What makes Bobby Flay such a competitor? Plus, surprising behind-the-scenes stories about how the show is made!

By Gerrad Hall
August 08, 2020 at 10:39 AM EDT
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If that seems like a game of "one of these things is not like the other," well, it's not. They're all top names in their respective sports. And yes, food is a sport, especially on Food Network, where competitions are among some of the most-watched series. The popular channel is doing a crossover between two of them, Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay, for the five-week tournament, Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay.

It's business as usual over the course of the first four weeks, where four chefs compete against each other using mystery basket ingredients. The last chef standing in each episode — where the famed Iron Chef is among the three judges — will then cook-off against each other, and one of them will end up going knife to knife with Flay, making the chef's signature dish — the premise of Flay's eponymous culinary competition. On that show, the winner gets bragging rights. Here, if Flay gets chopped, the winning chef also takes home $50,000.

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Overseeing the proceedings, per usual, is Chopped host Ted Allen. He takes EW through the action and reveals some of the special ingredients that made this dish so great (a.k.a. explains how the show is made).

Scott Gries/Food Network

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How is the energy different for an event or tournament like this?

TED ALLEN: The big thing with Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay is that, you have to remember, Bobby is the one and only original gangster of Food Network who is still with us. He was there on day one, is with us still, and he's been competing and honing the craft of competitive cooking for all 26 years, however many it's been. And people who have not done competitive cooking may or may not understand that you can be the finest chef in New York City and fall flat on your face under these circumstances. Competitive cooking is a very specific thing that Bobby has spent a lot of time at the highest levels perfecting. When we get the original gangster in the Chopped kitchen like this for a whole tournament, it's so much fun. It really challenges everybody else to bring their A+ game. And contrary to the image that some people have of Bobby that he's cocky, he's actually the exact opposite — he's really quite self-deprecating and thinks he's a bland personality on camera. [Laughs] He's a super nice guy, New York City boy born and bred, and is humble yet very confident. So, he's really a pleasure to have in the house. People are going to enjoy it. We did it once before in 2016 and it was a blast.

What is it that makes Bobby a top athlete, so to speak, in his sport?

More than anything: experience. There's nobody alive that has as much experience as he has at competitive cooking on TV. He's obviously long past being fazed by cameras or lights.

This isn't just a regular episode for these chefs competing to take on Bobby — there's way more at stake. Do you feel a difference in their nerves?

Always. In a way, the preliminary heats are a way to kind of shake out some of your nerves — you don't have face Bobby then, even though he is a judge. But all of our judges are somewhat fearsome — they're actually really nice and fair but they know what they're doing. One thing that I think is interesting about these cooking competitions is that, in order to be a good chef you have to be hypercritical with your own work. So, when you put a dish in front of Bobby Flay, first of all, you're probably already freaking out that that you didn't do as well as you should have. Second of all, when somebody, under those circumstances, does get chopped, we've almost never had anybody even object. They're all like, yeah, yeah, I really blew that. [Laughs]

On Beat Bobby Flay, he doesn't pick who he cooks against. But he gets to size up the competition here. How is he as a judge?

He is definitely sizing up the competition, and I think, just because of the confidence that he's earned over all these years, he wants to go against the very best person that he can. He wants to be challenged in this thing. His weight/loss rate is definitely higher in the department, but if somebody out-cooks him, then they win. That's the way it has to be. Everyone's always cynical and skeptical about the honesty of these shows, and as someone who's judged Top Chef and Iron Chef, and has hosted Chopped for its entire run, honesty is the one thing that saves you and honesty is the thing that keeps your show on the air for a long time. As soon as you start trying to mess around with the outcome, viewers are smart, they'll smell it. They think they smell a rat anyway, when the person they like doesn't win. Well, we don't choose winners based on who's likable — you can be a jerk and cook a great dish, and if you do, you win.

You're not shooting right now because of the pandemic, but a lot of episodes, like this tournament, were filmed prior to production getting shut down. How often are you filming episodes?

We usually shoot anywhere from 40 to 50 episodes a year, and we are always airing new shows. With COVID, it's fortunate that the network had a bunch of episodes banked to keep them going for a long time, but they're not gonna last forever. We are in pre-production planning — hoping — to get back on set someday soon.

Are multiple episodes filmed in a day?

It takes a whole day to make one episode — about a 10-hour day. People don't take into account all the boring but necessary moments in the show that require us to move the camera to the other side of the room and change the lighting. And then there's a lunch break. We hope to be wheels-up at 8 in the morning, and on a typical day and we usually wrap around 6, sometimes longer.

You mentioned a lunch break. I assume the judges are not eating more during that time.

Usually not, unless they had really bad dishes.

How much time is there between when the clock hits zero and when the judges start tasting the food? Are the dishes kept warm, or, in the case of desserts, is ice cream kept frozen?

We do instruct the cooks, if they're gonna have a scoop of ice cream on a dessert, that they really need to put it in a separate little dish so that it can go into the freezer. We do that. The culinary department doesn't keep things warm because they're more concerned about food safety than they are about culinary delectation. And by the way, Beat Bobby Flay's production model is superior to ours in a sense because the food is served hot to the judges there, which is something that was clearly important to Bobby; we just don't have a way to do it. In round one, we have four people cook their dishes, they go off to the sequester room and we have to move the cameras around — so there's some lag time there — and then it takes a certain amount of time to taste each dish. Knowing that the food may not be at 100 percent, right when we take the chefs away from their stations, the judges go over — they don't mess with the finished plates — but they find, if somebody made a frico with parmesan cheese that's supposed to be crispy, they'll pick up little shards of that and taste it; they'll taste the sauces while they're hot; they get a sense of what the stuff was like right when it was just cooked.

More broadly speaking about the popularity of the series, what are the things you hear from fans about why they love the show?

Well, it really is lightning in a bottle kind of thing. I've been there for every episode of it and it's certainly something that you might wonder, does this kind of get old for you as you might wonder it doesn't make it old for the audience. But the thing is, it's clean and simple and pure in its format. The format doesn't change much, episode to episode, or tournament to tournament. Yet, every time, it's a different mix of judges who have their own particular charms and expertise, and sometimes crankiness. You never know what's gonna be in the basket. Sometimes what's in the basket is beautiful and wondrous, and sometimes it's just mind-spinningly heinous. So I think there's enough familiarity and simplicity. The editing is very important. The music is very important. The only thing that makes this a reality show — I think of it as a game show, it's a competition — but the one thing about it is that I have a script that tells me what the ingredients are and it has a slightly different intro each time and whatnot, but we have to have camera operators who are good enough to follow a story before they know even where the story's going. So, our team keeps coming back year after year, many of the same people from the beginning, and we have a very long-standing director, Michael Pearlman, who knows how to keep an eye on people, get a sense of what they're doing, and catch the story moments as they happen. So, if somebody drops some tilapia on the floor and picks it up and rinses it off and goes back to serve it, you want to stay with that person while they make those probably wrong decisions. [Laughs] And those are the moments that become the excitement. I think that's kind of it in a nutshell — you don't know what's gonna happen. And sometimes some pretty insane things happen. Lots of flames leaping out a pot. Sometimes people get hurt — we hate that, and it actually happens less and less, for some reason, over time. Thankfully. But you don't know what's gonna happen. And our crew is expert enough to make sure that you see it. It's really quite a feat what those folks do.

Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay kicks off Sunday, Aug. 9 at 9 p.m. ET on Food Network.

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