On tonight’s episode of the Chopped Tournament of Stars, the winners of the four previous rounds returned for one final battle to see who would win the championship and walk away with $50,000 for his or her charity. Brandi Chastain, Carnie Wilson, Gillian Vigman and Michael Imperioli all entered the competition with the goal of winning, but by the dessert round only Brandi and Michael remained to face off in an epic dessert round that was so exciting that it had the judges on the edge of their seats. FN Dish has the exclusive interview with the winner.
Appetizer: 10-pack of tacos, escarole, dragon fruit and vanilla ice cream
Entree: Peking duck, Brussels sprouts, cotton candy and veal demi-glace
Dessert: blueberry goat cheese, pecans, churros and Champagne
First Round: Carnie Wilson
Second Round: Gillian Vigman
Final Round: Brandi Chastain
Winner: Michael Imperioli
Judges: Marc Murphy, Alex Guarnaschelli and Geoffrey Zakarian
Throughout the competition, Michael Imperioli showed that he wasn’t afraid to think outside of the box, get out of his comfort zone and just try anything he could get his hands on. There was hardly a piece of kitchen equipment he didn’t try at least once, whether it was the vacuum sealer or the anti-griddle. And if something didn’t work for him, there was always a backup plan in place. He packed his dishes full of flavor and created unique combinations that impressed the judges. For someone that has never competed like this before, Michael proved he could excel at dealing with whatever came his way. The mystery basket ingredients were no match for him. As the Chopped Tournament of Stars champion, Michael earned $50,000 for his charity, The Pureland Project.
How did this finale compare to the previous round of competition?
The finale was a lot more competitive. We know everyone can cook. And I think the judges’ criteria got a lot tougher. They expected a lot from us because we had won previously.
You used your hands to do a lot of the plating and also the cooking. Alex said she’d never seen a competitor use so few utensils. What made you do that?
I used my hands because I was really in the moment. I was more focused on the food than the proper ways of moving it around. At that point it was instinct and terror.
You said you wanted to tackle the ice-cream machine for a second time. Why?
It was a lot like revenge because it beat me up a little bit the first time. It didn’t kill me, but it beat me up. I like ice cream a lot. I don’t really bake and I don’t really know how to bake. I learned from what went wrong and I figured I could do it better the second time. It was something I really wanted to do.
Alex said your appetizer was brilliantly successful but you used pink peppercorns as a garnish again and again. What made you use them so often?
I like their taste, color and texture. I don’t usually use them very much but I thought this was a good opportunity.
We also saw you use a lot of liquor in pretty much all the rounds of this finale and in the last competition. What made you reach for alcohol so often?
I found it an easy way of imparting flavor, and a way to transform the components. It was there in the pantry. I wanted to get a lot of flavor and I thought it would work. The Mexican influence in the first basket today lent itself to tequila. I thought bourbon would work in the dessert round, so I went for it.
Geoffrey appreciated that you picked through culinary history to create some of your dishes. You fused Mexico and Italy in your appetizer, and Wales and Kentucky in your entree. Where did you get your inspiration today for those dishes?
I have a big love for food. I read a lot about food and cooking in books and magazines. It’s an interest of mine, so luckily I remembered some of those things. You figure things are classics and work for a reason. So if you start with those as a template and then use the crazy ingredients and put your own spin on it, it’s safer than just winging it. It’s a good map to get you where you want to be rather than plunging completely into the unknown.
How does it feel to win?
It’s a satisfaction in seeing the whole course through, getting over obstacle after obstacle and reaching the end. It’s gratifying and I have a certain sense of completion. To be honest, I really surprised myself, which was quite pleasant. I didn’t expect to be able to do a lot of the things that I did. I thought I was going to stick to things I knew really well. That was my strategy going in and then I started to think maybe I could try things I didn’t know. All the tools were there. But I always tried to have a backup plan. It saved me. I didn’t want to paint myself into a corner and not be able to get out.
After this are you going to change the way you cook at home?
I think it’s going to be an inspiration for me to take bigger risks at home. Having these great chefs show their respect and appreciation for me sort of says that maybe I am a good cook. It kind of improves my confidence level. So I might try new things and really get more creative in the kitchen.