My day on Chopped
* I did not make this long story short. This is a detailed account of my day filming Chopped Season 36, episode 2. Skim along to gather what's interesting to you.**
I never meditate, but I've never been on national television before. I woke up at 4am on a Friday in September, the day I'd be competing on Food Network's Chopped, and I made some coffee and sat on my couch to try out meditating for the first time.
No apps or crossed legs; nothing like that. I just stared at a focal point in my apartment and chanted in a hushed voice aloud, "There's no point in being nervous. Fear will only stop you from succeeding, Melanie."
Repeating this over and over until I headed out to the subway seriously helped. I was an unflustered version of myself for the rest of the day. It's so cheesy, but I'd been waiting for an opportunity like this for years, and I didn't want nerves to cloud my day. I grew up the youngest in a big family on Long Island, quietly geeking out and watching Food Network starting at 8am every Saturday morning, idolizing the chefs' talents, and obsessively cooking my way through a pitifully nerdy high school existence.
From my high school's newspaper, The Wheatley Wildcat. My column was called "Melanie's Munchies." This article reviews Food Network shows.
Making food my career after going to college was a tough decision and it has been hard work with lots of blood (literally, I almost lost a thumb), sweat (try frying mini doughnuts during dinner service for eight hours straight), and tears (I'm told I look like Carrie from Homeland when I cry). Today was my chance, and I wasn't going to let anything or anyone get in my way.
You don't want to know what's underneath this bandage. This picture reminds me of pain and eventual surgery. Ended up making me a stronger person and cautious chef.
The whole Chopped process began a few months earlier in May with a phone call that led to interviews that led to my official tape date in September. Up until that point, I had been YouTube-ing videos of how to shuck oysters and how to roast a prime rib, thinking I'd be on an episode with the regular appetizer/entree/dessert format. Two days before taping, I got another call from Chopped, confirming that I'd be competing in a chocolate-themed episode. Woah! Making dessert is my everything. It's what I've done every day professionally for the past ten years. But at the same time, I've never done it on an episode of national television before, and I have my business and reputation at stake. I. MUST. NOT. FAIL. is all I could think.
The producers told me to be at a McDonald's in East Harlem at 6am of taping day. After my AM meditation and subway ride, there I found the other contestants standing outside on the sidewalk, knife bags in tow. Still pitch black outside, we all made friendly, if a little guarded, conversation, sizing each other up before we were picked up by a member of the crew to take us to the Chopped studio. My competition looked pretty heated. First off was Philippe, the Frenchiest-looking Frenchman, with a sleek grey ponytail, making his way through a pack of cigarettes for breakfast. He reminded me of a previous boss at Blue Hill. I didn't like this one bit. Next up, I met Josip, intimidating by his sheer size for someone like me who's a mere five foot two. And then Marissa, with cool girl glasses and tattoos, emanating confidence and making me look like a plain Jane. Our chit chat came to a halt when a tinted window van pulled up with someone from the Chopped crew, and we all hopped in. We drove for under five minutes. I guess the producers didn't want us to catch on to the exact address of the studio. It was enough time for me to send a text out to my family, "I'm in a van." Little did I know that was the last text of the day for me until around 11pm that night, and I would be making my nervous Jewish mother very panicked!
Arriving at the studio, we were ushered by various production assistants into a very warm room that's about 300 square feet where we'd be spending much of the day. This is the "situation room," where you'll see Chopped contestants chat in between cooking on the episode. It even came with our very own babysitter, Brian, whose only job was to take our lunch orders and escort us to the bathroom. The crew took our phones, IDs, and knives, and we got fit with some pretty bulky sound equipment belts. There's also no clock in the situation room, so throughout the day ahead I had no concept of what time it was. I think around 8:30am we were taken from our babysitting room into the vast kitchen studio. My god, was that cool! Just like on TV except with about 100 cameras all facing our kitchen tables. A culinary producer gave us a five minute tour of the kitchen. Here, I want to stress the importance of this time approximation. In five minutes, I had to assess where the mixing bowls were, what types of chocolate were in the pantry, where the baking soda is, what kind of cake pans they had. My eyes were darting, my heart was racing, and I was trying to hold on to that morning's zen while figuring out my culinary mental map of this place.
We weren't brought back into the kitchen until Round One began. At that point, host Ted Allen and judges Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Zac Young were on set. They looked fresh and coiffed, while I already felt sweaty and haggard. Lining up at our stations, I saw my knives set out before me, giving me a sense of calm.
