Chatting With the Round-1 Winner of Chopped Champions by Maria Russo in Shows, January 15th, 2013
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In 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 ultimately 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.
In Round 1, with just 20 minutes on the clock, host Ted Allen announced the start of the appetizer course, and Chefs Kenneth Johnson, Lish Steiling, Sean Scotese and Sylvain Harribey got to work with canned haggis, prunes, celery and smoked gouda. Despite a showing of creativity with haggis-filled prunes inspired by classic Devils on Horseback, Chef Lish was sent home, and the remaining contestants opened up entree baskets to find fish heads, sugar cookie dough, hon shimeji mushrooms and crema. Although Chef Sean’s use of the fish cheek and collar was deliciously awe-inspiring, he forgot to incorporate the crema, nearly sending him home. Ultimately, however, it was Chef Sylvain who was chopped just one round short of the finale on account of a too-dense gratin with unnecessary ingredients. In the end, Chefs Kenneth and Sean had to put their best desserts forward using spiral ham, spiced rum, green plantains and water chestnuts. While some of the judges applauded Chef Sean for his next-level creativity in a showing of spring rolls stuffed with ham and apples, his offering couldn’t top the streusel, a more traditional dessert dish, made by Chef Kenneth, now two-time Chopped winner and one of four chefs competing in the finale battle.
While cooking in the dessert round, you said, “I’m at an age where a lot of the chefs just get out of the business. I still have a lot of things I want to do.” What does a second Chopped win mean to you at this stage of your career?
KJ: This win gives me more drive and fans my creative fire.
The level of cooking in Chopped Champions is much higher than in a traditional Chopped battle because all of the chefs are proven winners. How did you prepare for this tournament? Did you change your approach to the competition this time around?
KJ: I went back to the basics, not for recipes but for technical help to prepare.
Which of the three oddball ingredients — haggis, fish heads and spiral ham in the dessert round — was the easiest to work with? Why?
KJ: Ham. Need I say more?
“This stuff is pretty bad when it’s fresh,” you said of the canned haggis. “How crappy can it be when it’s in a can?” But after tasting your appetizer of a haggis pancake with smoked Gouda, Chris Santos said, “I liked Kenneth’s actual haggis the best.” What was your strategy in transforming this less-than-desirable ingredient?
KJ: My goal was to try and mask the smell. I was thinking the cheese would help give it a more bacon flavor.
As a two-time Chopped winner, would you say that it’s more important to utilize each basket ingredient to its fullest potential or achieve an overall spectacular taste in the dish as a whole, even if that means minimizing one or more of the ingredients?
KJ: I think it’s most important to just figure out what you’re going to make, focus and maximize with what you have. There’s really no time to think or overanalyze.
The judges applauded your “steady” work in this competition and ability to turn out consistently stellar dishes. Looking ahead to the finale, will you rely on a similar stability, or are you looking to take more risks, to pull out all the stops to win the $50,000 prize?
KJ: In the Chopped kitchen, it’s either kill or be killed – one tiny mistake and you’re done. I’m going in with confidence and will rely on my previous experience to stay calm and execute delicious and inventive dishes.
Visit Food Network’s Chopped Champions headquarters for more insider coverage.