The Art of Critical Decision-Making: Six Things We Can Learn From Food Network’s Chopped

So many TV game shows follow a familiar script: Contestant vs. Clock. Whether on the collaborative Family Feud, the puzzle-solvers’ Wheel of Fortune or the uber-cerebral Jeopardy, players must give the correct answer in seconds. Part of the appeal for viewers is to think along with the players, albeit from the comfort of our sofas.

The cooking game shows raise the stakes — and the temperatures. My favorite is The Food Network’s Chopped.  In the Chopped kitchen, four chefs of varying experience battle in a timed three-round cook-off. At the end of each round – Appetizer, Entrée and Dessert, a panel of celebrity chefs judge the dishes based on taste, presentation and creativity before one contestant is eliminated —chopped. The winning chef earns a cash prize.

The Chopped “secret sauce” is how the contestants react to the “Basket of Mystery”, the selection of four seemingly incongruous ingredients that must be used in the next course, hidden inside wicker picnic baskets and revealed to the chefs just seconds before the round begins.

The basket combinations are, well, bizarre. For the appetizer round, chefs might find pizza rustica, radicchio, sardines and lemon candies. For an entrée, baby octopus, orange liqueur, caperberries and ham steaks. For dessert, brown butter, blueberry crumbcake, serrano chilis and salt water taffy. (Episode 387)

A split second after the mystery ingredients are revealed, the clock starts and the contestant chefs are turned loose in the fully stocked Chopped kitchen.  Then the real fun begins. Chopped is literally cooking on the fly.

Knives slice meats into portions. Blenders pulverize peppermint sticks. Chefs dart from stove to pantry to countertop. From a distance, the celebrity judges watch and comment to each other.

My wife and I love Choppedfor different reasons. She is an excellent cook, an artist in the kitchen. For her, Chopped is an exercise of a cook’s imagination and prowess.

On the other hand, my own culinary skills max out at making stove-popped popcorn. (The real kind, with oil.) For me, the show’s sweet spot is how the chefs make quick decisions outside their comfort zones but inside the tight 20-30 minutes allotted for each round.

I’ve identified six decision-making “ingredients” found in every episode:

  • Reconnaissance — Chefs often discover at least one unfamiliar ingredient in a basket. They struggle to connect it to something they understand. In the first few minutes they taste, assess and draw on their experience or culture to formulate a recipe.
  • Innovation — Chefs are judged by how they transform the basket ingredients; in other words, you don’t just put those Mandarin oranges on the plate. Contestants get remarkably creative with their recipes to give the judges an “mmmm” experience.
  • Focus — Some competitors, hoping to impress with their versatility, go overboard with pantry ingredients at the expense of the four mandatory basket items. Smart chefs accent their creations from the pantry but remain focused on the primary task.
  • Tactical Planning — So many chefs get burned by losing track of time or failing to choose a recipe that fits the time constraints. Sequencing is critical; when you do something is as important as what you do. Need to bake popovers? Get them in the oven first and prepare the cold salad later. Making ice cream? Go to the blast chiller now.
  • Triage — What do you do when things go bad? Some of the most heroic Chopped chefs have turned a mistake into a triumph by quickly devising a Plan B. Ice cream won’t freeze? Make it a sauce. 
  • Execution —Having all the imagination and flavor in the world is for naught if a chef omits too many basket ingredients or fails to “plate” a full course before the clock expires. Winning chefs synthesize the first three steps, correct an error as needed, and deliver the dish with confidence and style.

The parallels to agency work are easy to draw, even if we usually have more time than the chefs on Chopped.

  • Reconnaissance means learning and understanding your clients, their markets and their needs.
  • Innovation is about devising a unique solution for the client.
  • Focus means staying on task and avoiding Scope Creep.
  • Tactical Planning means having sound processes, defined roles and well-conceived schedules.
  • Triage is our ability to adapt, improvise and recover when a project goes awry.
  • Execution is putting everything together to do the job right.

One last dimension of Chopped with a parallel to everyday business is the judging after each round — a minute-long performance appraisal that fills the hopeful chefs with dread. We’ve all been there. To get “chopped” feels like the end of the world. But when they like you, it’s delicious.

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