One of the most intense parts of watching shows like “Top Chef” and “Chopped” is when contestants make mistakes that alter the outcome of the competition.
But according to the judges, many of these missteps can be avoided.
As part of the From the Judging Table series, Insider spoke to former and current judges from popular cooking shows to find out the biggest and most frequent mistakes chefs when they compete
Read on to learn about some of the most common mistakes judges see on your favorite cooking-competition shows.
On baking competitions, contestants often forget to allow time for their baked goods to cool properly
“They’ll put hot baked goods into the fridge or freezer to cool them more quickly, but things should cool at room temperature,” Goldman explained. “Putting flour-based, hot items in a fridge can cause them to get gummy and lose the textures that make baked goods so delicious in the first place.”
Some contestants focus too much on garnishes and sauces, which can muddy up the flavor of their dishes
World-renowned chef Cat Cora, known for “Iron Chef,” told Insider that she often sees contestants “overdo dishes” instead of letting the ingredients and flavor shine.
“They put too much of and too many ingredients in the dish,” Cora explained. “So there isn’t a clean flavor to them. They use too many sauces and garnishes.”
Judges see a lot of poor time management
“Having everything prepped before you begin is very important and ensuring you have a clear timeline so everything is done in time,” Sánchez added.
Chef Damaris Phillips, winner of “Food Network Star” and judge on “Guy’s Grocery Games” and “Beat Bobby Flay,” told Insider contestants should know which of their go-to recipes can be cooked quickly.
“The games just don’t lend themselves to long recipes that you would normally see in restaurants where you have time to make your sauces, braise your meats, and make your bread from scratch,” Phillips explained. “You don’t have time for that in competition cooking.”
She added, “You just have to know what proteins and starches cook really fast. You have to know what you can make in 20 minutes max.”
Contestants often try to do the impossible in the short time limits
Chef Maneet Chauhan, a longtime “Chopped” judge and author of “Chaat: Recipes from the Kitchens, Markets, and Railways of India,” said contestants can better manage their time by doing less.
“Contestants try to do too much in a short amount of time,” Chauhan told Insider. “Do less but make it perfect”
Fellow “Chopped” judge Chris Santos, agreed, adding, “You don’t need 100 things happening in a dish to make it memorable. You just need to know flavors and how they bounce off each other for a balanced dish.”
When it comes to baking challenges, chefs frequently underbake their desserts
Nancy Fuller, “Holiday Baking Championship” judge and host of “Farmhouse Rules,” said contestants sometimes let the short time frame get the best of them and end up plating underbaked desserts.
“The competition is very stressful and [competitors are] not used to how different ovens work,” Fuller said. “They’re used to their own ovens and every oven is different.”
Some contestants forget to follow the unique guidelines of the competition
Antonia Lofaso, “Top Chef” competitor and “Guy’s Grocery Games” judge, said competitors must understand the gameplay of the show they’re on and follow the rules.
“Most of the time people are out to make the best dish so they don’t follow the criteria of what the actual challenge is, but that’s what the competition is about,” Lofaso told Insider. “I’ve lost many competitions early on because I didn’t follow the guidelines.”
She went on to say that even showstopping, delicious dishes can lose if another one better fit the criteria outlined for the specific challenge.
Chefs often forget to showcase their personality and passion through their dishes
Competitors have a lot to juggle, from short cooking times to limited ingredients. But Lofaso said chefs must stay focused on showcasing their unique identity in their food.
“[Chefs] get enamored by who else they’re competing against and what that person does well and how they have to beat that person,” Lofaso told Insider. “But no, you really just have to beat the person by cooking your own food, your own opinion, your own dish. Too often contestants make dishes that they would have never done or would never want to eat.”
In fact, Lofaso said that Guy Fieri, host of “Guy’s Grocery Games,” often gives contestants on his show pep talks reminding them not to “lose themselves in the competition” and to “just cook their food.”
The stress of competing can cause chefs to make careless mistakes
Lofaso told Insider that basic cooking skills, like proper cook time and technique, can fall to the wayside under the pressure of competition.
“They have to operationally and conceptually knock it out of the park all while being able to show their opinion and personality at the same time,” Lofaso told Insider. “Make sure you do all three while you have seven cameras pointed at your face and a producer yelling at you to talk and tell the viewers what it is that you’re doing.”
She added, “Plus you’re super nervous because you’ve never cooked in this kitchen before and you’ve got a studio of cameramen staring at you.”
Small details — like balanced flavor and texture — sometimes get overlooked
Chef Carla Hall, host and judge on “Halloween Baking Championship,” told Insider she often sees “the lack of salt and the lack of balance in textures” in the dishes she judges.
She went on to say that contestants often forget to stay true to their own preferred balance of flavor and textures when facing the opinions of multiple judges.
“The power of having three judges is that we all have different palates and all like different things, but you can’t do all of it. You have someone who doesn’t like lemon and I love lemon,” Hall said. “So where do you land?”
“I think there’s power in having different opinions but you have to understand how you truly feel about that thing,” she added.
Meringue is frequently treated as an afterthought in baking competitions
After years of judging “Halloween Baking Championship,” Hall has seen contestants frequently mess up meringue, a popular topping for pies and puddings and an ingredient that can serve as a light candy on its own.
“I think that when they incorporate a meringue, whatever the dish is, the ratio of sugar to water is often off,” Hall explained. “I don’t think they look at the meringue as its own ingredient, knowing that it shouldn’t be straight sugar and that there should be some flavor to it that compliments.”
Contestants often make dishes that are too basic and lacking in creativity
With the stress of competition and limited time frames, multiple chefs told Insider that contestants are often lured into making basic, uninteresting recipes.
“Contestants frequently get cookies wrong,” Hall said. “They will go to a standard sugar cookie and they’ll throw some decorations on it and I want to say, ‘Wrong!'”
Fuller said she recently judged a round of the “Holiday Baking Championship” where contestants had to make a cookie — and “everyone just kind of made the same sugar cookie.”
“Instead, they could have thought out of the box and made a cookie that was unrelated but that would still work with the bite of food that they were giving us,” Fuller added. “It would’ve brought in another note of flavor in the dish … we’re looking for things like that.”
And if an ingredient is given to you as part of a challenge, don’t just use it as a garnish
Many cooking competitions challenge chefs with twists and surprise ingredients — but viewing those parts of the show as an afterthought is a big mistake.
“Chopped” judge Santos told Insider that contestants must be creative to win — it’s not enough for contestants to just follow the basic rules of the competition.
“If you are given a specific basket ingredient you can’t just use it on top of your dish as a garnish,” he told Insider. “We are looking for creative, out-of-the box thinking. How can you take that ingredient and have it contribute to your dish in an interesting, creative, and delicious way?”