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  • 'Chopped' is 'instant gratification'

  • Despite the blood, sweat and tears (literally!), Food Network's "Chopped" keeps churning along.
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  • Despite the blood, sweat and tears (literally!), Food Network's "Chopped" keeps churning along.
    One of the main judges, Latin chef Aaron Sanchez, thinks he knows why.
    "We have a conclusion. You're not waiting for six weeks to see who America's next knucklehead is," he says, laughing. "After 22 minutes (with commercials), someone's walking out the door with $10,000. That's instant gratification."
    For the unfamiliar, the show pits four chefs against each other — and a giant clock. All are given four mystery ingredients for each round in an innocent-looking picnic basket — some way workable (angus beef, Blue Point oysters), most not so much (strawberry milk powder, durian).
    The almost-impossible mission: to cook an appetizer in 20 minutes, an entree and dessert in 30. Add to the mix the cameras, the tight kitchen, the giant clock and host Ted Allen nudging you along.
    "It's a very intense competition," admits Sanchez, who participated in the "All Stars" edition for charity, and won. "I've done 'Iron Chef' and the 'Next Iron Chef' but nothing is harder than 'Chopped.' You're by yourself, with no sous chef, no one helping you. It's no joke."
    But being a judge isn't a breeze, either. A number of the cheftestants have sob stories or will try to explain their way out of a bad meal just to win.
    "We have a hand in changing people's lives. We have to make the right decision, which we take very seriously," says the Texas-born author of "Simple Food, Big Flavor." "That's why we just judge the food, not the person. There's no way we could do that with a clean heart."
    What could give a contestant an edge?
    The panel — which includes a high-wattage rotation of Marc Murphy, Amanda Freitag, Scott Conant, Geoffrey Zakarian and Alex Guarnaschelli — likes to hear personal stories, why you started cooking, what got you to this point.
    Also: try not to have a breakdown.
    "The thing with 'Chopped' — and I hope this comes across — is that it's not necessarily an exercise in how good a chef you are, it's more about how resourceful you are and how you can handle pressure," says Sanchez, 36.
    Despite the odd concoctions that have been laid out at the table, the New York restaurateur (Centrico) swears he has never gotten ill.
    "When I see some of the odd things that come about, especially during the dessert course, utilizing sweet and savory, that sometimes is a shocker," says Sanchez, who is married with two kids. "But at this point, I have a stomach of steel. I eat just about everything."
    Just about.
    "There's stuff we won't touch because a cook had sweat or bled on it. Or if someone tries to sell us undercooked food. I'm not into turkey carpaccio, sorry!"
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