Amanda Freitag Is Mixing Things Up For The 15th Anniversary Of Chopped - Exclusive Interview

The Food Network has brought us some of the greatest series in television history — from classics like "Unwrapped" to "A Cook's Tour" with the late Anthony Bourdain. But one of its most iconic series of all is "Chopped," the challenge-style show celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. For nearly two decades, viewers have watched "Chopped" contestants wrestle with eclectic mystery basket ingredients, like durian, gummy skulls, and spotted dick pudding. Surprisingly, their attempts to impress the judging panel with palatable plates often prove successful — but as we all know, things don't always go according to plan. 

One veteran judge who can attest to this is chef Amanda Freitag, who's been with the show since its infancy. We at Mashed caught up with the New Jersey native for an exclusive interview ahead of her appearance at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival 2024, held from February 22-25. Aside from hosting a sold-out dinner at the upcoming event, the New Jersey native has a lot on her plate these days. From developing spice blends and bottled cocktails to starring in her online cooking series, "Easy AF," the celebrity chef is certainly keeping busy. 

Freitag's top Floridian food spots

You have a sold-out dinner coming up on February 23rd at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Can you share any details about the event with us?

Well, I'm cooking along with Tiffani Faison and Jet Tila, two chef colleagues and friends of mine. We have all never teamed up for dinner together before, so I'm really looking forward to it. We all happen to be competitors on the "Tournament of Champions" that's premiering this Sunday.

That's really good to hear. What else are you looking forward to during your visit to South Beach?

I'm always looking forward to seeing all my chef friends. That's the most fun part. It's like chef camp when we go down there. And then, at some point during the weekend, if not once or twice, I'll usually have a breakfast meeting for business or just fun at a Cuban diner called Puerto Sagua. 

They have the best Cuban coffee, and they have — I'm not going to lie, most people are there for this — just delicious hangover food. It's scrambled eggs, rice, and beans, and then with your Cuban coffee, they give you Cuban bread that is soaked in butter and pressed, and it's almost paper thin. And the idea is that you dip that into the Cuban coffee; it sets you straight. You probably need a nap afterward. But it is so good, and there's nowhere here like that. So whenever I'm down for the festival, I make sure I get there at least once or twice for that fix.

The simple seasoning tricks she uses to spice things up

As somebody who aims to make cooking more accessible to all, what are some of your favorite affordable pantry staples that can elevate a dish?

Oh, my favorite affordable pantry staples that can elevate a dish? Well, I always use olive oil everywhere and in everything. And actually, I have a good supply of vinegar and spices. I think dried spice is a good thing to have in your culinary arsenal. I have a line of spices that are great, but I even keep just basics like cumin and paprika. I have a few spicy things like cayenne or chili powder that I think you can make a blend of your own. Your everyday chicken can become something totally different if you just spice it up. So dried spices are really underused, and they're very inexpensive.

We know about your spice line, AF Spices, and it's brilliant. You have one blend that's called Jersey Italian. What's the inspiration behind it, and what's your favorite way to use it?

Yeah, Jersey Italian. It's totally inspired by my upbringing. Because I grew up in New Jersey surrounded by red sauce Italian restaurants, which was, I think, what I thought was Italian cooking when I grew up. All of those restaurants, including the pizzeria-style places, had these iceberg lettuce salads with black olives, red onions, and out-of-season tomatoes. And they would always have this great red wine vinegarette. And so the spices that are put together in the Jersey Italian are oregano, garlic, tomato powder, and Parmesan powder. If you take that Jersey Italian spice, mix it with a little red wine vinegar and olive oil, you have that exact vinegarette.

That's awesome.

It replicates it to a tee. And I love putting it on any kind of vinegarette, but also inside of meatballs and meatloaf. It makes a great pasta sauce, pasta salad, or anything that feels like you want to go for that red sauce Italian vibe; Jersey Italian is your go-to spice.

Amanda's tips for a timeless New Jersey sandwich

What's the quintessential Jersey sandwich to you?

The Taylor ham, egg, and cheese.

Okay. Do you have any tips or tricks that you could share with our readers about how to make it?

