Amanda Freitag Reveals What It's Really Like On Chopped And What She's Up To Now - Exclusive Interview

Amanda Freitag's magnetism and mega-skills in the kitchen need no introduction. By 2022, the celebrity chef and all-around diner cooking guru will have more than 13 years of "Chopped" judging experience under her belt, and — as she told Mashed — she's not faking her enthusiasm on-screen. In fact, she never gets tired of the show. Perhaps you've also followed Freitag hungrily on "Beat Bobby Flay," on "Guy's Grocery Games," "Tournament of Champions" ("probably the most nerve-racking competition I've ever done," the celebrity chef admits), or "The Next Iron Chef."

If Amanda Freitag were a culinary equivalent of an Avenger she might be an exuberant version of the Scarlet Witch. She is unquestionably tenacious, master of the mystical (especially when it comes to pies and buttermilk pancakes and — one of her latest Easy AF Instagram exploits — profiteroles), and unbelievably omnipresent. In this exclusive interview with Mashed, Freitag catches us up on her current projects, gives us rare, inside glimpses into "Chopped's" day-to-day, and shares a little bit of her culinary magic with us. Think you know how to make your eggs? Spice your pumpkin pie? Order a burger? Amanda Freitag might beg, gently but firmly, to differ. 

The small California town Amanda Freitag loves to eat in

What's the last new recipe or dish that you fell in love with?

Ooh, that's a great question. I was just in Philadelphia and we had some delicious food. I had this roasted carrot dish with berbere spice at a restaurant called Spice Finch in Philadelphia. And it was so delicious and the spice was so unique! I want to recreate that.

You travel based on food. Other than Philadelphia, you've said that San Francisco and Portland were your top three cities.

Yes, and I think I've gotten into a lot of trouble about that ... Somebody who I just spoke with was saying, "Hey, wait a minute. What about my city?" Philadelphia has gotten on the list for sure.

Is there a food-based city that's next on your travel itinerary?

Well, food-based, I don't know. But I'm going to Dallas for work. And I would say that [the city is] coming up more and more. I have a cafe that I consult on down there, but I wouldn't say that that's a food destination. I will be going also to Northern California in December and I hope to eat around there, in a town called Healdsburg. And I love that town because it's so very wine country and it is very California-vibe in the way that everything's fresh and local.

What's good there?

I think what I love in Healdsburg is just the wine. First of all, it's so good ... And then chefs in California, [I like to eat at] just a very classic French bistro. But [the chef there is] also using all of those local ingredients, so simply. And I think that's why I love the cooking of California chefs, because they just take the best ingredient and manipulate it so simply.

You travel a lot for work all over the country, and often bring tools of your trade with you. What are the top three cooking tools are that you never leave your home without?

Top three. Well, if I had to bring a really small knife kit, which I most of the time do, there's always my 10-inch Japanese chef knife. I always throw my microplane in because I feel like you can pretty much do just about anything with a microplane. You can grate zest, garlic, ginger, parmesan, just about anything. And then I'll usually either bring a spoon, a soft spoon, or tongs. Because you never know what you're going to have in that kitchen — if you're going to have the spoon that you need or tongs that you need. A lot of times I'll bring a scissor as well, which is a really good thing to have on hand, not just culinarily. Sometimes, when you're traveling, you need to cut a tag off of a shirt or a string or ... you'd be surprised how a scissor comes in handy. So a lot of times when I have my knife kit with me, I use it for even everyday purposes.

Amanda Freitag's surprisingly simple meal hacks revealed

You once said that you'd like to invent an oxygen-pod to get more sleep, because you do so much. What's your favorite quick meal to throw together at night when you are bogged down with work?

Well, last night I made this really weird dinner that was a broiled salmon with my new spice. I have a new spice line, and I put my spice on it and I put it over sliced tomatoes with herbs that I had in my refrigerator. So that was last night. It's a really fast dinner. But, actually, usually when I want something quick and easy and I'm home, it's typically breakfast for dinner, like an omelet or scrambled eggs. Because I always have eggs in the fridge. That's usually eggs, champagne, and some kind of pickle is always in the fridge.

Breakfast is such an underrated meal in the culinary world. What's your favorite breakfast food? Is it egg-based?

It's absolutely egg-based. I'll make omelets, I'll make a fried egg, I'll make scrambled eggs that are full of chunky things like vegetables and cheese, and sometimes I'd put quinoa on my scrambled eggs ... Just any egg that you can think of, I love it. It's usually [an] egg-based breakfast is for me. Sometimes — we're coming up into cold winter months here in New York — I'll make an oatmeal that's just loaded with dry fruits and seeds and stuff, but I'm usually an egg girl for breakfast.

