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Talking Chopped with Ria Pell

For those of you who don’t know the format of Food Network’s Chopped, it’s like this: Four chefs compete against each other, and against the clock, to create an appetizer from a mystery basket of four ingredients, and a pantry that’s fairly representative of a well-stocked domestic kitchen. The chef who, in the opinion of the show’s judges, prepares the least appetizing dish is “chopped,” and the three remaining chefs go through the same exercise to create an entree for a second mystery basket. Finally, the two remaining chefs create a dessert, and are judged on the entire meal they’ve prepared, with the winner pocketing $10,000.

On the night that Food Network aired the Chopped episode For Sake’s Sake, Sauced on Edgewood Avenue hosted a viewing party. Ria Pell, the chef/owner of Sauced and Ria’s Bluebird, was one of the contestants that episode. And following in the footsteps of Atlanta Chopped alums, Zeb Stevenson and Suzanne Vizethann, Ria won. A few days later, in her trademark dungarees and flat cap, and sporting a broad, disarming smile, the soft-spoken Pell sat down with Atlanta Eats to talk about her experience on Chopped…

Atlanta Eats: Knowing the format of Chopped and its mystery ingredient baskets, was there an ingredient you were afraid might be in one of the baskets?

Ria Pell: I think I was more afraid of something super-exotic, from some part of the world we’ve never heard of, that we can’t pronounce and have no earthly idea of what it could be.

AE: If they’d given you something from the opposite end of the spectrum like, say, all-purpose flour, would that have inspired a different kind of fear?

RP: I think it would be just as scary because you’d have to make something outstanding out of something that’s very common, or they’d have your feet to the fire.

AE: We have a question from one of our Facebook followers: if one of the ingredients was gummy bears, what would you do?

RP: Cry. (She laughs) There’s really no transforming them, because they don’t melt or anything like that. I think you’d just have to get the mandolin out and shave them infinitely thin and pray for some kind of dessert charcuterie board or something.

AE: You watched a lot of the old episodes to prepare — was there a judge that you really didn’t want to have on your panel?

RP: They’re all equally intimidating, and in the studio they’re all up on a platform so they’re already looking down upon you and casting judgement. It’s pretty intense, and I actually got the guy I didn’t want: Chris Santos, the bald guy who’s really hard on the chefs. But I did notice during the filming that he got all the crappy-looking plates. I think they intentionally feed him the plates that look terrible, and probably aren’t the best plate out of the four that you prepare. I think they do it to give him fodder.

AE: Are there any dishes that are really easy to screw up that you might have hoped someone would attempt on your Chopped appearance?

RP: I think you had to avoid raw red onions because one of the judges is obsessed with that, and I think that’s sad because I really enjoy red onions in a lot of different forms.

AE: I see that they’re often sticklers for over or under-seasoning. Is that a bit of a crap-shoot.

RP: I’m not sure…I think with salt, first and foremost, is that it’s a very fluid thing, and some people like savory dishes and others like sweet dishes. You can tell by what they eat for breakfast, they’ll either get caramelized banana pancakes or they’ll get huevos with eggs and salsa — it’s two camps divided by what they like to get first thing in the morning. It changes with how old you are and…

AE: drunk you were the previous night?

RP: Exactly!

AE: Chopped seems like something they could film in a morning, how long of a day is it?

RP: It was 16 hours in the studio, and 4 hours in Atlanta to shoot the intro. It’s a lot of being “on.”

AE: How soon do you get to know the other competitors? Do you get time to socialize ahead of the show?

RP: We just met each other at the set, so it’s hard to put that on a fast track to figure out what people’s strengths and weaknesses are when you don’t know anything about them, what culinary skills they have, or their penchants for particular styles or dishes — it’s definitely a super-quick learning curve.

AE: Obviously you’re engrossed in what you’re doing, to produce the best dish you can, but do you make sideways looks across at the other stations while you’re cooking to make those kinds of assessments?

RP: I think I was just worrying about my own dish, and it wasn’t until a little bit further into the competition that I got to look over and see how things were going at the other stations. It really is quite hectic, so there’s no sizing up the competition. You just really want to put your best foot forward.

AE: Cam Boudreaux, a New Orleans cheftestant, cut his hand while plating his dish in the first round. Your station was next to his and it looked like you wanted to help him get his food on the plate.

RP: In kitchens it’s all about teamwork, so if one person cuts himself it’s really super-important that you address that right away. I did, for a moment, forget that I was in a competition and I immediately wanted to help, and then in my head I backed it up. He really needed to address the cut and he was spazzing out because that’s an awful thing to have happen in the first twenty minutes of the competition.

AE: Do they give you much time to get to know the kitchen?

RP: No, and we were all really nervous — I can only speak for myself, but I’m pretty sure everyone was just as nervous as I was — so when they showed us the kitchen everything was just going in one ear and out the other. They had a lot of really intricate kitchen equipment I’d never seen before, like the anti-griddle, and I just thought “This is wonderful…but I’m not using it.”

AE: It seems like every time someone uses the ice-cream maker on Chopped, they screw it up.

RP:That’s right, because you’re having a spaz-attack while you’re making the ice cream base. The thing about pastry and stuff like that is that it’s very formulaic, and there’s a process to follow, and unless you’re doing it every single day and it’s something you can do without thinking, you have to really focus to remember those recipes.

AE: Did watching previous episodes of the show give you a sense of where to find things in the pantry?

RP:Not at all. It’s not put together like a kitchen. A [restaurant] kitchen is put together based on economy of motion. It’s not very cost effective to have your cooks wandering all willy-nilly looking for things. They’re all grouped and based on what you need at different stations. The Chopped kitchen and pantry is put together like a TV studio.

AE: In your episode, Cam Boudreaux cut himself in the first round, and Tasheena Butler burned her oil in the second round: Did you notice what was going on and think it was a good opportunity for you to capitalize on their misfortune?

RP:I think that you don’t know, until the very end, what’s going to make it onto the plate and what’s not going to make it onto the plate. There’s always a wild card. Tasheena burning the oil was super-unfortunate because she is a really sweet woman who just wanted to win to open her own catering business. Just like anybody, we all had reasons to be there.

AE: Was it difficult to keep it a secret that you’d won?

RP: Super difficult. It kind of takes the wind out of your sails because you’re so elated in the moment and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Aaaaaand you’ll just need to be quiet now.” I think an arm and a leg were involved with something I signed. We shot and wrapped it in February and it didn’t air until Thanksgiving. People would come up to me and say “Aww, man, I hear you did Chopped, how’d it go? Did you win?” And I’d say “You know, at least I got on TV,” and they’d immediately back-pedal, and not try to offend, so I immediately got them off my case. That helped me back out of the conversation because I’m not a very good liar.

Ria Pell is Chef/Owner of Ria’s Bluebird, 421 Memorial Drive, Atlanta, and Sauced, 753 Edgewood Avenue, Atlanta.

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