Do any of you watch Chopped on the Food Network? It’s a little bit like Ready, Steady, Cook, except with a slightly less annoying host. The premise is this: four chefs have to create a three-course meal (appetizer, main course, and dessert), and with each course, they get a basket of random “mystery ingredients” that they have to incorporate into the dish somehow. The ingredients range from the benign (fish, string beans) to the fairly kooky (edamame in dessert, Jell-O with the appetizer). They have a set amount of time to cook, and once time’s up, they have to present a dish to a panel of judges. Whoever sucks the most in each round gets chopped, so by the end of the episode, you’re down to one chef who wins $10,000.
Anyway, I’m a little addicted to the show, because I like to play along at home and try to think of what I’d come up with from the mystery ingredients. Imagine my surprise and delight when I tuned in the other day and discovered an all British chefs episode! I’m a big fan of British food and cooking and firmly believe it’s gotten its bad rap from the French, whose haute cuisine was so widely admired for so long, and idiotic tourists who eat at the English equivalent of Applebees and then say the food sucks. It doesn’t. Classic British food is the ultimate comfort food, to me, and there are a ton of chefs over there who are doing some really amazing and delicious things. Let see how these four do, shall we?
First up is Andy Bates, who sells pies in East London. I so desperately want a pork pie now, seeing his market stall. And a Scotch egg. And a…oh, hell, I’ll be right back.
Ok, so Andy’s pretty happy-go-lucky and clearly loves what he does.
Next up is Lotte Duncan, who’s this sweet, cute lady with short blonde hair and a lot of pink who lives in Buckinghamshire and runs a cooking school. She also apparently has several TV shows. She’s presented as being pretty cutesy—you just know she thinks tea cozies are necessary, and that you can never have too many ruffles or bows on something. Everything she’s shown making is rather precious—giant, fluffy pink meringue type things, iced fairy cakes, you get the idea. I don’t know if she had any hand in how she’s portrayed or if this is all the producers’ doing, but she’s presented in marked contrast to the three male chefs, who are all shown in their kitchens (or market stall, like Andy), firing off orders, busy, busy, busy. She kind of seems like some nice lady who’s having a bunch of friends over for tea at her impossibly cute house. Just saying—there’s a definite difference here. I would, however, love to go to her house for tea. And dammit, now I want a fluffy pink meringue.
Chef three is Tristan Welch, the chef at Launceston Place in Kensington. The menu there sounds pretty delicious. He’s got a good pedigree, having trained and worked with some top chefs. He’s also got two young sons and wants to win Chopped so someday they can see him on the telly and get all excited about it. Judging from their ages, it’s going to be a few years before anything on TV outside of Sesame Street excites them, but I find it rather refreshing that he’s doing this because he wants his kids to be proud of him. Usually the contestants on this show are doing it for the money.
Finally, we have Jun Tanaka, executive chef of Pearl restaurant in London. His food is rooted in classic French cuisine, as opposed to the others who are all fans of British food and cooking. The menu at his restaurant sounds amazing. Even the drinks are tantalizing. Jun makes sure we all know he’s not into messing around—when his friends were out partying, he was in the kitchen cooking. And I’ll bet that made him really popular with his partying friends, when they needed a late-night snack to help them sober up.
So, we have our four chefs in the Chopped kitchen, and our host, Ted Allen (the food dude from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) explains the rules. He invites the chefs to open their baskets, and they pull out buffalo hot dogs (ick), carrots, edamame, and butterscotch candy. Ok, I’m stumped. I don’t know what the hell I’d do with butterscotch candy. Lotte laughs that she loves butterscotch candies, and hot dogs, because she finds those fatty street foods a bit naughty but really delicious. You know what? I sort of love her. She’s just adorable. You can’t not like this woman. She plans on doing a salad and starts sautéing her hot dogs with peppers and herbs.
Tristan’s thrown by the hot dogs and tosses them in a pan to start roasting them, then dashes over to the fridge to get more ingredients. Everyone else has the same idea, and there’s a four-chef pileup at the fridge, which the judges find hilarious. Tristan calls it “cozy” and grabs some wonton wrappers to make hot dog ravioli.