Do you have any egg hacks for us? Eggs feel deceptively simple and are sometimes surprisingly hard to master.

Yes. And actually, that's such a good question because I don't know if you've seen any of my easy AF cooking videos on Instagram TV and on YouTube ... My most watched video is a fried egg, how to fry an egg, which I thought was so fascinating. Because I thought people would really want to see all the complicated stuff. And a fried egg is boring! But I think everybody just wants to know how to fry an egg. And the trick to frying an egg is to have a lid. I think you need a lid, and start with a medium-high heat and then go low with a lid so that you can cook all the egg white. And I think that's why people always overcook their eggs, because they're not cooking it enough in a temperature-controlled space, right? When you put that lid on, it gives even heat all throughout from the top to the bottom. Most people just fry their egg on the bottom unless they're flipping it over. So you need a lid for that little egg pan that you have.

Amanda Freitag's fast food soft spot

 You're a fan — once in a while — of In-N-Out. What's your favorite fast food place? 

I try to be as healthy as possible, but I do love a good burger and fries. And I spend a lot of time in New York because this is where I live, and because travel has been slightly limited lately. When I really want just a fast delicious burger, I go to Shake Shack. It's near me, I can walk to it, they have great milkshakes, great burgers. I know they're using quality meat. So I love going to Shake Shack here in New York. When I'm in L.A., of course, it's In-N-Out. Yes. I don't really eat too many other fast food items. So I can't say that there's much more than that, but I love Shake Shack, I love In-N-Out. I definitely am a French fry girl. 

Do you dip your French fries in milkshakes? 

Yes! I was just talking about that the other day. I was just saying that there's two kinds of people: the people who dip their fries and milkshakes and the kind that don't. I am the kind that does. Because what's better than sweet and creamy and cold with hot and salty and fatty? I mean that's just everything right there. 

So if Amanda Freitag had a Shake Shack special meal, what would it be?

Ooh. Okay, it would be well-done French fries with a double cheeseburger, extra pickles, no onions. And I would say I'd probably lean towards a coffee milkshake.

What Amanda Freitag never imagined about being a chef

You have a great kind of movie origin story, which is  [the movie] "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" What were the biggest differences between watching [chefs] on a screen and learning to be a chef in real life?

That's such a good question because I've watched things, from that movie — which is a mystery and kind of a kitchy and fun '70s movie — to things like Julia Child and Martin Yan and other idols of mine cooking on cooking shows. It's funny, because there weren't too many shows that were about restaurant cooking. That's why I think that movie, "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" was intriguing to me. It showed a little bit of inside the restaurant, in the commercial kitchens I think that is hard to explain. Because you don't see much of that. And I think that's really an interesting point of view when you get to see commercial kitchens ... One of my other favorite movies that came out pretty recently, but not too recently, was "Ratatouille." I actually thought that was a really good depiction of a chef's life. And I know it was a cartoon, but it was kind of accurate.

In what way?

In a way that the kitchen was structured, the way that the chef hierarchy and the brigade worked, the way that it's competitive and a lot of pressure with the restaurant reviewer coming in, and just young cooks trying to make their way in the big chef world. I really thought that was a good depiction. I know that sounds silly, but that was kind of accurate. There was another movie. Gosh, I can't remember the name of it ... The American version was with Catherine Zeta-Jones and there was, I believe, a German version. It was about a woman chef running a restaurant. Man, I'll have to look it up, but I thought that was pretty accurate too, because of her depiction. It was ... She was a single mom. She was working really hard. Again, she was getting sort of snubbed for younger, cooler male chefs and she was trying to make her way. So I thought that was an interesting take as well. 

The name of that movie is "No Reservations," by the way, and it was based on a ... German film called "Mostly Martha." The "Mostly Martha" film is really, really good. I highly recommend it, [it's] a very, very sincere look into chef life. 

Was there ever a time where you were in training or had  begun your career where you said, "This is not what I imagined it was going to be at all?"

So yes, ... I think the interesting parts that nobody could really show are the changes in chef life, right? Like for me, I was a chef in restaurants for 20 something years. Right now, I'm not in a restaurant ... To be able to diversify my career and do other things like doing stuff on the Food Network, or writing a book, or creating my own brand, or now doing a lot of virtual cooking online. I would've never imagined that at all, at all at all. So those are things that we're never depicted that I am now doing and learning how to do, sort of teaching myself along the way.

