Hidden Wisdom from the TV Show Chopped

Life lessons can be found in the most unexpected places sometimes. This particular one comes from a cooking show on The Food Network called Chopped where, in each episode, four chefs compete with one another to impress a panel of judges. At the start of each of the three timed rounds that will ultimately determine a winner (appetizer, entrée, dessert), the chefs are given a basket containing four “mystery ingredients”. Once the clock starts, the chefs open their baskets to see, for the first time, which—usually quite peculiar—ingredients they must somehow include in their dishes. Thus the culinary improvisation begins, as time steadily dwindles.

To provide an idea of just how challenging these mystery ingredients can be, here are a few examples of actual combinations that have been used on the show:

  • ground beef + cannellini beans + tahini paste + grape jelly
  • knockwurst + pretzels + ramps + mangosteen
  • Asian pears + croissants + haricots verts + rattlesnake meat
  • quahog clams + fuyu persimmons + Italian bitters + nopales

Yikes! Many times even the competing cooks are unfamiliar with one or more of the mystery basket ingredients. Regardless, the challenge remains: use your skills as a chef and as many additional ingredients from the Chopped pantry as desired to create the most delicious dish possible in the time allotted. “Your time starts now.”

In counseling, I’ve grown fond of using this show as a metaphor for what happens whenever we interact with another person. In your daily life, you’re like a chef on Chopped and everyone you encounter presents you with a basket of mystery ingredients. You never know exactly what you are going to confront when the basket opens. Maybe you’ll find ingredients you know very well and enjoy cooking with—such as smiles, kindness, friendliness, calm—or maybe you’ll find something you’ve never seen before or would rather not face—such as scowls, temper, accusations of wrongdoing, irritability, or impatience. Once the mystery basket that is another person opens up, your challenge remains the same: use your skills and any ingredient from your pantry to create the most successful interaction possible.


Any chef on Chopped that were to waste time complaining about not knowing what a mangosteen is or balking at never having cooked with nopales before would be certain to fail. A skilled chef would simply taste the ingredient, discover its flavor and texture, and do the best job possible–guided by past experiences with similar ingredients–to effectively incorporate it. Whenever a dish turns out poorly, it’s never the ingredients’ fault. This is easy enough to understand when it comes to cooking, but it’s a healthy and empowering way to view our relationships as well.

Every encounter in life is an opportunity to see ourselves as a chef. We can take full responsibility to create the very best interactions possible by being willing to work with whatever ingredients we’re given from one moment to the next, and from one person to the next, without judgment, complaint, or protest. If someone is confrontational towards us, okay, we  turn this into something delicious. If someone is sad or confused, defensive or nervous, anything at all, then so be it; we let these be our mystery basket ingredients. With skillfulness, we can use these components and transform them into the deeply satisfying meal we desire.

Just as chefs can improve their cooking skills, we can always become more skillful at how we interact with others. Knowing this, the next time an interaction doesn’t go the way you hoped, resist the temptation to blame your ingredients (the other person), no matter how weird or off-putting these might have been. Take ownership of your dish, as they say in the cooking world. Know that you prepared the best dish you were capable of given your current skills as a chef. Give yourself permission for this, as well as giving yourself permission to master new techniques and abilities. Build your repertoire, your pantry. Consider what you might say or do differently under similar circumstances in the future. In this way, if you truly focus on yourself and yourself only, your abilities as a chef (of interpersonal communication) will grow. Then, the next time you’re asked to make a meal out of quahong clams and Italian bitters, for instance, you’ll be better equipped to do so.