6 lessons I’ve learned about the workplace from watching Chopped

I’m a big fan of the television show Chopped, which airs on the Food Network.

On the show, four chefs battle for a $10,000 prize. To win, they’ll need to survive three rounds of competition, during which they’ll prepare an appetizer, entree, and dessert. There are serious time constraints (20 minutes for the appetizer and 30 minutes each for the entree and dessert), and the chefs must use and “transform” all the ingredients in the basket received at the start of the round. When the dessert round ends, the judges review all the dishes of the final two remaining chefs and choose a winner.

The show is a lot of fun, and I always look forward to seeing how the contestants will incorporate say, pigs blood or chewy gummy snakes, into their food.

However, the competition is about more than food, and you can learn a lot about work in general from watching the show. For example …

Learn More About Our Compensation Software


1. Details matter

It’s not unusual for a judge to declare a dish fantastic and then criticize the chef for a few kernels of hard rice or not enough croutons on the plate. Why? Because there’s something of value at stake, and only one chef can win.

There are parallels to commerce here. Companies are in business to make money, and sometimes the only reason a customer chooses your product instead of another is because she likes the lettering on your package better. (Trust me. I shop like this for deodorant all the time.)

2. Sometimes your victory is the result of your competitor’s bad luck or foolish mistake

If your competitor:

  • Slices his finger and gets blood on the plate, or
  • Accidently drops a piece of meat on the floor (and then plunks it back in the frying pan without batting an eye—ew!), or
  • Forgets to add the chocolate-covered peanuts (a basket ingredient) in his dish, and

… is automatically eliminated, that’s no reason for you to hoop and holler in celebration. You were just handed a gift, my friend, and your response should be to say a humble “thank you” and then quietly get back to honing your craft. Remember, there’s always another competitor waiting to benefit from your mistake.

3. Diversity is a very good thing

Each chef gets the same basket of ingredients, but because they (the chefs) have differing backgrounds, experience, and skill levels, they use the ingredients in varied ways. In fact, it’s pretty rare for dishes to be replicated and certainly not in their entirety. (For example, two chefs might make salads, but then each will use different vegetables to complement the basket ingredients.) Seeing what each chef can do with the baskets is a big part of the show’s draw, in my opinion. Without this diversity, the show would be a real snooze.

4. Creativity has its limits

In the business world, we love to talk about the benefits of creativity, and growth is dependent on taking risks. However, a good leader recognizes when creativity should take a back seat to the tried and true. It’s wonderful to be bold, but if a chef daringly combines two flavors she’s never mixed before, and the result tastes like cat urine, she’s going home.

5. It’s generally better to play nice

By and large, I agree with the judges’ opinions, but on occasion I come away thinking they made a mistake, like when they chopped Lauren Von Der Pool, personal chef of Venus and Serena Williams. The judges claimed that Lauren was chopped because her taco was soggy, but I think they lied. Lauren got the boot because her attitude stank. She rolled her eyes at her competitor more than once and refused to make small talk. While I’m not unsympathetic to Lauren’s position (when I’m focused on work I don’t care to be interrupted by someone else’s inane blather either), at work it’s better to self-regulate and keep your bad thoughts to yourself.

6. People work for more than a payday

Sometimes chefs tear up when asked what they’d do with the prize money, because money is important and provides opportunity. However, when asked why they’ve decided to participate, money usually doesn’t rate. Instead, chefs talk a lot about validation—having their talents and abilities publically proven worthy—as well as the desire to be a good role model for family.

What work lessons have you learned from reality television?

Want to learn how to match compensation to performance?

Read the PayScale guide: Strengthen the Link Between Pay and Performance.


Leave a Reply

1 Comment on "6 lessons I’ve learned about the workplace from watching Chopped"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted

The only thing I nitpick with is that when people are asked why they’re on the show that they don’t often mention money. However, that is just a professionalism thing, I think. Like when you are at a job interview and they ask why you want this job, you always have to come up with a bull crap reason other than, “I want money to survive!” even though for 98% of people applying for those types of jobs are applying for only that reason. You don’t go on Chopped and say, “I want money!” It sounds greedy and petty.