For the first time on Chopped, professionals and amateur cooks will go head-to-head at the end of the five-part Ultimate Champions tournament. But they’ve all competed on Chopped before: They’ve tasted what it feels like to win, and they’re hungry for more. On tonight’s second round, four amateur home cooks battled to determine which one would move on to the grand finale, where there’s a chance to win the largest prize in the show’s history: $50,000, with a brand-new car to top it all off. FN Dish has the exclusive interview with the winner from Part 2.
Appetizer: cheese blintzes, salsa, ground pork, poblano peppers
Entree: Wagyu rib-eye steaks, jalapeno chips, pink pearl sedum, mangoes
Dessert: cookie spread, creme anglaise, grapefruit, microwaved mug cupcake
First round: Marisa Biaggi
Second round: Dinah Surh
Final round: Elda Bielanski
Winner: Keith Young
Judges: Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli, Aarón Sánchez
Father and firefighter Keith Young came into this tournament a little bit more timid than he did in his last appearance on the show. He could have let his competitors faze him, and he almost did, but his not-so-successful appetizer dish proved to be his wake-up call. After that, he came back with full force, showing professional chef-like potential in his successive courses, which impressed the judges. And even when faced with some tough competition from grandmother Elda, Keith kept his cool. In the end Keith made himself proud and his family proud, and surely his late wife would have been proud. Along with professional chef Giorgio from Part 1, Keith moves on to the Ultimate Champions finale on September 23.
What was different competing this time vs. last time?
Keith Young: I feel like the competitors were definitely 10 notches up from the other guys. The other guys were great. It’s just that this is a weed-out process. And I actually felt like I was the weakest one, especially after the first round.
What were your goals coming into this competition?
KY: I mean, my goal was to win. If I could win that $50,000 it would really do some things business-wise for my family, helping us financially. It’s a huge, monumental thing if I would win; plus, having a car on top of it, it’s unbelievable.
So what happened with the grill pan? What’s the real story?
KY: That was a whole lot of drama over a grill pan. I felt my dish going toward a Latin influence, but with Aarón there I thought maybe I should rethink it, but I went to grab the grill pan anyway. Dinah got there first. I got there second, but as soon as I was grabbing it Elda was like, “No, it’s mine.” She grabbed it from me, which is fine. I really could have let her have it, but I think I was being a bit of a knucklehead. I just wanted to mess with her. I do feel bad about that.
Do you think it turned out to be a happy accident?
KY: Absolutely. I had to go away from the Mexican idea, and I thought about that beautiful rib eye and what I could do to transform it. Since I had to do it in a pan, I thought I’d finish it with a pan sauce, like a steak au poivre. So I thought I’d make a peppery sauce. Then I thought I’d have to completely counterbalance that. I wanted to use arugula. Since I was using Dijon mustard in my sauce, I wanted to keep the mustardy, spicy theme going with my greens. I added the mango to that and some cilantro. I almost made a mango salsa. But I wanted to keep the salad very light, very piercing with the lemon vinaigrette, something that would cut through all the cream and heaviness. Thank God I was able to accomplish that and make it look good on the plate.
What did you think when Alex said your steak looked like it was cooked by a professional?
KY: I felt relieved. I felt happy and I thought, “All right, they kept me for the right reason on this.” I literally thought I was going home after the first round. I hated my presentation on that. I had to redeem myself. That was my redemption, that dish.
What was the most difficult basket for you today?
KY: The appetizer basket, because you’re kind of coming back, you kind of know what they expect, but at the same time, you’re just getting in there. I didn’t take time like I did the first time I was here. Then, I kind of stopped and actually looked at the basket and thought out in my head what I was going to do. This time, I just went and started doing without really thinking about what I wanted at the end. Also, I thought I had to use every bit of those cheese blintzes, even the outside. So I thought, “Let me repurpose it and reuse it,” but that was not the way to go, appearance-wise. I didn’t have a nonstick pan, because my meat was in that. So I was lucky. Let’s put it that way.
What’s your strategy going into the finale?
KY: I need to be so focused, I need to be so opened up and I need to get rest right now. I am definitely sleep-deprived, burning the candle at both ends, trying to make both ends meet at home. I’m getting home after being gone for 24 hours and then I’ve got to cook and clean at home, you know, for my kids, and get them off to school. It’s tough. My daughter is trying her best. She’s 20 and works a full-time job. I just need to focus more and get the rest I need, and then go back in. I need to read and go over some recipes and get a couple of different ideas in my head of things I can do and be creative with repurposing everything that I get.