Andy thinks he has an edge, because he knows what Joe Public likes to eat. Well, ok, but you’re not cooking for Joe Public, here, you’re cooking for three high-end restaurateurs. Not that they can’t appreciate good street food, but I’m not sure this really gives you that much of an edge. Anyway, he’s doing a classic fry-up. Good idea, actually. He’s got the hot dogs and carrots in a pan together.
Jun thinks about what you usually serve with hot dogs and comes up with sauerkraut. He’s going to make his with the carrots. Not a bad idea, actually. And he’s going to make a butterscotch sauce to go with it. He tosses his candies into a double boiler to get them melted. Not the best plan. They have 20 minutes to do this round, and those are the hard butterscotch candies, not the soft or slightly soft ones. I’d have thrown them in the microwave to melt them.
While the chefs scurry, Ted introduces the judges: Marc Murphy, owner of five NY area restaurants and a catering company; Amanda Freitag, a chef and Food Network personality; and Geoffrey Zakarian, a chef and consultant. Ted mentions and discards the old cliché of British food sucking, which I appreciate, then tells the chefs they have 15 minutes.
Lotte speaks lovingly of the butterscotch candies, then blanches her edamame and tosses them in her vinaigrette.
Tristan doesn’t have a clue what to do with his butterscotch candy, and then decides to make a gastrique, which Marc thinks is brilliant.
Andy handles the candies by tossing them in a blender, chopping them up, and folding them into some sour cream he’s serving with his dish to give it a bit of crunch.
Lotte’s starting to get nervous and frazzled, and when she pours her butterscotch into the vinaigrette it rather predictably seizes at the end of her whisk. Meanwhile, with 5 minutes left, Jun realizes his candies haven’t melted at all. He’s a little worried about that. He tosses them in a pan with some heavy cream and butter and gets that bubbling.
Tristan’s got his ravioli mixture ready to go and is cooking the carrots in his gastrique.
Geoffrey unnecessarily reminds us that the chefs have all come a long way to compete, so they’re going to bring it on. Are they still just competing for $10,000? Which is, what, a little more than £5,000? Does the show pay travel expenses? Because otherwise, it seems like a lot of trouble and money for these chefs to put up for not that big a payoff.
Andy likes texture, so he’s making some crostini to put on the plate.
Lotte gives up on the butterscotch and just hopes enough of it got into the vinaigrette that the judges can taste it. The chefs have three minutes left.
At this point, Tristan starts filling his ravioli. What was he thinking? Why didn’t he fill those earlier? He’s freaking out. Jun’s desperately shelling hot edamame into the pickling liquid, burning his fingers in the process, just to get it done.
Thirty seconds left. The chefs plate frantically and get it done. Tristan’s disappointed by how messy his plates are, but I’ve definitely seen worse on this show. Lotte admits to being a bit shell-shocked by round one.
Andy presents his caramelized hot dogs with carrots, butterscotch sour cream, and bean dip. Or maybe it’s a butterscotch sour cream bean dip, it’s not really clear. Marc commends the caramelization on his hot dog and carrots and Alex likes his use of the butterscotch. Marc, however, is disappointed that Andy didn’t dress his salad and doesn’t like the big chunk of butterscotch candy he ended up with.
Next, Lotte presents her cheesy hot dog salad with edamame and orange and butterscotch vinaigrette. Marc thinks the salad is lovely but the vinaigrette is too acidic. Geoffrey’s not happy to find rosemary into his salad and Lotte apologetically explains that the rosemary snuck in there by accident.
Tristan presents his hot dog ravioli with butterscotch, edamame, and carrots. It looks beautiful and Marc’s really impressed at what he was able to do in only 20 minutes. He thinks the sauce is too sweet, though. Geoffrey agrees, saying the dish needed butter or cream or something to bring it together.
