But in the heat of competition, who has the time to figure it out?
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Credit: Courtesy of Food Network

While we love following the drama and saga-like structure of culinary competitions such as Top Chef or the (admittedly less dramatic) Great British Baking Show, there’s something super-satisfying about sitting through a fast-paced, episodic cooking-themed game show like Food Network’s Chopped. Each hour is just enough for four new chefs to crank out three courses with round-by-round eliminations all hinging on just how well they can conquer the four seemingly random ingredients tossed into a basket and thrown their way while a panel of hungry judges (including Martha Stewart!) look on. But just how “random” is that assortment of basket components, really? According to Chopped host Ted Allen, they may actually have some rhyme and reason.

In a recent article for Business Insider, Allen looks back at a decade of Chopped and reveals some tidbits from behind the scenes of the series, as well as what his duties as host entail. But certainly to my surprise, and no doubt that of any avid fan, Allen hinted that the series' signature baskets of oddball ingredient combinations could be trying to tell the contestants something.

"Someone has to decide what ingredients are going into the baskets. Every basket has a riddle in it, that is known to the people who make the basket," Allen explained. "I doubt that in a 20-minute cooking round, many of the chefs figure out that riddle. They just start chopping. But, if we give you say, silken tofu, and lavash bread, and tomatillos, maybe we're looking for a riff on grilled cheese and tomato soup. Good luck figuring that out."

Allen went on to say that the stranger the ingredients, the better the dishes seem to turn out. "Once in a while, we'll give people a basket that looks like it's a slam dunk, you know, New York strip steak, and potato, and some cheddar cheese. And it seems like the easier the basket, the worse the dishes. It seems like the chefs almost need to be challenged with, you know, something really scary like a whole chicken in a can."

So the next time you’re scouring the last remnants of your pantry and refrigerator shelves to scrape together something for dinner, maybe that pumpernickel bread, hoisin sauce, tzatziki, and half a bag of mini marshmallows isn’t a dead end. Maybe it’s just the universe asking you to solve a riddle.

The baskets aren't the only fun the producers of Chopped have with the show's contestants. At the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen last summer, frequent judge Marcus Samuelsson revealed the reason the show, much to the chefs and viewers consternation, only has one ice cream machine in the kitchen. “We want it to be a run for that, right?” he said. “It’s really for creating that level of semi-chaos.” Hey, it's reality TV, what did you expect?