This show is my guilty pleasure now. I say now because when I first saw it, upon recommendation of a friend of mine to whom I have given cooking lessons and advice, it terrified me. Yes that right, terror. Some things make you flash back to scarier times, and that first Chopped show I watched was like a bad hit of LSD flashing me back to 1993’s Florida Restaurant Show, where I was an unwilling entrant in the Mystery Box culinary competition.
Back then, I did not handle stress well. Toss that in with a general inferiority complex and fear of competition, I was a wreck. The general manager at the club where I was Chef had done this to me so there I was at 5:30 in the morning, hung-over and standing over a grumpy looking whole sturgeon and a package of lamb tenderloin resembling cryovac-ed road kill. What was I to do? Where were the food gods anyway?
So that first Chopped show I watched brought all this back. The rumbling in my stomach, the paralyzing fear. Oh, those poor people on TV, why would they do that to themselves? And what were they going to do with those gummy bears? Oh my. That first time, I changed the channel.
I can’t recall when I watched a show from start to finish. I think I was sitting with Hubby and wanting to be brave about it. I had won a silver medal after all and have lived to tell (write) the tale. No ulcer ensued. Okay, let’s check out these chefs.
I watch now in amazement of what they do with the odd ingredients. I like seeing how the chefs translate their region into the meals. I hate the judges. Sitting up there all regal and shit. Like the judges in 1993, “You’re going to be a great chef someday,” one had said. You’re kidding, right? I was 34, had been working in kitchens for 20 years, had travelled with World’s Fairs and I was nearing the end of my first career act, thank you very much.
I especially liked the rerun I saw the other night, “Pride of New Orleans.” Chefs from my favorite city attacking some regional foods: andouille sausage, catfish, chicory coffee, chard, (easy stuff) along with razor clams, chai tea mix and fig preserves (hmmm…) Some Cajun music tossed into the background for extra character.
But the best part was Linda Green, a pre-Katrina School board cook and street vendor and now a caterer of “Ya-Ka-Mein lady” fame, pitched in the final round against Cody Monfra, a pleasant and talented sous chef of the Palace Café. The judges appeared to have looked down their noses at Linda Green’s simplistic, albeit yummy looking food. It’s as if Linda and Cody should have been in different categories. But they both did the best to their abilities and in the end when Linda Green won, her eyes immediately watered and she asked, lower lip-a-quiver “I won?” In spite of the fact that it seemed a little staged, my eyes watered up with her, and so did the judges’ for that matter, who didn’t seem so snooty now.
It’s a testament to depth and experience trumping technique. And this was also true for me in ’93, whipping up a little bread pudding with brandy sauce as my dessert course (thank God for that loaf of bread!), while next to me the boy-chef from Dollywood spun up some sugar bullshit. I got a Gold score for that bread pudding, which pulled me up to a silver score, since I had been docked points for not getting the plates of food out in time. (I was working solo, while the other chefs had apprentices. . . Loooong story).
Sometimes I picture myself on Chopped, what I would make with the crazy ingredients. With my solid, eighties cooking techniques ingrained in me, I’d be more like Linda Green, just cooking what I know, whipping up some gummy bear beurre blanc, Kumquat stuffed quail, Swiss chard braised with coffee, Spam sushi…? I would bring forth the “good” ’ole days…
My award-winning courses from 1993:
Chilled melon soup with pink peppercorn crème fraiche
Blackened lamb tenderloin salad with white grape vinaigrette
Potato-crusted sturgeon on braised leeks with horseradish beurre blanc
Orange bread pudding with warm brandy sauce