Honestly, you just need all not high-end ingredients, I should just say it that way. You need just a soft, squishy Kaiser roll or brioche roll if you want to get fancy, some farm fresh eggs, Taylor ham that's been really seared in the pan, some American cheese slices, and then whatever your accouterment. There are camps, right? Ketchup or tomato? Salt and pepper on your tomato or not? You go up to the deli, and they'll ask you what you want on it, or you can add hot sauce if you really want to.

Do you like hot sauce on your sandwich?

I like to have a fresh tomato on mine. I like hot sauce on so many things, but not typically on the Taylor ham because I'm all about that flavor.

Her most memorable meals in the Garden State

The New Jersey pizza scene continues to get more recognition, with spots like Razza in Jersey City garnering national acclaim. Do you have a favorite Garden State slice?

Oh, that's such a great question.

We know it's hard to just pick just one sometimes.

No, I mean, of course, I love Razza. He does such a good pizza. Out by my mom in Cedar Grove, we always get pizza from Esposito's because that's our place. Star Tavern makes the best bar pie, really. You can look it up. It's sort of a cult classic. And when I have a craving for that kind of pizza, that's where I go. They don't even deliver. So you have to go there.

That's definitely good to know. In your cookbook, "The Chef Next Door," you mentioned that you and your siblings were sort of latchkey kids, and you made quite a few quick dinners together. What were some of your most memorable after-school meals?

We had a lot of frozen stuff that my parents would load up in the freezer. We had French bread pizzas, and we had Steaks-umms that we'd make little sandwiches with. We, of course, would make grilled cheese, and then we would make our sort of toasted bagels that were like pizza bagels — a little tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. We'd put dried oregano. So the toaster oven was on a workout, with either the French bread pizzas, the bagels, or the grilled cheese. I love to make grilled cheese because I get to work with the pan. A lot of frozen things that kept us sustained.

And that sounds like something that would be good for the Jersey Italian spice, those little homemade pizzas.

Yes, it would be perfect.

The chef's favorite festive recipes for spring

With spring around the corner, we're thinking about St. Patrick's Day and Easter. Are there any go-to recipes that you like to make for either holiday?

St. Patrick's Day, I always do the corned beef and cabbage. I actually devoted the recipe in my cookbook to my mom because no matter what, even though the cookbook has been out for years, she still calls me before St. Patrick's Day and says, "How long do I cook my corned beef? What do I put in it? Should I put beer?" — blah, blah, blah. I said, "Mom, look at the recipe."

It's a classic because you really never have it at any other time of year. And I admit, I am a beer lover, so it's great to have a beer. But I get really excited around Easter time when spring is upon us, and asparagus and artichokes and all of those things are out and about. I usually like to go seriously green around that time of year. I combine it all; then I make a delicious asparagus omelet, right? Eggs always represent Easter. And that's my jam.

Her best tips for mixing a magic Manhattan

You have a line of bottled cocktails, Freitag Chef's Cocktails. What's the key to a perfect Manhattan, from your perspective?

The key to a perfect Manhattan is balance. And you must splurge on a good cherry.

Do you have recommendations for the cherry?

I like the Amarone cherries. They're a dark cherry, and they're in a really intense syrup. If you like maraschino, that's you. You do you. But I prefer a darker Amarone cherry. I think it really levels up your Manhattan. And we also make our own bitters for the Manhattan, so I think that's really important.

Any suggestions for the bitters or other upgrades for those who want to make one at home?

I think there are so many really good bitters out on the market and a lot of artisanal ones. You can even get cherry bitters. So, to add to that cherry base flavor, and then definitely make sure you have a good vermouth as well. [For vermouth,] I would definitely make sure it's something that's not too sticky-sweet — more well-rounded.

Right. And your favorite two or three-ingredient cocktail recipe at the moment?

I just started trying to make these Carajillo. I don't know if you saw that. It's really hit the scene, and I think it's trying to kick the espresso martini out, and it's Licor 43, which is in the bottle. Get a bottle of that. A couple of shots of espresso over ice. It's really tasty. I thought it might be a little too sweet. The Licor 43 is sweet, but with the bitter coffee, it looks so well, and that's two ingredients.

