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Mindfulness and "Chopped"

Lessons in Mindfulness from The Food Network’s “Chopped”

Posted By June Atkind, LICSW

Four contestants race against the clock to make an appetizer, main course, and dessert using the odd and/or incompatible ingredients found in three “mystery baskets.”  They then present their creations to a panel of chef judges, and one contestant is eliminated after each round.  On its surface, “Chopped” projects the antithesis of “mindfulness”: people boasting and posturing, running, shouting, grabbing, multitasking, performing advanced cooking techniques in fast motion, and sweating profusely. Watching “Chopped” certainly does not produce a calm and centered state for the TV viewer, who is watching the contestants’ frenetic behavior, observing the transformation from initial bravado to desperation to avoid being “chopped”, and noting the constant ticking down of the clock. Certainly, the judges’ critiques and ultimate determination of winners and losers do not exemplify the non-judgmental awareness that is so integral to mindfulness meditation.  So what are the lessons in mindfulness that I am suggesting?

I do not believe that “Chopped” exemplifies mindfulness meditation. Meditation requires committing to focus on just one thing – one breath, one sound, one word, one image, etc. In mindfulness meditation practices involving movement, the movement is deliberate and intentional. I do, however, believe that many of the participants, especially the more successful ones, are able to bring mindful attention, and attitudes that are often cultivated through mindfulness meditation to the task at hand, and that we can all benefit from emulating this as we race to fulfill all of our daily tasks, knowing that the clock is always ticking.

It is possible that some of the contestants practice mindfulness meditation. It is certain, however, that most of them have spent hours learning, focusing on, and practicing core techniques such as knife skills, efficiently cracking eggs, and filleting fish, to name just a few. Cutting, cracking, and filleting can absolutely be mindfulness practices, as each requires focusing of the attention to sensory experience in the present moment and redirecting the attention whenever a distraction arises. The skill level exhibited by trained chefs cannot be acquired through book, classroom, or online learning. In committing to and practicing behaviors that focus the attention, mindfulness is cultivated, alongside, and very much like, muscle memory.

An attitude of acceptance is fostered by mindfulness. Contestants cannot negotiate to change the basket ingredients, increase the amount of time allotted for each course, or allow ingredients from the “pantry and ‘fridge” that may be more appetizing or familiar to upstage the basket ingredients. No matter how unappealing the ingredients or seemingly impossible the time limitation, contestants use what they have to do the best that they can. If a contestant becomes caught up in thoughts of what they wish were in the basket, or how if only there were more time, he or she takes valuable time and attention away from the materials they have to work with. Accepting the things in my life, or in a given situation, that I cannot change results in more focus on what is right in front of me  and a greater likelihood that I will make the most of the resources that I do have.

This leads to another quality of mindfulness, which is awareness of and contact with the present moment. To the extent that contestants are able to utilize the minutes that they are allotted for each course to “transform the ingredients”, they will achieve success. Re-living a previous round, or anticipating the next are likely to result in being “chopped”. It is only in the present moment, which we perceive through our senses,  that we can choose to behave in ways that are more effective. Contestants’ attention to their sensory experiences – the sight, smells, tastes, feel, and sounds – which can only be perceived in the here-and-now, and not when preoccupied with the past or the future, is crucial to the mission of creating dishes that are judged on appearance as well as taste. It is through our senses (e.g., keeping our eyes on the road), and not by daydreaming, “spacing out”, dwelling, anticipating the future, etc., that we can most safely and directly go from Point A to Point B.

Focusing the attention on what is most important in this moment, rather than allowing the attention to be diverted by distractions, external (noise, lights, people, objects) or internal (thoughts, memories, fears) is key to success on “Chopped” and in life. The materials we have to work with, and the time we have to live our lives is finite. When we are not able to focus our attention on what matters, in this present moment, we lose precious opportunities to add a pinch of salt here, or achieve the perfect sear there. Focusing attention also allows us to experience our activities in a way that is intrinsically rewarding. I may be sitting on a pristine beach, but if my mind is dwelling on a stressful work situation, second-guessing an interaction from last weekend, or beating myself up over something that happened years ago, I am not able to benefit from the experience right in front of me.

Four contestants begin each episode of “Chopped”, but only one is standing at the end to be declared the winner.  Each eliminated contestant is briefly in the spotlight, and has a chance to comment on the experience. While a contestant will occasionally use this opportunity to express disappointment, or even more rarely say “not fair”, overwhelmingly contestants describe the experience as positive, and seem pretty upbeat. Is this just covering up true feelings for the sake of the camera (not to mention the millions of viewers)? I believe that, generally speaking, the “losers” probably did enjoy the experience.

Engaging mindfully and giving the activity that we experience through our senses, mindful attention, “being in the moment,” produces, at least in this moment, a sense of wellbeing – from quiet contentment to downright ecstasy. Typically, this feeling lasts only until our mind begins to judge, or to tell us stories about the experience, for instance, “It would have been so much better if I’d won!” Or “It’s embarrassing to have been beaten by someone with so much less experience!” Or “There are so many things I could have done with that $10,000 prize!” Becoming familiar with the chatter of our judging and storytelling minds, and learning to redirect our attention to the present experience, does not guarantee that we will become a “chopped champion,” but it is a recipe for being and feeling our best.