Finally, Jun’s caramel hot dog with sage, pickled carrots, and edamame is up. Geoffrey likes the smokiness on the grilled edamame, and Alex likes the pickled carrot. Marc, who I guess has the role of naysayer today, thinks there needs to be a bit more of the carrot, to keep the dish from being too sweet. Ted sends the chefs away so the judges can deliberate. Backstage, the chefs dissect their performances and really adorably support each other. They’re much nicer to each other than the American contestants tend to be. I wonder if that’s because of a “we’re all outsiders, in this together” sort of camaraderie or if this group really is just made of nicer, less insecure people.
Geoffrey thinks Tristan’s dish was the most sophisticated, but both he and Marc think it fell a little short. They both loved Andy’s and Jun’s dish, though, and Alex thinks Jun handled the butterscotch the best. Geoffrey liked Lotte’s salad, but Marc’s less enthusiastic.
The chefs come back out to see who’s going home first. Ted lifts a cloche off the eliminated dish and—it’s Tristan. Damn. I expected him to go further. Marc tells him he was creative but didn’t get the best flavor out of the ingredients. Tristan wishes his teammates luck and accepts his defeat with a good grace that is so refreshing, when usually the eliminated chefs are all pissy and whine that the judges are morons who wouldn’t know good flavor if it bit them in the ass, which is always the type of thing you want to say about famous and highly respected chefs on national TV.
Round two: entrees. The mystery ingredients are pork loin, cheese curls, escarole, and chia seeds. I didn’t know chia seeds were even edible. They have 30 minutes for this round. Everybody starts to scurry. Andy hits the fridge and explains his plans for a take on the classic Sunday roast: roast pork with apples and escarole salad. Mmmm.
Lotte throws her cheese curls in a food processor and explains she plans to make a cheese-curl-and-chia-crusted pork loin. She dips the pork in maple syrup to help it caramelize and to help the crust stick. While I can see pork and maple syrup working well together, I’m having trouble getting on board with the idea of cheese curls and maple syrup. That sounds pretty gross. She tosses the pork in a pan with a lot of butter and then finishes it off in the oven. She says she’s shocked Tristan was kicked off, but it’s proven to her that you don’t have to be a restaurant chef to do well in the competition.
Jun is also crusting his pork loin with the curls and seeds, and he’s using the escarole two ways: inside the pork and as a puree. He notices that Lotte’s got the same idea as him, and once again we get a nice contrast between the British chefs and the Americans on this show. The Americans almost always claim the other chef copied them in this situation, like their fellow chefs have mindreading abilities or something. Jun says no such stupid thing, accepts that sometimes two people have similar ideas, and simply says this means he’ll just have to make sure he does his version a bit better. The thinking of a rational person!
Ted and the judges talk about the crappy cheese curls. Andy hates them, calling them “synthetic rubbish.” He plans to use them as a mix-in with the salad and starts chopping up bacon to go with them. Smart man. Bacon makes everything better, even synthetic crap. It’s a major reason I could never, ever be a vegetarian.
Ted asks the judges about chia seeds and Marc explains they’re very popular in Guatemala. Geoffrey adds that they’re from the mint family and wonders if they’ll taste minty.
Andy’s never heard of chia seeds before, but he’s going ahead and using them as a crust on his pork.
Jun throws the seeds and the cheese curls into a blender, but the seeds pack down and jam the whole thing up, so nothing gets blended. I could have told him that would happen. Cheese curls on the bottom, man! He dumps everything into a food processor and mourns his lost seconds. They have 15 minutes left.
Lotte’s doing some herb mashed potatoes with butter (of course), and for some reason she refers to the butter as being both naughty and cheeky. I’ve never thought of butter in that way. She’s worried that her pork’s not cooking fast enough.
Geoffrey mentions that escarole can be a bit bitter, and some people blanch it. Thanks for that. Jun’s doing just that, and then removing the escarole to a blender to create a neon green puree. It’s beautiful. Once that’s done, he gets started on some spaetzle batter. Man, I love spaetzle. I’ve got a special pot for making it and everything. It’s brilliant with pork. The judges start to freak out that Jun’s going to make spaetzle in only 11 minutes. Seriously, people? Have any of you ever made spaetzle before? I’m guessing no, because it takes literally seconds to cook. You drop it in boiling water and a few seconds later it floats to a top and you skim it out and you’re done. I’d be more surprised at Lotte making mashed potatoes, because potatoes can take quite a while to cook to mash point. Of course, Jun gets the spaetzle done in plenty of time and tosses it in a pan with the remaining escarole. He thinks it needs something more and tosses in some chopped anchovies. Interesting choice.