An 'Easy AF' primer on roasting chicken

You've been hard at work with your Easy AF series.


What is your favorite easy chicken recipe to make at home?

It's so funny that you ask because we have a chicken coming up, aside from the chicken we have coming out on "Easy AF" in a couple of weeks. I am a roast chicken girl. I'll just slather that chicken with spices of different kinds depending on my mood, get a little butter under the skin, and put some aromatics on the bottom of the roasting pan and just a whole roasted chicken on a Sunday night with some potatoes and a big salad. You can't go wrong. 

But I also just am in love with chicken thighs. Make sure when you buy chicken thighs at the grocery store it's skin-on, bone-in. That's where your flavor's at.

And don't forget the skin. Sometimes it's hard to find. The skin is at a high temperature; I usually start around 450 degrees Fahrenheit and get it really crispy for about 10 minutes. That's your flavor, and that baste, the thigh, essentially. And then turn it down and cook it till 165 degrees Fahrenheit internally. But that's where you can have fun with any kind of other spices. I'll coat it with cornmeal for crispiness or any kind of rub, even if you just had extra pesto lying around, rub it out all around the chicken thighs, get them in the oven. It's great. I think chicken thighs are underrated, and it's a quick, easy weeknight meal.

One 'Chopped' dish left a bad taste in her mouth

You recently posted about the 15th anniversary of "Chopped." What was one of the most unforgettable dishes from the early days of filming?

Oh, man. We've all been really reminiscing lately about those years. So much has changed. We've really developed. We started out with only, obviously, New York City chef contestants, and we had some really nitty-gritty line cooks. So we had some people who probably wouldn't be asked back on the show. They would've been smoking in the kitchen.

Those are the best cooks, though.

But early on in the seasons, I remember this cook. He was nervous, and he didn't taste as he went through his competition and made it to the dessert round. When he got to the dessert round, unknowingly, he used salt instead of sugar. He presented his cake to us so proudly, and he had no idea. I took a big bite. We were always excited to get to the dessert round, and it was like a mouthful of ocean water.

I didn't know what to do. We had never encountered anything this bad, this big of a mistake. And I'm looking at my fellow judges; we're still figuring it out, and we're all sort of like, "What do we do? What do we do?" I wanted to spit it out, but I didn't. The chef saw our reactions. I think he was like, "Oh, oh, something's really wrong." Then we said, "Hey, chef, is there any way you might've used salt instead of sugar?" 

You could see it just washed over him and mortified, mortified. He would've won. He would've had it in a bag. And we really haven't encountered anything like that since. I've never wanted to spit anything out since.

But you kept it down. That's impressive.

Yeah, because we didn't know what to do. None of us knew what to do. And I think it was like the second season. I didn't want to be the Simon Cowell of Chopped. So that was extremely memorable on so many different levels.

That's a great story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

What's next for Chef Amanda Freitag

So, Mashed's Ceara Milligan brought up a good point in a recent article: you deserve your own cooking show.

Thank you, Mashed. I thank [Ceara] because my mom really loved it. Thank you.

Can we expect something like that from you in the future?

I want to say yes to that. I'm going to continue to do my "Easy AF" cooking because I think people love it so much. I think people really miss what we call the stand-and-stir shows. So much of food TV has become competition, and I think people really miss just learning about how to cook food or recipes or getting inspired. I hope so. I would love to be able to do that. 

I recently had the great fortune of meeting Ina Garten, and I felt like I was meeting Mick Jagger. I was all frazzled, and I just thought, "She's doing it." That's why we all love her so much. She's simply in her kitchen, and we feel like we want to be there with her, and she's cooking these wonderful things that we want to eat. I'm hoping that's what it would feel like.

Is there anything that you can share in terms of upcoming plans or projects for 2024?

There's the possibility of doing my own podcast. I like talking to all my chef friends, and I think it's really inspiring to hear their stories. When I talk to my peers — younger, older, or the same age — I always get inspired, and I learn something about myself. So, I hope to be able to do that and share that with everybody else.

South Beach Wine and Food Festival takes place in Miami, Florida from February 22-25. You can purchase tickets here.