Both this week and next, Atlanta chefs will appear on Food Network’s “Chopped,” a competitive cooking show requiring contestants to use unusual combinations of ingredients hidden in mystery baskets. Our culinary pros are receiving a great deal of national attention these days.
Food Network, in particular, has tapped into the city’s talent. Sugar artist Karen Portaleo and cake artist Joshua John Russell, both from Highland Bakery, are repeat competitors on the network’s cake challenges. Cake decorator Ashley Vicos of Sweet Ashley’s secured a spot on “Have Cake Will Travel.” And Nick Melvin of Rosebud went head-to-head with Bobby Flay on “Throwdown.” The list goes on…
Like South City Kitchen sous chef Jeffrey Gardner, two more Atlanta chefs will compete for ten thousand dollars on upcoming episodes of “Chopped.” I quizzed both contenders about their experience on the show.
Tonight’s episode entitled “Have a Heart” (10 p.m.) will feature Justin Burdett, chef de cuisine at Miller Union. Justin cites quick butchery as his competitive edge in the contest. He chose to apply to “see how [he] did in a competition setting put against [his] peers.”
Atlanta will also be represented next Tuesday (May 31), when Tom McEachern, executive chef at Ray’s on the River, competes in a grilling-themed episode. He admits to waffling back and forth about applying for the show but says he “got fired up” once the decision was made.
Animated, Tom relives the experience, “I had so much fun on the show and in Manhattan. But, it was grueling. You are so excited that you don’t get sleep the night before and then they pick you up at 4:30 a.m. to go to the studio.”
I’m curious to get a behind-the-scenes look at the show, which Tom provides. He details working while surrounded by 13-14 cameras and power cords strewn about. Multiple takes are required for each scene but the cooking portion is real. The retakes are nerve-wracking, particularly those that involve host Ted Allen announcing that someone has been “chopped” eight times before actually lifting the lid on the worst dish.
Justin also recalls the nerves involved, “It is a high-stress situation, but that’s the nature of it. When someone is putting you up for $10,000, they are going to get $10,000 worth of drama.” He emphasizes, however, that he never felt sabotaged by the show for the sake of drama, “Everything was handled professionally.”
Both Justin and Tom describe the interviews where they were asked to comment on the other competitors and their food. Justin says, “They encourage you to trash talk, but that’s not my style.” In Tom’s group, the chefs got along well, forcing the show to stir up drama.
I’m not surprised by drama instigation. Here’s what baffles me: with multiple retakes, it can take up to four hours for the judges taste a dish. How can a dish be accurately judged so long after being made? Tom explains, “The judges are experienced chefs. They are watching you cook and are watching your mistakes. They know who is seasoning and who is tasting. They see who is organized and who is out of control. They can see if you’re a disaster.”
See for yourself if Justin Burdett and Tom McEachern get roped into the drama on “Chopped” (10 p.m. tonight and Tuesday, May 31). Show some support for the home team and stop by Ray’s on the River for dinner on the night of Tom’s episode (May 31) when he will offer a special menu using many of the ingredients from his mystery baskets on the show.
UPDATE 5/25/11: A huge congrats to Justin Burdett for WINNING “Chopped” last night!
–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.