London Chopping Block

Image By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

On Food network's show Chopped, hosted by Ted Allen, chefs are challenged to create a dish in 20-30 minutes featuring several mystery ingredients.  The ingredients often don't seem like they would go together, or there might be something that is very rare.  Have you ever cooked with ostrich, pig snout, or chia seeds?  How would you convert candy into a sauce for an appetizer?

Then the food they create is presented to judges who evaluate the chefs based on creativity, taste, and presentation.  Judges are culinary heavyweights and restauranteurs:

  • Alexandra "Alex" Guarnaschelli - Iron chef (after 2 attempts) and ferocious competitor
  • Aarón Sánchez - you can seem him plug Ortega taco products
  • Geoffrey Zakarian - another Iron Chef
  • Scott Conant -  winner of Chopped All Stars 2013
  • Marcus Samuelsson - Scandinavian and African cooking specialist
  • Marc Murphy  - the potatoes guy who has a heart for charity
  • Maneet Chauhan- indian fusion chef
  • Chris Santos -restauranteur
  • Amanda Freitag - kind but still competitive

Parents can face similar challenges.

  • Time crunches.  Children are very impatient, especially when hungry.  So 20 minutes is on the clock. GO.
  • Tough judges. A grilled cheese may seem simple, but screw it up and the little ones will let you know. Kids are notoriously picky eaters.
  • Creativity, taste, and presentation all matter.  Vegetables may have to be transformed into something quite different than their natural state.  Making last night's leftovers into something appealing is no easy task either. 

So what can the people who end up winning Chopped teach us about preparing food for our families?

Ten Tips to Conquer the Kitchen and Make Kids Happy

  1. Manage time wisely.  When chopped contestants enter the arena, the water is boiling and the ovens are heated.  Anticipate meal time and fire up the stove, even before you being to prepare what you are making.
  2. Be an efficient multi-tasker.  Get the veggies frying then start on the salad.  There's a fine line here between accomplishing a lot and doing too much.   If you find that things are burning or boiling over, then scale back.
  3. Prepare meals in courses.  Buy yourself some time with those hungry kids by starting off with an easy appetizer.  Then while they enjoy that, work on the main course.  Have a dessert in your back pocket as a potential motivator to eat those veggies.
  4. Allow yourself to fail. Not everything will be a home run.  Things will go wrong.  Don't take it personally when you son's mouth becomes a volcano erupting with partially chewed peas. The important thing is to move past it as quick as possible. 
  5. Take risks.  Experimentation, whether that is a new food item, or a new culinary technique, is a great way to make cooking more fun and exciting.  The more things you try, the bigger your tool belt will be, and the more ideas you will have when it comes to meal planing. Try bringing home a new item from the grocery store every week and making it the feature of your meal.
    1. Involve your kids in this part.  Let them taste, smell, touch and explore curious foods.  Even let them help cook it, if they are old enough.
  6. Have a well stocked pantry with cooking staples.  The chefs on Chopped aren't restricted to the basket ingredients.  The often supplement their meals with other items.  Go-to items like onions, butter, various oils, vinegar, leafy salads, fresh fruits and veggies, are important to have to make meals delicious. 
  7. Use fat and salt. They might not be good for you, but they sure are yummy.  Meat tasting bland, add bacon.  Rice needs a little something, try some soy sauce.  Fats and salts are quintessential components to developing flavors.  For healthier alternatives, there are good fats like olive oil and avocados and low sodium salts.
  8. Keep it fresh.  Dishes can't get heavy fast, something like a citrus or an apple is a good way to bring lighter notes to the meal you are creating.
  9. Spice it up.  Kids may be sensitive to heat,  but one of the things I like to do is after I make a kid friendly version, I add some extra kick for adults.  Spice doesn't always have to be spicy either.  getting good seasonings like smoked paprika and curry and playing with these ingredients will really add a lot to dinner time.
  10. Just go for it.  Thinking about it, being afraid o of it, or being overwhelmed will not win you any food cooking shows or the hearts of your kids. Be bold and take that first step of throwing noodles in a pot.  Your kids deserve more than frozen pizza and mac and cheese.

If you really want to do something that will impress chopped judges, maybe try one of their own recipes.  Here are some of their recent cookbooks.

Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook
Amazon Price: $30.00 $15.11 Buy Now
(price as of May 29, 2016)
The Scarpetta Cookbook
Amazon Price: $35.00 $5.83 Buy Now
(price as of May 29, 2016)
Flavors of My World
Amazon Price: $29.95 $19.40 Buy Now
(price as of May 29, 2016)
Geoffrey Zakarian's Town/Country: 150 Recipes for Life Around the Table
Amazon Price: $37.50 $34.30 Buy Now
(price as of May 29, 2016)