On a special episode of Chopped, four teenaged chefs entered the competition to prove that age doesn’t matter when it comes to culinary talent. On the line was a $40,000 scholarship to The International Culinary Schools at The Art Institutes. Not to mention bragging rights to call oneself a Chopped Champion. Now that’s pretty cool for a kid still in school! The competitors ranged in age from 13 to 16, but it didn’t matter that they lacked the years of experience, because they made up for it in energy, ambition and a determination to win. FN Dish has the exclusive interview with the winning teen-chef.
In the end, Hunter, of Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off fame, won the title of Chopped Teen Champion and the $40,000 scholarship. Throughout the cooking rounds Hunter showed that he could play with the best of them. He impressed the judges by making the strongest three courses (see a breakdown of the basket ingredients below) and bested his three other teen-chef competitors. But the kids wouldn’t leave empty-handed — each was given a scholarship for the hard work they put out in the competition. So in the end, each competitor left with pride for having competed in one of the toughest cooking shows on TV.
Appetizer: swordfish, tiger figs, broccoli rabe, cherry-flavored drink
Entree: toaster pastries, filet mignon, jarred black truffles, heirloom tomatoes
Dessert: strawberry mints, salt bagels, cream cheese, cotton candy grapes
How much practice did you do before coming on Chopped? It looked like you had the timing down every round.
Before I came to Chopped, my preparation for the show was intense. My dad and I spent days coming up with the mystery baskets and cooking with a time limit. Honestly, nothing can prepare you enough for what happens when you open the basket; the rush of both adrenaline and nervousness is so very much different from practicing at home. The Chopped kitchen is totally new and unusual so even finding ingredients to work with was a challenge — there wasn’t really a way to practice that. At home, no amount of constructive criticism from my family could have prepared me for the real life judges. When I cooked for them, it was a whole new experience, and on top of the other pressures I kept thinking, “Wow! That’s Alex and Marcus in front of me — what the heck am I going to do?” One aspect that practice really helped me with was the time limit. My whole mantra at home was “GCP,” or gather cook, and plate. During the challenges, I tried my hardest to keep that in my head and in the end my preparation paid off because I had mentally prepared myself for it!
What made you think to use the vacuum sealer for the figs in the appetizer round? Since you’ve never used the vacuum sealer before, do you think it was a risk worth taking?
From the moment that I tasted the figs, I knew I was going to use the vacuum sealer. They were extremely sweet, and tasted almost like watermelon. I had the swordfish, broccoli rabe and cherry-flavored drink to work with, so I quickly made a sour/spicy marinade for the figs, which included rice wine, vinegar, salt, etc. I added everything to the vacuum bag, and ran over to the sealer. Thankfully, I knew how to use it, and I put the bag in and turned it on. It was really cool, and I took my sealed bag back to my station. I wanted to infuse the figs with that sour and tangy marinade fast, so vacuum packing it was probably my best bet.
The judges thought your broccoli rabe was too bitter in your entrée-round dish. Is there anything you would have done differently?
When the judges said that my broccoli rabe was too bitter, I immediately agreed with them. Broccoli rabe is naturally bitter, and being Italian, I knew that I had to cook it for a long time with salty and sweet flavors. I added garlic and salt, along with the cherry-flavored drink, and thought that it would cook down, but unfortunately it didn’t work to my satisfaction. If I had more time, I would have let it infuse and cook together for more time.
The judges seemed to think you didn’t transform the bagel enough in the dessert round. Do you agree you could have done more?
When I saw the bagels in the dessert basket, my mind started to explode with ideas. I cut them very thin, thinking that I was going to make a “sweet crouton” with it. I took the spice grinder and ground some bagel with the strawberry mints. I threw them into the oven, and hoped for the best. I do agree with the judges that I could have done more, but I believed my concept was correct; making the bagel the “cone,” the cream cheese ice cream the “cream” and the cotton candy grape compote the “sauce,” almost like a deconstructed ice cream cone.
You’re a big fan of Chopped. What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve learned from watching the show?
When I watch Chopped, I take everything into account. I think, “What would I do with this?” “How would I cook that?” When I learned that I was going to be on Chopped, I started to really memorize everything about the show by simply watching episodes over and over. The biggest thing I learned has to be don’t finish early. When I watch the show and someone finishes early and just stands there, I scream in my head, “Do something else!” There is always something the competitor could have done to do something else, and I certainly did not want to be that person!
And now that you’ve competed — and won — what has the competition taught you about yourself?
After competing on and winning Chopped, I learned many new things about myself. For one, I never thought of myself as a “perfectionist” until I was on Chopped. I found myself tasting everything, and even wiping the side of my plate a hundred times to make sure it was clean! I also learned that I do well under pressure, and that the rush of competition makes me do better! Throughout the show, two simple words from my dad rang in my head: “Be humble!” I believe being humble is an aspect of a chef that is incredibly important. You learn from everything, and being upset by criticism is wrong; you should learn from it.
What was more difficult, competing on Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off or Chopped and why?
I believe that Chopped and Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off were so different — it’s hard to say which one was harder. While Chopped was pure competition, RvG was a learning experience. I do have to say I think Chopped was a tad bit harder, only because anything could happen and you have to cook your butt off each and every moment. On Chopped I put everything I had into it, whereas on RvG I learned more than ever before. I had the same adrenaline rush in each show but Chopped wasn’t a four-week experience. It was strictly cooking good food — and quickly too!
How did you feel when it was announced you had won? What’s it like to call yourself a Chopped Champion?
When Ted announced that I had won Chopped, I almost passed out. My eyes started to water, and my heart was beating out of my chest! It was a feeling of relief, joy and shock all at once. I was thinking of my father — how he helped me every step of the way — and how I could celebrate winning with him and the rest of my family. When I walked into the Chopped kitchen, I thought that winning was going to be a miracle. I mean, how could I compete against these other competitors? Me, being only 13 years old, against teens with so much more experience than I had. It was truly a dream come true, and with the $40,000 scholarship, my cooking career is just beginning! What other 13-year-old can say, “I won Chopped?!”