Jeffrey Gardner, sous chef at South City Kitchen Midtown, will compete on Food Network’s competitive cooking show “Chopped,” which airs tonight at 10 p.m.
Hosted by Ted Allen, the Food Network show begins with four contestants who compete against each other to cook a three-course meal. The meal must be made using unusual ingredient combinations presented in a mystery basket in timed rounds. At the end of each course, one contestant is “chopped,” resulting in only two contestants left to compete in the final round for the $10,000 prize.
Competing on such a show seems natural for Gardner, who professes an addiction to watching game shows. Having qualified for both “Jeopardy” and “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” before his 21st birthday, he is primed for televised competitions, especially ones that include his passion for cooking.
Twenty-six year old Gardner’s interest in cooking began at about age seven in his grandmother’s kitchen in Natchez, Mississippi, where he grew up. He fondly recalls dragging over a stool to watch her make pot roast, biscuits and red velvet cake. His first assignments were peeling carrots and stirring chocolate-chip cookie batter.
Despite these early positive experiences in the kitchen, Gardner did not immediately recognize his passion for cooking. He went to Millsaps College to work on a dual degree in Business and Spanish. Midway through his coursework, Gardner began to “realize that the world of accounting would lead me to jump off a building somewhere.” He confesses that he found himself writing menus during class and catering from his dorm room. After graduating with a degree in Spanish, he decided to pursue his passion for cooking, attending culinary school at Johnson & Wales.
Gardner has been in the industry for five years now, half of that time spent at South City Kitchen working with Executive Chef Chip Ulbrich, whom he considers his mentor. He defines his cooking style as being reflective of Southern traditions with a modern twist. Of himself, Chef Gardner says, “What separates me from other chefs in the industry is that I’m fearless and can incorporate a wide variety of influences for being such a young age. I appreciate old Southern traditions but can also incorporate… all the molecular gastronomy techniques [and] contemporary plating.”
Chef Gardner believes he has an advantage over other contestants because he was born and raised in the South. He says, “We cook with soul down here.” To prepare for the competition, he first studied a list of all previously used mystery basket items looking for patterns and for ingredients that might be used repeatedly. He then brainstormed with mentor Ulbrich how he might use unusual ingredients. He also practiced a mystery basket, finding to his surprise that the time passed much more quickly in his practice round than in the actual competition.
Though Gardner is unable to reveal many details about the episode before it airs, we know that two ingredients in the appetizer round include marshmallows and catfish, both of which must be used. The entree round incorporates pork ribs and the dessert basket contains Latin ingredients. The judges for the episode are Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Aaron Sanchez.
Gardner commented that the show is designed to keep competitors on edge. For example, contestants are not given a tour of the kitchen prior to filming — save an introduction to a first-aid kit.
And if Gardner wins the $10,000? He says winnings could be used for savings, a new car or travel to Italy or Spain. His real motivation for competing was to see how his “skills at this point in [his] career measure up against other chefs” and to see where he stands in the industry.
The episode airs tonight on Food Network at 10 p.m. (EST). Show your support with the Fifth Group Restaurants at the episode viewing party tonight at The Original El Taco, where it will be played on five flat-screen televisions. The festivities begin at 9 p.m. Call for reservations if your group has seven or more people.
Cheers to Atlanta’s own “Chopped” contestant, Jeffrey Gardner. And good luck!
The Original El Taco, 1186 North Highland Avenue Northeast, Atlanta. (404) 873-4656
–by Jenny Turknett, Food & More blog
– Jenny Turknett writes about Southern and Neighborhood Fare for the AJC Dining Team. She also publishes her own blog, Going Low Carb.