Chatting With the Round-3 Winner of Chopped Champions

by in Shows, January 29th, 2013

Chefs Elise Kornack and Jun TanakaIn an all-new season of Chopped Champions, 16 chefs, each with a previous Chopped win under his or her belt, are returning to the kitchen to face off for a second time in the ultimate multicourse cook-off. Although they’re no strangers to mystery baskets, these chefs are under more pressure than ever, as they’re competing not just for Chopped glory but also a spot in the finale where they can ultimately claim a $50,000 prize and the coveted title of Grand Champion.

Each week, four chefs will take their places in the kitchen and battle it out in the hopes of outlasting the chopping block once again. While three will crumble beneath the demands of Champions cooking, one will prove his or her culinary chops for a second time. Check in with FN Dish every Tuesday night after the episode to hear from the latest winner.

For Chefs Corwin Kave, Jun Tanaka, Elise Kornack and Lester Walker, the greatest challenge of the appetizer course wasn’t the dwindling time on the clock or the added pressure of Champions, but rather their baskets full of such common ingredients as smoked eel, cream cheese spread, quince paste and haricot verts. “All the ingredients are somewhat familiar,” Judge Scott Conant explained, “and that’s the challenge. How do you bring them together?” While all four chefs rose to the occasion like true champions, Chef Lester was chopped on account of poor presentation and disconnected flavors in his dish of a New York City-inspired toast with cream cheese-quince spread and a haricot vert salad. In their entree baskets, the remaining chefs found frog legs, yuzu marmalade, gin and tofu, and after a quick 30 minutes, they presented the panel with their offerings. Chef Elise wowed the judges with a gin-vegetable broth in her leftovers-inspired plate, and Chef Jun, despite dropping most of his prepped frog legs on the floor, offered an exceptionally tasty — albeit it small — dish of caramelized frog legs with what little product he had left. Chef Corwin, however, was less successful, on account of an offering with “four different elements with absolutely no cohesion,” according to Judge Maneet Chauhan, and he faced the chopping block because of it. Exercising different strategies for success, Chefs Elise and Jun prepped desserts featuring four mandatory ingredients including jackfruit, araucana eggs, coconut macaroons and chocolate-covered pretzels. She took a “creative and playful” approach to her semifreddo, while he stayed true to the classics, preparing a clafoutis, with which he’s very familiar. In the end, Chef Elise’s dish landed on the chopping block on account of a “sour-forward” jackfruit puree, according to Judge Geoffrey Zakarian. Now a two-time Chopped victor, Chef Jun is advancing to the Grand Finale, where he’ll compete for a $50,000 prize.

What does it mean to you to be Britain’s only Chopped champion? Are you feeling more pressure than ever to represent your country well?

JT: It feels incredible to be Britain’s only Chopped champion! The real pressure actually comes from myself. I always want to do well in anything that I set my mind to.

You seem to know your way around eel and frog legs. Is there one dreaded basket ingredient that you think has the potential to throw you off your game, something you just hate working with?

JT: Anything out of a can!

Chef Jun TanakaTalk to us about the moment the frog legs fell on the floor. You recovered like a true champion and were able to cook and serve what little you had left. How did you manage to stay focused and motivated in such a stressful situation?

JT: For a split second, I did feel like giving up, but then I focused and everything became very simple. I knew that I had no time to worry about anything but the taste of the dish, so I concentrated on getting as much flavor into that one frog leg as possible.

Did you have a plan-B scenario in the back of your mind, just in case you didn’t have enough to plate?

JT: There was no time for a plan B. I knew that I had to make it work or get chopped!

It seemed that the taste of your dishes is what secured your win this week. Was it your strategy to focus primarily on developing the best possible flavor and think less about utilizing basket ingredients in new, inventive ways?

JT: I think that if a chef can utilize these basket ingredients and make something delicious, that’s something new and inventive in itself. The most important aspect of food is taste, and sometimes — often when we’re trying so hard to be innovative — we forget about that. Don’t get me wrong: as a chef, being creative is vital, but it should always be secondary to flavor.

Looking ahead to the Grand Finale battle, how are you preparing for a showing with the highest level of competition? Will you stick with your classical French approach or introduce something new?

JT: I am passionate about classical French food – especially desserts – but I think it would be a mistake to go into the Grand Finale thinking I’m going to just stick to the classics. I am going in with an open mind and will ultimately let the ingredients decide where I take the dish.

Visit Food Network’s Chopped Champions headquarters for more insider coverage.

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