Andy’s looking good on time, but he’s smart enough to know he can’t get too cocky about that.
Lotte’s got some apples and onions going with butter and tosses in some brandy before adding the escarole, cream, and mint. I kind of want to try that, it sounds pretty good.
Jun checks his pork and decides it’s perfectly done, because it’s now medium, but he’s not sure how the judges like it, so he errs on the side of caution and decides to cook it a bit longer. Ohh, Jun, I think we all know how this is going to go. These people are all highly trained chefs, I think we can assume they know how a piece of pork is supposed to be cooked. Two minutes left.
Lotte pulls out her pork and is delighted to see it’s done. She goes to the fridge and is extra delighted to find some edible flowers there. Jun’s got about 900 pans and things piled on his station and Marc wonders how he’s going to be able to plate, but Jun says he’s used to a crowded station. I always thought restaurants (particularly the high-end kind) frowned on that sort of thing, but I’m no expert.
With 30 seconds to go, everyone’s frantically plating. Andy’s a little stressed that his apples aren’t quite done; Lotte’s throwing blossoms over the plate and trilling “Flowers!” like a slightly demented fairy. Time’s up. Andy sizes up the competition and thinks their dishes look awesome, and his might not measure up. He admits to some “plate envy.” Heh. And at least he’s honest—his plate does look a bit of a mess. A yummy mess, though.
The chefs present their dishes. Lotte’s is the chia and cheese curl crusted pork loin with butter and herb mashed potatoes and apple cream sauce. Geoffrey loves it; Alex loves the femininity of the flowers but wishes the apples had been raw or at least crispier. Geoffrey says the cheese and syrup really work with the cream sauce and brandy but he thinks the pork is underseasoned.
Jun presents his crusted pork loin with spaetzle, escarole puree, and mustard sauce. Geoffrey praises the presentation, Alex loves the mustard sauce. Ted, for some reason, busts in to explain chia pets to the chefs, which apparently none of them have even heard of. Seriously? They don’t have those in England? And even if they don’t have them, none of these three have even heard of them? It’s not like they’re a new thing, I remember them being around when I was a kid back in the 80’s. Alex thinks Jun used the chia seeds quite well as a crust. Predictably, both Geoffrey and Marc think Jun overcooked the pork, and on top of that, Marc got a bunch of the anchovies on his plate.
Finally, Andy’s chia seed crusted pork and escarole salad with cheese curls and bacon is up. Marc tells him the pork’s cooked perfectly, and indeed we can see that it’s just faintly pink, as it should be. Adorably, Lotte gives Andy a “well done!” elbow and look. She’s a sweetie. Marc’s only complaint is that the salad’s in big chunks, which makes it a little hard to eat. Alex wishes he’d done more with the cheese curls, and she thinks there’s a lack of cohesion on the plate.
The chefs are shooed away; backstage, they bolster each other a bit more. Out front, the judges agree that Andy cooked his pork the best, but his salad was just a big mound of leaves on the plate. Marc thinks that Lotte’s dish was pretty heavy, though nice. Geoffrey says that Jun’s dish was nice and composed, but the pork was overcooked. Kind of sounds like it could be anyone’s game at this point.
The chefs return, the cloche is lifted, and Andy’s chopped. Too bad, his stuff did look really good. I’ll have to hit up his pie stall the next time I’m in London and eat myself stupid. Like Tristan, he takes his defeat gracefully and says he’s proud of what he did. He should be.
So now it’s just Jun and Lotte. For the dessert round, they have to use grape flavored gelatin (ick!), lemon verbena, brie cheese, and shortbread cookies. They have 30 minutes.
