YOU'VE BEEN CHOPPED
Chef (insert name here) you’ve been CHOPPED! Those are the dreaded words that no one wants to hear on the Food Network. Unfortunately, I heard them. My experience on Food Network’s show chopped was invigorating, humbling, nerve racking and fun. Let me say this. In order to compete on this show, you have to have, as Dabney Coleman would say, “Balls as Big as Church Bells”. There is nothing easy about this format. You are under the gun in what may be the most intense 20 minutes of cooking on TV. And that’s just the first round.
For anyone that has never seen chopped, it is a show hosted by Ted Allan on Food Network where four chefs compete head to head in three rounds of competition. At the end of each round, someone gets chopped. The Way the show works is that chefs are given a basket of four mystery ingredients (some very bizarre) and then given a set time to incorporate all four of those ingredients into a dish. The first round is the appetizer and you have 20 minutes to make your dish. The next round, entre, has three competitors and you have 30 minutes to make that dish. The last round is the dessert, with 30 minutes and there are the final two competitors left.
My journey to the chopping block started on November 9th, 2011. I received an email from a casting agent informing me that Chopped was going to have a grilling tournament and would like for me to interview. This tournament was different than the regular chopped format. It was going to be outside, on grills and be a tournament format with 16 competitors; four flights of four and then a finale with the four winners for $50,000. At this point, I had never seen the show. I called my sister and was informed that she and my niece and nephew loved the show.
I was having lunch with friends when the email came in…Please keep your calendar open, we would like for you to compete in the Chopped Grilling Tournament in Tucson, AZ ….Bizzle Bap! I was in. Now the reality set in…20 minutes, four mystery ingredients and competition that are probably much more prepared than you. I’m screwed.
I really didn’t know how to prepare to be on the show. Should I have people give me mystery baskets and time me, should I work with my many chef friends on technique? I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that I was scared. I was excited about the press this could generate for my brand and about being on the set but terrified of the actual competition. I was right to be scared, getting four ingredients in one cohesive dish and getting 4 plates plated in 20 minutes is quite a task.
I quickly became an avid watcher of chopped and the week before the show, I decided to have two of my BBQ team members, Chef Hal Holden Bache and Chef Nathan Wells come over to the house and work with me. Both showed me some sauce techniques and some tips and tricks that I might use but mostly we drank beer and hung out. I was as prepared as I would ever be.
My flight arrived in Tucson, AZ at 8:40 on Sunday night. I checked into the hotel and started worrying about the next few days. If I were to win, I would stay until Saturday and if I lost, I would go home Wednesday. I had no idea who I was competing against or what the kitchen set up was. As I waited for my ride, I saw one of my competitors in the lobby. We met in the car. His name was Dushyant and he was a CIA graduate from a resort in Phoenix. I also saw another chef get out of the car before we got in. He was clearly Hawaiian and looked to be around 60 years old. The heat was on and my nerves were causing me to have a twisting and turning feeling deep in my gut.
We arrived on set and it was pretty cool. We were shooting at old Tucson Studios in the middle of the Sonoran desert. This is the place where they shot dozens of westerns. John Wayne filmed here; Hell…Three amigos was shot here. How cool was this. At this point they did not let us see the kitchen we would be cooking in. They were filming the first shoot over there and it was going to remain a secret. We were on another part of the set with a big grill and campfire.
I got a text…..Carey; your call time is 4:45 in the morning. Be ready in the lobby to head to set. Man, that is early. I know that I won’t be able to sleep and so just how tired will I be? I can’t remember being this nervous in quite some time. Oh well, I guess I will deal with it and try to get to bed early.
When I got back to the hotel, I decided I would walk down the block and get some food. I stopped at a sushi place and walked right into what I thought was an open doorway. It wasn’t ….SMACK, I ran straight into what was a very clean glass door. Ok now I am nervous and embarrassed. I eat dinner and head to the candy shop next door. I know that I will need something to keep me alert the next day so I load up on gummy bears. Now off to bed. I stop by the lounge, have a drink and then off to sleep.
I didn’t make it to 4:45. I woke up at 1:30 thinking about the show. What will the ingredients be, do I know how to make a sauce, how do you make bread on a grill. All of these things were haunting me. It was almost go time and I felt no more prepared than I had 4 months ago. Too late now, I would be on set soon.
I went down to the lobby and there were my competitors. There was the Hawaiian, Dushyant was there and there was a tall redhead lady from Texas. She recognized my shirt logo and asked if I knew Evan Lobel. I told her that he was a sponsor and on my BBQ team at Memphis in May. She said that she had been in our booth several times and knew our brand. Before we knew it we were all off to the set. We made small talk and tried to get to know each other as best as we could in the brief 30 minute car ride. I think everyone felt like me, pretty nervous. The Hawaiian seemed a little more at ease. He had been on Iron Chef Japan and America before.
On set, we were put in a small room with microphones and cameras. We talked a little more and joked around about the day ahead. I very openly expressed my nervousness. I didn’t have anybody to impress. I was honestly afraid of completely freezing up. Not a feeling that I am used to having. I tend to be a pretty confident guy but not today.
At this point none of us knew what we were cooking on, what the ingredients were or who the judges were and the crew was not saying a word. We would soon be escorted on set.
Soon the moment of truth was upon us. We had put on our chef’s coats and were being led to the set. They showed us our stations and what we would be working on. We had a charcoal grill, a gas grill with a burner, a hot plate with boiling water and some community smokers. Not too bad of a setup but hey, what are the ingredients. Not yet….We toured the pantry and saw that they had most everything that you could want. OK, time is done, head to the saloon. We were showed our places and then escorted to the saloon to wait. “Are you guys ready?” said the producers….”I am about to crap my pants” is what I think I said. We were all full of nervous energy.
