs.
If you follow these tips and avoid the pitfalls of cheftestants past, you might just make it all the way through the tournament un-chopped. Good luck! (We'll be watching, of course.)
The Chopped Teen Tournament premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Food Network.