Lotte immediately decides to go the cheesecake route with the brie, using the shortbread cookies as the base and a good slug of orange liquor to “start a party in [her] cheesecake.” She says that so matter-of-factly it’s kind of hilarious.
Jun interviews that Lotte’s a fierce competitor, and I really commend him for giving her credit instead of just sneering that she must have gotten by on dumb luck to be facing off with someone as awesome as he is, which is what we normally see on this show. He wants something nice and warm, so he’s making a financier, replacing the usual almonds with ground up shortbread cookies.
Lotte, meanwhile, gets her lovely looking cheesecakes in the freezer and decides to make a grape syllabub with the gelatin. Good plan.
Jun has no idea what to do with the gelatin, so he just pours it into the financier mix. Next, he slices up the brie and inserts it into the center of the financiers, hoping the saltiness of the brie will help balance out the sweetness of the shortbread and gelatin. Also a good plan. Marc thinks it’s totally brilliant. Jun tells us the financiers take 15 minutes to mix and 15 to bake, but he’s spent 17 minutes mixing them. Alex starts to freak out, which annoys me, because she always does this and I just want her to calm down because I’m pretty sure all she’s doing is stressing out the competitors even more. They’re right there; they can hear what the judges are saying while they’re cooking.
Lotte adds the lemon verbena and some blueberries to the syllabub, to give it a bit of a kick.
Jun’s steeping the lemon verbena in a simple syrup. He tosses in some apples, and then decides to make a raspberry coulis to give the dish a little bit of a tart flavor. Lotte also decides to make a sauce—a chocolate one. Like bacon, almost everything’s better with chocolate.
Jun’s worried about his financiers, because it doesn’t look like they’re cooking. With only five minutes to go, he turns the heat up all the way in the oven, and I cringe at the thought of financiers burned to a crisp on the outside and still raw inside.
Lotte’s chocolate starts to seize, so she mixes in a little honey, which apparently can make chocolate stop seizing. That’s good to know. Jun starts getting his plates ready, even though the financiers aren’t ready yet. Lotte’s plating up, and thinks her dessert looks great. At the last minute, she starts sectioning an orange to add to it.
Time’s ticking down, and the judges are all freaking out now, telling Jun to just plate the financiers, even if they’re raw. I’ve never seen the judges this worked up. Ted counts down the last 10 seconds, and Jun just barely manages to plate up. Go Jun!
Judges’ table. Jun hands over his financier, and the judges tell him it’s perfectly done. The only thing they didn’t like was the lemon verbena. Geoffrey says he got a big piece of it and it was like eating perfume. Plus, Marc couldn’t taste the grape gelatin.
Next up is Lotte’s brie cheesecake, grape and blueberry syllabub, and chocolate pot. Sounds delicious, though a bit disjointed. Geoffrey’s never even heard of syllabub, which surprises me. Even I’ve heard of it. They like the syllabub and think the cheesecake was nice and smooth, but the shortbread crust was too hard, and they basically had to chisel through it.
Lotte and Jun head backstage and hug and talk about their differing approaches. In his interview, Jun pays homage to Lotte’s dessert, saying it was stunning and that he thinks she nailed it. Out front, the judges say the syllabub was great, but the crust sucked, and Marc thinks the orange theme was overplayed. Alex thinks Jun transformed the ingredients with his dish, and unlike Marc, she could taste the gelatin. Take that, Marc! Marc thinks Jun overused the lemon verbena. Geoffrey says that, of the two desserts, he’d eat Lotte’s again, because he thought it was more fun.
Ahh, but to determine a winner, the judges compare all the dishes, not just the dishes in the final round. So, they talk about the pork and think Jun might have done a bit better, and debate starters. They agree this is a tough decision, but only one can win. And that winner is…Jun! The judges tell Lotte her food was great, but fell short in a couple of places. She manages to smile and congratulates Jun, but she’s clearly struggling to hold back tears as she leaves the studio. Aww, it’s ok, Lotte! I still think you’re great. And Jun! He’s clearly awesome too! And happy he won, of course. Well done, sir. I can’t wait to visit your restaurant the next time I’m on the other side of the pond.