The shoot began with us busting through the saloon doors. We were to walk out of the saloon and down to our station in the street. Chefs “Open your Baskets” ……BAM, it was on. Tomatillos, Chayote, Hawaiian Blue Prawns and Hatch Chile Flavored Taffy. It was on. I froze for a moment and then I figured I should taste the Chayote. I have never seen or heard of one so I need to know what I am dealing with. It was a little bitter, a little tart and the consistency of a pear. Ok, I can deal with this….I take four prawns, cut the backs and throw them on the charcoal grill. I am sure that my knife skills looked like a 5 year old cutting play-doh. Now to the pantry. At this point, I am still not sure what I am going to cook but I knew I needed to get started. I grab corn meal, cream, butter, tarragon, and rum. This should be good.
I start with the boiling water and ladle it into a sauce pan. I pour in the corn meal and start to make grits on the side burner of the gas grill. I can do this…..I add cream, butter and tarragon. Now I am cooking. As I go to prep something else, I notice. I have burned my prawns. Dammit…I have to start over on those. I grab 4 new prawns and this time, I pull off the head, peel them and then butterfly them. I run over to the smoker and put them on. Now, what do I do with the tomatillo and chayote? I grab the food processor, throw them in and pulse a few times. It can be some sort of relish to go with the shrimp and grits. Ok, I feel a little better now.
On to the taffy; my original idea was that I would melt it down in the rum and baste it on to the shrimp. That would make a nice glaze and would use the product from the basket. I move my grits and get the rum going. As I grab the taffy and throw it into the pan, whoosh, the rum lights up in flames. I see the camera guy come in for a close up so I try not to act too surprised and like I meant for all of this to happen. The taffy does start to cook down and make a nice pink flambé. Now where the hell do I put the grits? First I put them in the gas grill and then I decide to move them to the charcoal weber. That should keep them warm without burning them. Hell, even if the bottom burns, I can still use the top layer to plate.
I pull the prawns off the smoker and put them on the grill. This time I will watch them so they don’t burn. Now to glaze them. I grab the glaze and in a last minute decision, I decide that that will take too long. I will put the laze into the relish mixture in the food processor. I do that and then pulse one last time. What have I made? I don’t know but I was sure that I could sell it. Then it hits me. This is a chow chow. I am from Tennessee and so this is a Tennessee chow chow with Low country shrimp and grits. I’m golden.
With two and a half minutes left, I am good. I just need to plate and I have plenty of time. I plate the grits; looking good. I grab a shrimp for each dish and lay them on top of the grits; Bizzle Bap, I’m on a roll. Then I grab a spoon of the chow chow for each plate; perfection. I feel great. I am done with 30 seconds to spare. Now for the fatal mistake……
Well, I had a little time to spare, I was proud of myself, after all, I had all four ingredients on my plate and I had a pretty solid dish. I thought to myself, “Hey man let’s take this over the top. Let’s add a little garnish.” So I did. Shrimp heads. I had seen them on many a fancy plate with the tentacles sticking up majestically in the air. I plopped them right beside my grits sticking straight up. Wow, wonderful…. In the background I heard Ted counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…chefs time’s up. Then it hit me. My Shrimp heads were not majestic and pink. They were raw, slimy and blue. Oh shit, that is a food hazard.
Let me say that on a show like this where it is balls to the wall, you don’t realize the mistakes until right after the bell and that is precisely when you can’t do a single thing about it. I knew I had screwed up but there was nothing I could do except wait until the judges passed their judgment on me. I didn’t have to wait long.
The way they do the judging on Chopped is they bring everybody out, comment on the one person’s dish, send everybody back to behind the scenes and then do it all over again for each contestant. Soon, my time came in front of the judges. They seemed to like my dish. I made some comments on the nature of it and what a chow chow was. The Grits were good and the shrimp was cooked just right. The last comments made were the ones that I knew were coming. “What’s up with the raw shrimp heads?” What could I say? I think I said, “Well, I was trying to chef it up and in my rush I put raw instead of cooked heads as a garnish” I think Aaron said, “These things are sharp and dangerous”.” I know Aaron……, give me a break” I thought. What you want to say is “I screwed up, what do you want me to say” but that doesn’t play well on TV. I took my beating and then we were back to the back of the set again.
At the end of that process, they bring you all back and reveal who has been chopped. Well as you have probably seen by now, I was the one to go. The raw shrimp heads proved to be too much for the judges. Although they liked my dish, they could not overlook the food safety issue. I don’t blame them. I would have had to do that as well. I am sure that I had a somewhat surprised look on my face but it wasn’t like I didn’t know that it was a possibility. I hung my head as if I were terribly disappointed and muttered the words “Bizzle Bap”, my catch phrase. In all reality, there was some disappointment but also a huge relief that this was over. Don’t get me wrong, the experience was great but the pressure on this show is beyond high. I was just glad I had finished in time and got everything on the plate. I was eliminated by a bonehead mistake but not by my inability to produce a good dish.
After it was all said and done, I was able to catch an early flight home and sleep in my own bed that night. Relief washed over me like a warm blanket. I was sad that I had been chopped in the first round but I feel like I represented myself well. I hope that gets reflected on TV. I am grateful for my time on the chopped set and for all of the support that I got from my friends and family. I am sure that I will be forever known as raw shrimp head boy by my friends but, hey, there are worse things in life than being Chopped and I guess I know that better than anyone else.
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