A 'Chopped' Champion Spills His Secrets

Two-time contestant Michael Vignola knows his way around a mystery box

The moment is still dramatic, every single time. As the tension ratchets up, the stoic judges look on at the contestants, one of whom is about to be eliminated. Ted Allen's friendly face droops a little as he lifts the silver cloche covering a dish and he says simply and sadly, "You've been chopped." America gasps.

Chopped is the Food Network darling that's given us 30 (yes, 30) seasons of heart-pounding, yelling-at-the-screen fun as four contestants battle it out over three mystery basket challenges. Fans can't get enough of watching the clock wind down and chefs throw ingredients onto their plates at the last second, inevitably leaving out one of the mystery box ingredients they worked so hard to include.

Over the last seven years, the show has seen a lot of contestants come through the kitchen: winners, losers, all-stars, celebrities and juniors, to name a few. Michael Vignola is among the champions.

Vignola, the corporate executive chef of Strip House and Bill's Bar & Burger, first appeared during the show's third season, where he emerged the winner in a Halloween episode called "Fright Bites" and later returned for an all-star round of champions. Luckily, he has a good memory, and, here, he recalls every vivid detail of his experience and spills some behind-the-scenes secrets (including a few that could help you win).

① The competition has gotten easier.

"I've talked to other contestants and even judge Amanda Freitag about it, and they all agree some aspects of the show are easier now than they used to be. They always do walk-throughs of the pantry for contestants before the competition, so they know where ingredients are. But when I was on the show, they removed or moved a few items each round to confuse you. They don't do that anymore! They also used to ration the ingredients a lot more: They'd put one stick of butter in the pantry and make you fight over it." 

② The best contestants rely on the pantry.

"Because the ingredients in the mystery baskets can be so hard to work with, I knew I needed to be very comfortable with everything else I was using. At the beginning of each round, I would sprint to the pantry and load up on anything and everything I thought I might use: herbs, fats, pasta, bread, proteins and all the tools I would need for my station. I wanted to do it all in one trip, so I could spend the rest of the time cooking."

③ Innovation and technique are everything.

"I had never seen any of the basket ingredients beforehand, and they don't give you any extra time to come up with ideas. As soon as you open the basket, the clock starts. I have no idea how I came up with the dishes I made. I just did it in the moment.

"During the Halloween episode, they made us work with really strange ingredients. It was a nightmare: We were given black chicken, gummy teeth, tortilla shells and huitlacoche for the main course. I knew I wanted to show off a little and use the ingredients in an innovative way. I prepared the chicken three ways, including a broth and a confit, and used the gummy teeth as sugar for a pickling liquid. Even though I ended up forgetting my fried tortillas at the last moment, I still advanced because the judges were so impressed by the rest of the work I'd done."

④ Don't skimp on presentation.

"You have to spend time thinking about how your dish looks. If it doesn't look like something you'd send out in a restaurant, you shouldn't be sending it out to the judges. Manage your time well and leave at least two minutes for plating at the end of the round. It makes all the difference."

⑤ There's nothing fake about it.

"This show is real. There's no stop and go. It's very much like real kitchen life, and you have to just make it happen. You're really being timed, you're being filmed from all sides and it's a real competition, not just a fake reality show. I went into it thinking I'd just have fun, but as soon as the first round started, I had to win. And I would absolutely do it again in a heartbeat."