The advice Amanda Freitag gives Chopped contestants

There was a lot of buzz on the internet after "Tournament of Champions" ended. A lot of people thought you got robbed of that title. Guy Fieri even said that the randomizer that you were up against was the worst in the entire tournament.  

Yes, I agree with him. 

There's a lot of discussion about cooking competitively, and it being so different than cooking in a restaurant kitchen, or in your home kitchen. What's it like to come up against something like that? 

Yeah. I am definitely no stranger to competition and I ... You know being in the restaurant industry, it's always been competitive. But when I first started doing competitions in 2009, 2008, I realized I was competitive in a one-on-one scenario even, which was unique for me because I was never an athlete or anything like that in sports, growing up. So the adrenaline rush and the things that you do create under pressure was fascinating to me. Obviously, we work under pressure all the time as chefs and at restaurants. But the pressure of the 30 minutes or an hour to create this meal [during a competition is different]. 

It's amazing what comes to mind with the panic. The panic really causes some cool creativity, I have to say. So, I have actually always said to "Chopped" contestants, "Do what comes to mind first." And I try to stay within my same advice. It's whatever pops in your head first, that's what you should go with. You never know what's going to come to mind. And unless you're in that scenario and with Guy and "Tournament of Champions" and the randomizer — nobody even knows what's going to happen, right? Nobody even knows what's going to pop up on that wheel. The time is different, the style is different. Obviously, the ingredients are different. So it's probably the most nerve-racking competition I've ever done, that way. Just not knowing what could happen, and also not having very much time to form an idea either. 

And you're ... I'm up against my peers and people who I admire. And it's like, I want to see them do well, but I want to do well, too. My competitive nature kicks in. And I think what always happens to me again, which I try to advise young chefs against, is I get over-ambitious, right? I get all these ideas flowing in, and I want to do everything, and I have to stop myself because I don't have enough time. I'm fast, too! I'm a fast cook in the kitchen. It's not as if I'm slow. But I always want to do too much. And I think that's just because I feel like I only have one chance. I want to impress, I want to beat the other chef. So, I have to really take my ambitions down, and tone it down a little bit, when all of those ideas [are] rushing in.

What Chopped outtakes would look like if we could see them

You have judged on "Chopped" for more than a decade.

Yeah. It's almost been 13 years now.

What's changed in that time, behind the scenes, at the show?

You know what's great about that is, behind the scenes mostly has remained consistent, whether we are in a different studio or whether we are filming in a different state. And we have a really great crew, one of the best in the biz. And we have a family of people who come back and back, every year, with us to film. I think the thing that makes the show so great is that formula never changes, but there's infinite possibilities of what could happen that day. And I think it makes it so interesting because we're still interested. We have been doing this for so long! We've done over 700 episodes. But when you walk in that day, you still have four brand new chefs, these baskets of all these ingredients that have never been put together before. And you just don't know what's going to happen.

It's just mind-boggling to me that it never gets old. It never gets boring and there's always something that is unpredictable that goes on. So, the behind-the-scenes consistency is actually the unpredictable aspect of the show. I love that. And I think, as chefs, we thrive on action and we thrive on every day being different, and we thrive on drama and stress. Any chef will tell you they're best under pressure or they're best under stress. You give us a lot of time, and we will never get it done. I think the behind the scenes, the fact that it hasn't changed is great. And I think the formula and the infinite possibilities make ["Chopped"] so exciting every time.

Are there any particular outtakes on the show you wished we had seen that they cut?

There are so many moments. First of all, it's long days and we're chefs. So we have pretty busy schedules. So sometimes, we'll get really punchy on set and we'll just start a giggle fest and we can't stop laughing. Or one of the chefs will profess their love for one of the judges or they'll get really starstruck when they see us. Or, we've had moments where some of the chefs who are competing have maybe argued with us and that's gotten a little bit hairy ... There's some funny things. Obviously, a lot of expletives have come out that don't always get onto the show because they can't. So they get edited or bleeped out. But there's a lot of fun things that go on, on-set actually. As you know, if you've ever worked in a production crew, it is like one big dysfunctional family. So we play jokes on each other and lots of birthday cakes. 

The biggest disagreement Amanda Freitag's had as a Chopped judge

What's the last joke you played on somebody on the "Chopped" set?