Ted approached our kitchen tables and the first round of baskets were placed before us. These baskets are huge and can fit a 50-person picnic inside! But today just four mystery ingredients were buried within. All camera lenses bent in our direction as Ted announced that we could open the baskets. And mere seconds after looking within and removing the contents, the timer for 30 minutes started.
Round One Ingredients: animal crackers, chocolate-covered superworms, candy cane beets, chocolate pudding mix
Round One was a problem for me. I really bombed this one mostly because I was thrown by those worms. I haven't mentioned it yet, and fine I'll use the preggers card here, but I was four months pregnant on taping day (as I write this I'm nine months waiting to hatch), and I really didn't want to bite into some gross dried out worms. At the beginning of my career, I transitioned from the line at Babbo to pastry partly because I was grossed out by the organs and tripe and other random yuckiness that chefs had to cook. I was not anticipating worms to land into this basket!
Turns out I goofed throughout the next 30 minutes of this round and didn't make a cohesive beautiful candy like I was briefed. Looking back, I know what I could have done to make this round go just right so that Judge Alex wouldn't tell me that it looked like my candy bar fell off of a roof or was found in my pocket after six months. She was right. But, thank the pastry gods, my flavors were ok. I do know how to make a good caramel sauce.
But at the time I thought I was doomed and would be on the next train back to the Mini Melanie kitchen for a busy Friday work day. There were technical difficulties on the set, and we had to wait for about two hours to find out on camera who got chopped. It felt like two years, and several snacks later in the green room, I was relieved to find out I'd get a second chance but truly sad for Josip to be sent home. He is a giant, sweet teddy bear and I'm sure so good at what he does.
Going into Round Two I was determined to show myself and the judges what I could do. It was the cake round, and we'd have 60 minutes to bake and frost a cake. I could do this, and I wasn't going to let any crazy ingredients muddle my focus.
Round Two Ingredients: caramel cookie candy bars, habaneros, chocolate hummus, lamb tallow
When I saw the lamb tallow, I didn't know what tallow was. But I could hear Judge Alex from Round One critiquing me with how I must not really want the $10,000 prize if I didn't try the worms. So, you'll see me learning from my mistakes and taking a nice spoonful of lamb tallow to figure out what it even is. Yuck, let's just call this lamb crisco. But by trying it I knew just what to do with it: frosting!
I remember the judges shrieking that I'd never get my cake layers baked in time because I was making them too big. I stuck with my instincts on this one, and I put together a cake that I'm proud of. It did lack a little spice from the habanero, and I should have done better with the flavor balance, but I'm glad it wasn't as spicy as Philippe's crepe cake. That and the thickness of his crepes are what sent him home.
All the drama in this round turned to Philippe. The judges were going nuts as he unmolded his crepe cake to the final seconds of the timer. I was garnishing my cake with five minutes to go, and I'm happy with how this round went. It gave me confidence for round three. Maybe a little too much confidence, though.
Going into Round Three, ice cream battle, I knew that I had a 50/50 chance. So far, Marissa had barely slipped up. She has a dynamic personality, and the judges loved her. But, I can make delicious ice cream from my year working the gelato station at Babbo.
I had a newfound confidence and love for the fun and intensity of this competition that was going to trip me up a little bit. I wanted so badly to end on a high note and to wow the judges, and this overzealousness would get in my way.
That, coupled with the basket ingredients.
Round Three Ingredients: love potion cocktail, chorizo, tallegio, white chocolate chunks
Looking back, I know just what I should have done with the chorizo. But isn't that how it always is? Instead, I made what Judge Zac would call a "pizza party" underneath my ice cream. Ouch, I feel badly that the judges had to eat that! Still, my ice cream was top priority and it was smooth and creamy, while Marissa overchurned hers.
"I'm a hawk with ice cream."
If I'm lucky enough to make it back to the Chopped studio for an All-Stars, I know that the best weapon to have on hand is focus and restraint. Winning Chopped was an incredible feeling, as you'll see from my jump in the air at the end of the episode. I think I got two inches off the ground. Really, I was so excited. I learned so much about myself as a competitor and as a chef that day. In between rounds, there's so much edits, but the judges really take the time to speak with you about your dishes and to give you invaluable career advice.
From my 4am wakeup to finally getting home that night at 11:30pm, this was one of the best days of my life. I am so excited the episode is on TV now so that I can share it with Mini Melanie's customers, aspiring chefs, and anyone who loves chocolate as much as I do.