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June/July 2012: On the Set of “Chopped”

In its June/July issue, School Nutrition took you to the “Head of the Class” with a fascinating look at the “Class Acts” episode of “Chopped,” featuring four school chefs from the Northeast. Space limitations prevented us from publishing all the behind-the-scenes revelations in the magazine, but they were too good not to share. Read on for more surprising and candid insights.

  • The contestants were outfitted with official show coats, but only given a brief tour of the kitchen and pantry. They were asked to bring their own knife sets; this prompted School Chef Arlene Leggio to order a new set, which didn’t arrive until the day before taping, giving her no time to practice with the new tools. (That was another source of anxiety: “I thought, ‘Great, I’m going to cut my finger off on T.V.’”)
  • Their phones were confiscated while taping, and contestants had to be escorted everywhere, including, yes, the ladies room.
  • There were numerous retakes each time the chefs opened their Mystery Baskets. Leggio confesses that she hoped she’d be able to cheat to get a peek of at least one item before the clock started ticking, but the contents were well-disguised with a linen cloth.
  • In the kitchen area, there is a line on the floor that contestants are forbidden to cross, making the available space for all four chefs especially crowded and difficult to navigate.
  • There were lights everywhere—including at the contestants’ feet!
  • Leggio was surprised there were no forks in the utensil holders—used to whisking with a fork, she believes that these kinds of small deficiencies threw her off her game a bit.
  • The school chefs were warned to “protect” their stations—making sure not to lose any valuable time by turning off the preheated ovens or the boiling water on the stovetops.
  • The one-on-one interviews with each contestant weren’t conducted until after each round, yet each was asked to recount their actions using the present or future tense to give a real-time effect to the interviews, something they all found exceedingly difficult.
  • Unbeknownst to the competitors, the select group of invited family members were watching the taping in a separate room with a bank of screens capturing each camera angle. “They taped us even when we didn’t know we were being taped,” says Leggio, recounting an incident when she was in search of tissues to give to a fellow contestant and was mortified to learn later that the mini-audience of friends and crew probably mistook her as “a terrible noseybody going through all the cabinets in the room.”
  • Veteran watchers of television reality shows know that contestant statements can be taken out of context in the editing process. Leggio had such a fear when she got uncharacteristically emotional during an interview in which she was asked repeatedly about being a hero and asserted that the real heroes were the nation’s emergency responders and armed forces. She worried that the producers would edit the footage to make it appear that she was upset about being “chopped” in the second round. Happily, there was no cause for anxiety, as the footage stayed largely in context throughout the episode.
  • Remember: The show taped in June, but was not aired until November. Through all those weeks, the contestants and their friends and families invited to the taping all were sworn to secrecy and forbidden to discuss or hint at the outcome.

In their interviews with School Nutrition, the contestants continually reiterated their appreciation for the spirit and contributions of their coworkers back home. “It was the best experience, and if I could wish it for any of my cafeteria workers, I wish they could experience it just once,” says School Chef Cheryl Barbara.