Ah, let's see, I'm trying to think, well we always do $5 Fridays, which is fun. We'll put money in, and it's like a raffle. And a lot of times if one of the judges wins the pot, we'll give it over to the art department or the culinary department or the camera operators. But those guys are really fun. Our director, I believe, it was his birthday one day and they made t-shirts with his face on it. And everybody wore those to work that day. It's just cute little jokes. Or somebody has a spider phobia, there might be a spider ending up somewhere on the judges' table. Things like that, little things, fun things.

Those are fun! Can you remember what your biggest disagreement you've had with other judges over a winning or losing dish was?

There was one time where we had very famous chefs on. And one of them made an outstanding dish, an unbelievably delicious dish, and he forgot an ingredient. And it wasn't, it was like, I don't know — it might have been a spice or something really small, an herb. And his dish was blowing everybody else's out of the water. It was just the most delicious. And this was in the very ... It was very early on in "Chopped" life and so we were also figuring out the parameters of some of our decisions. And two of us really felt like, okay, this was so creative. The taste blew it out of the water. The presentation was gorgeous. He forgot one ingredient. This other guy put all the ingredients on the plate and his food was terrible. What do we do?

Is it automatic that if you forget an ingredient do you automatically get chopped? And I think, on that day, we took a long time to discuss this. Because it was super controversial. And from that day forward, we've had pretty much a rule like, yes. So somebody forgets an ingredient — that is a very big misstep. But if somebody makes a dish that's inedible and puts them all on the plate, they're going to get chopped. So, that was a very difficult day because I think we were all trying to navigate the rules and figure them out. But with so much integrity, you know what I mean? Like that's — I think what also keeps the show going — is we all really care. Us three judges, we're the only ones who make this decision ... The decision is being made by chefs. So I think it's really important to us and that's why it was kind of heated, to make that decision proper, because we care so much.

Amanada Freitag shares priceless Thanksgiving hacks

You're a big pie fan. What pie deserves more attention on the Thanksgiving table than it gets?

Ooh, more than it gets. Honestly, I think the humble pumpkin pie is the star on Thanksgiving ... I can't have a Thanksgiving without it. And I could eat an entire pumpkin pie myself with whipped cream, of course. And I always feel like it's the least adorned, the least garnished, and it's just the best. It's the best. It's the most flavorful. It has the pumpkin, it has all the spices, it has a perfect custard texture. The crust can be very forgiving. If you have a double apple pie with crust and the crust isn't great, and the apples aren't awesome ... that can be a big fail. But that pumpkin pie is always a win for me.

What spices are your go-to spices for pumpkin pie?

Everything except clove. So I will use a high ratio of cinnamon and ginger because I really like ginger. And I'll use fresh and dried, and then a little bit of allspice and nutmeg. And I only say no clove because people don't know how to dose the clove in a recipe. And, usually, it's too much. All those other spices are so delicious. If you want to put a pinch of clove in, I literally say wave it over.

And turkey, we have and deep fried turkey craze going on for years. There's roasting, air frying ... What's the best way to cook a Turkey? What's the worst?

Well, I've never done the air fryer, I can't even imagine how that goes. You'd have to have a pretty damn big air fryer to make that happen. I'm a traditional roasting girl with a lot of butter and a lot of basting. Although what I do is, I usually separate my legs from the breast and I will braise the legs. Because, honestly, the dark meat is my favorite and they cook at such a different time and such a different rate. You're never going to have a juicy turkey breast and really well-cooked legs if you cook the bird altogether. So, I like to do it separately and I like to braise the legs. Because guess what? When you braise the legs and you braise them in delicious stock, then you have even more gravy.

Those are really important hacks! Our final question for you is, when has the pumpkin spice craze gone too far?

Oh, oh, that's a great question. I'm trying to think of what I have seen it in recently that was ridiculous. I think I saw it in some kind of boba tea, milk tea, pumpkin spice boba in Chinatown. And I was like, "No, no, no, no, no, this can't be happening." ... I think it's just too much when you're going that far. Because, yes, I understand it's in lattes and apple cider, hot apple cider, but in boba tea — I don't think so! And I'm sure it's been done even worse in savory preparations, but I think pumpkin pie spice is fine in pumpkin pie. Cause you know now how I feel about pumpkin pie. So I leave it there.

For more inspiration from Amanda Freitag, follow her on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. For more baking and cooking hacks, make sure to catch new episodes of "EasyAF" every Monday on IGTV. And for Amanda Freitag-approved spices, check out her new spice-line, AF Spice Blends