Updated: Feb 27, 2018
On a cold Sunday morning in January 2015, I decided to enter yet another cooking contest… The Sargento Chopped at Home Challenge. Just like the Food Network’s reality TV show, Chopped, we were given a mystery basket of ingredients and had to create a unique recipe using those ingredients and any others to highlight them. There would be three rounds of competition, one winner in the first two rounds and two winners in the third. Those four would compete in the Chopped Challenge on TV!
The basket for the first round included cauliflower, leeks, crimini mushrooms, and of course, Sargento shredded cheese, since they were the sponsor. As I wandered around the grocery store noodling several ways to combine these ingredients in a creative dish, I came up with a chowder. Excited to begin cooking (something my sister-in-law thinks makes me certifiable…), I raced home and unpacked my groceries.
The experiment started and the chowder came to life. Several girlfriends stopped by as ‘official taste testers’ and gave it high accolades. That’s when I decided to enter the soup into the contest online, along with a photo.
Fast forward two months. I am in Boston at a business dinner where my phone is buzzing with an unfamiliar number, so I ignore it. Later at the hotel, I check my messages and start to scream - in the hotel bar, mind you! My business associates looked at me with concern as I paced back and forth listening to the message saying that I have won the first round and will be on the Chopped show!! There are still two more rounds of qualifiers, so the taping will not be until the following October. My family groans hearing this knowing I will be an absolute basket case for the next five months – and, they were right!
I watched every episode of Chopped multiple times and memorized the mystery baskets, pantry, and all of the judge’s quirks. My family brought home mystery baskets night after night and I whipped up many interesting dishes using the crazy combinations of ingredients they found to try and trip me up!
Finally, the day came, and my husband Nick and I flew to NYC for the taping. Butterflies in my stomach…. Wait! What if I got butterflies as an ingredient?!
The victory included airfare, hotel, and stipend for meals. As we wandered the streets of the East Village—and did a dry run to the location of the studio to make sure we wouldn’t be lost the next morning—I was reminded of the many times I had visited the Big Apple for business. I have found some of the best restaurants and met some of the most talented chefs who have inspired my love of food as an art form. This trip was no different. Nick and I stumbled upon Arte’s Restaurant, a simple yet sophisticated Italian restaurant that serves some of my favorites, like Vongole Piacere (clams—anyway you like). The weather was warm as we sat curbside and enjoyed a delicious meal and several glasses of wine (nerve calming requirement). But I was able to soak in the magnitude of what I was about to experience. It was exciting and humbling.
Early to bed and early to rise. We had to be at the studio at 8 a.m. We were the first to arrive and meet the producer and director who were both fantastic and helped to ease my nerves. The other contestants wandered in and introductions were made as we sized up the competition. Hair and makeup was next, and then we were given a tutorial and summary of how the taping would go.
Then, Ted Allen - Chopped host, walked in (picture above)! I was star struck, but he was so engaging and friendly, he immediately put everyone at ease -- as you can see!
Taping commenced… for the next six hours. It was very intense with repeated ‘takes’ on things like simply walking into the set or opening the baskets! This was a promotional taping (finished product less than three minutes) so we only had one round of competition vs. the usual three rounds on the show.
Our basket was much more benign than the ones I had practiced with at home… we had to use baby spinach, roasted red peppers, bacon, and of course, Sargento shredded cheese. I decided on a cheesy rigatoni with spicy shrimp and cheese and roasted pepper crostini. We had one hour to cook and a pantry of ingredients to augment our dishes. It was intense to say the least, but I finished in time and felt confident when the camera crew said they wanted my dish for lunch!
Now, it was time to be judged. Our judges were the CEO of Sargento, Louie Gentine, and two of his staff. We were asked to leave and then called back in after about 30 minutes for the announcement of the winner. I lost out to a crepe (go figure!) in the long run, but the experience was truly memorable and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. In fact, I hope I’m able to do it again very soon!
Here's a clip from the Chopped competition: