Deborah Neyens is an attorney, avid gardener, and cook who believes food should be sustainably grown, lovingly prepared, and joyfully eaten.
Are you looking for a fun theme for a dinner party? Do your friends love to cook as much as you do? If so, issue a "Chopped Challenge" to make an unforgettable meal.
Chopped is a cooking competition that airs on the Food Network. As adorable host Ted Allen explains at the start of every show, the premise is that four chefs must use a basket of mystery ingredients to create a three course meal before time runs out. There are three rounds in the competition: appetizer, entrée, and dessert. At the start of each round the contestants are given a basket of varied, unusual, and sometimes seemingly incompatible items from which they are to compose a dish in a limited amount of time. They may supplement the mystery ingredients with any items in the pantry or refrigerator, but they must use all the mystery ingredients in some way.
The chefs then go before a panel of snarky judges at the "chopping block," at which point their dishes are judged on the basis of presentation, taste, and creativity. The chef with the worst dish is "chopped" and the remaining chefs go on to compete in the next round with a new basket of mystery ingredients. The last chef standing is named the Chopped Champion.
With just a few tweaks, this becomes a great premise for an interactive dinner party. The biggest change is that instead of having all the contestants compete in each round—because whose kitchen is equipped with four separate cooking stations?—each contestant is assigned one course to prepare while the others watch. At the end of each round, everyone eats and scores that course before the next course is prepared. When the meal is finished, the scores are tallied and the Chopped Champion is declared. Read on to learn how you can plan and execute your own Chopped Challenge.
Planning Your Chopped Challenge
1. Assess your space.
Make no mistake about it—this party takes place in the kitchen. If you have a tiny kitchen in which one person barely can turn around, let alone two, this is not the party for you, unless you can convince a friend with a more spacious kitchen to host it. My kitchen has a center island with a large work space and seating for four, which I found to be ideal for my own Chopped Challenge dinner party.
2. Identify your guest list.
You'll want to limit this party to three to four individuals or teams of two simply for logistical reasons. Teams of two seem to work especially well. For my Chopped Challenge, I invited two other couples to compete against my husband and me for a three-course meal. If you have four couples, you would make a four-course meal. Everyone on the guest list should love to cook, or at least know their way around a kitchen, because that's what this party is all about. Also, your guests should be familiar with the general premise. If they've never seen the show, it would be a good idea to have them watch an episode or two in advance of your party.
3. Assign the courses.
Assign each guest or team with a course for which they are to provide the mystery ingredients. If there will be three teams, assign one team to bring a basket of mystery ingredients for the appetizer course, another for the entrée course, and the third for the dessert. For four teams, you could assign a second appetizer course, or have a fish course and a meat course instead of one entrée course.
Tell your guests to bring the ingredients in a closed container (a picnic basket, a cardboard box with a lid, or even a brown paper bag) so they aren't revealed to the other guests until the appropriate time. Remind them that they will have to eat whatever is prepared using the ingredients they bring, which should provide some insurance against something totally weird or gross showing up in one of the baskets. (Sure, rattlesnake may have been used in a basket on Chopped, but that doesn't mean I want to eat it or cook with it.)
4. Stock up.
Stock your pantry and refrigerator with some basic ingredients that can be used to supplement the mystery ingredients. This should include things like butter, olive and other cooking oils, spices and condiments, aromatics such as onions and garlic, fresh herbs, salad greens, fresh vegetables and fruits, canned tomato sauce and paste, chicken and beef stock, a variety of soft and hard cheeses, milk and cream, eggs, chocolate or cocoa, and red and white wine (for cooking and drinking).
If you like to cook, you probably have many of this things on hand already, but for more ideas, search the Internet for lists of pantry essentials or watch a few episodes of Chopped and make note of the pantry and refrigerator ingredients available to the show's contestants. Also, use the party as an excuse to clean out your pantry and refrigerator (I got rid of several jars of spices and condiments I had since the Clinton administration) and reorganize everything so it's all easy to see with just one glance inside the door.
Executing Your Chopped Challenge
It's the day of your dinner party and the guests have arrived. Now what? Uncork a couple bottles of wine and let the games begin!
First, make sure the mystery ingredient baskets remain closed and your guests don't reveal to one another what they've brought until it's time to open the basket. Then decide which team will be cooking each course. I had the team that brought the entrée mystery ingredients ingredients cook the appetizer course, the team that brought the dessert ingredients cook the entrée course, and the team that brought the appetizer ingredients cook the dessert course. That way no one ended up with the same basket they brought.
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Decide how much time will be allowed to cook each course. On Chopped, the contestants are allowed 20 minutes for the appetizer course and 30 minutes for each the entrée and dessert courses. You may want to allow a bit more time than that for a couple of reasons. Your guests probably aren't professional chefs like the Chopped contestants; and you have to eat the food, too, so you don't want it to be undercooked. For my own Chopped Challenge, we allowed 30 minutes for the appetizer course and 40 minutes for the entrée and dessert courses.
Next comes the fun part. The team cooking the appetizer course should open that basket of mystery ingredients. Give them no more than a minute or two to determine what they have, both in the basket and in the pantry, then set a timer and tell them to get cooking. The rest of you can sit back to watch, while imparting helpful comments like, "Ewww, that's gross," or "I can't believe you're making that." (A little trash talking never hurts in a friendly competition.) When the timer goes off, the food must be plated and ready to eat. No exceptions. Anything not on the plate can't be served.
Everyone eats and scores the course. Each dish should be judged in three categories: presentation, taste and creativity. There should be a deduction applied if any of the mystery ingredients don't make it on the plate. For my Chopped Challenge, we used note cards and each guest individually rated the dish on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best, in each of the three categories. Don't reveal the individual scores until all courses are completed.
Once you've eaten and scored the first course, it's time for the entrée round (after maybe a quick break in between to clean up a bit and wash some pans) and then the dessert round. When all the courses have been completed and individually scored, add up all the scores to determine which team has the highest overall score. That team is named the Chopped Champion.
A Recap of My Chopped Challenge Dinner Party
The appetizer mystery ingredients included tuna steaks, egg roll wrappers, dried chili mangos, and pork rinds. Chef Scott and Chef Christine prepared pan-seared tuna steaks with mango chili and red pepper chutney with crispy egg roll ribbons and a dusting of pork rind crumbs, while the rest of us consumed copious amounts of wine and hurled insults at the chefs. When time was up, we moved to the dining room table to eat. The verdict? The judges liked the dish, but would have preferred to see a more creative use of the pork rinds.
My husband (Chef Bob) and I prepared the entrée course. The ingredients in our mystery basket were tilapia fillets, butternut squash, radishes, and a bottle of Pepsi. (And in a blatant ploy to show up Chef Scott and Chef Christine, we also used the remaining pork rinds from the appetizer course.) We prepared pan-fried tilapia with pork rind breading, butternut squash and Pepsi puree, crispy potato chips, and a radish and orange salad with Pepsi vinaigrette. Everyone seemed duly impressed.
And then it was time for Chef Jeff and Chef Jen to make the dessert course. They used mystery ingredients supplied by Chef Bob and me: a whole pineapple, puff pastry dough, pine nuts, and a pound of bacon. (Being the competitive person I am, I came to regret my decision to include the bacon.) They prepared pine nut puffs served with caramelized pineapple slices, a slice of candied bacon and, in the most creative use of a mystery ingredient all night, whipped cream with candied bacon bits. Of course this dish won, hands down, because everything's better with bacon. I should have included tripe instead, to keep things competitive.