By the time you read Part IX and X, the show has aired, and you know that Donna went out in the appetizer round, and I got chopped in the dessert round.
Despite the ending, I gave it my best and I think I turned in three very respectable dishes, each which I felt was worthy to take me to the $50,000 finale round. I did my best to be 1) creative with the ingredients, 2) transform each one so I did not just use it as is, 3) created layers and layers of harmonious and complex flavors, and 4) plated the food with an artistic presentation.
The winner was the cook who was judged best overall among the three rounds. So I accept that Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Tim Love felt that Leslie Roark Scott did better overall across all three rounds. Leslie is a sweet soul and I wish Leslie all the very best as she made it into the $50,000 finals round.
I’m proud of my Grilled Crying Tiger Shrimp where I used the Feta cheese and brisket ice cream as a marinade with coconut milk and a mixture of Thai red and green curry paste. I used ginger, honey, and coconut milk to make a curry sauce. My shrimp was cooked perfectly.
My main course was Applewood Smoked Lobster with Carrot Ketchup Béarnaise sauce with grilled sausage, Dandelion greens, and roasted potatoes.
Although my lobster main course seemed to please the judges, their criticism was that it had too many ingredients such as Sriracha, Cognac, Paprika, etc.
Heck, I’m cooking to win $50,000 so in my mind, the key question was really not the number of ingredients, but did I harmoniously combine various elements to make them work together? I’m a certified barbecue judge and I would not tell a cook that he or she used too many ingredients. Rather I would say something more constructive such as “the flavor of the Sriracha did not go well with the Cognac as the final result was too bitter and spicy.”
This would have been useful rather than saying I used too many ingredients. I have many books by Michelin chefs and their ingredient lists are way longer. Anyhow, you saw the show so you can decide for yourself if the judges’ criticisms were justified. I can’t help but wonder, perhaps, when they said I used too many ingredients, they meant to say they didn’t like the flavors I created? I’ll never know because they didn’t say that to me directly.
In the dessert round, I made a Grilled Panatone w Cream Anglaise sauce topped with caramel popcorn with grilled fruit flambé in Amaretto.
Overall, I’m profoundly grateful and thankful for my once-in-a-lifetime experience to be on Food Network Chopped. Only about 1,000 out of 280 million persons in America have had the privilege to be on Chopped. Of the 1,000, only 32 will have been on Chopped Grill Masters.
I’m so glad I didn’t panic, cut myself, nor forget an ingredient. Who knows, maybe they’ll invite me back for a Redemption Round?
The Chopped Grill Masters Journey, Part IX
By Donna Fong
The morning was crisp and cloudy, but at least it wasn’t raining. A large piece of netting hung overhead which caught most of the falling branches when the wind blew. It was 11am and we began the first round. No introductions were made between anyone. We just stood there, waiting for Sean to give us direction.
Sean is a slender tall man in his early 40’s. He wears an Indiana Jones hat and is responsible for making this all happen as smoothly as possible. As I am standing there, waiting, I think of the other Shaun in my life. He’s the instructor on T25 insanity workout video which I did a few times before going on the show. Insanity T25 Shaun cared if I extended my leg fully and worked to my fullest potential. Producer Sean didn’t give a lick about me and I wondered if he ever looked at anyone in the eye before. I felt hopelessly lost in America’s most urban city setting. Suddenly, I was a country bumpkin from Oakland?
I thought back on my recent trip to Austin, Texas for a BBQ contest. There, I felt too urban, wearing my Stephen Curry NBA jersey amongst hardcore college football fans. Nobody cares about the NBA in Austin. I looked like an idiot. Here, it was just the opposite. Shocked and bewildered, I was out of my element and yearning to go home.
Our judges were Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli and Tim Love. I was relieved that Alex was one of our judges. She’s kind and motherly which is what I needed. She noticed the overwhelmed looked on my face and winked. I smiled back. I was surprised how long it took for the “technicians” to calibrate their “instruments”. We cooks and judges just sat there. Alex was used to it because she just stared out into space for long periods of time. I didn’t know how they were able to manage because doing that professionally would make me crazy.
Scott’s face was tanned, his hair was puffed up high and his hands were white. I guessed he went skiing recently; maybe the French Alps or Vail? None of the judges were joking around; it was too cold. A liquid oozed out of Leslie’s box onto the table and into the ground. She noted it to the producers but was told to ignore it by the staff. It was too late to fix it.
Finally, Tim Allen rehearsed his lines for the rules. Lea and Perrins, a new Chopped sponsor, had to be incorporated into his lines and I think that threw Tim off. The glamour of his job faded as the need for repetition persisted. We held the handles of our baskets multiple times, not opening them, but pretending to do so. Then we opened the basket once and pulled items out. We put them back in and finally, we started the first round. A 20-minute clock was roped around a big tree to our right but we could ask for a verbal time check whenever we wanted.
In our basket were large red shrimp, asparagus, feta cheese and brisket ice cream, which made me laugh. It was an easy basket, by all accounts. The raw shrimp were huge and red when raw. They seemed a little ripe and gooey. Asparagus were fine but the ends were hard when I cut them so I had to cut them shorter than usual. The feta was normal feta which I couldn’t imagine doing anything to other than topping a salad. It wasn’t the kind of cheese that was grillable like a halloumi cheese which I’ve always favored. And the brisket ice cream, which I wanted to love because I love brisket, wasn’t so good. It was salty and sweet; normally a winning combination but didn’t win me over. By the time we got them, the ice cream was in a liquid rather than solid state.
Because I had seen an episode where two of the chefs did not devein the shrimp and were criticized for it, I decided to devein the shrimp. I prepped 8 shrimp, wanting to plate two shrimp per judge. With the leftover shrimp shells, I wanted to do something creative with them, since they held so many flavors. I’d seen Harry roast shrimp shells before putting them in a Malaysian stock before but since that wasn’t feasible I seasoned the water with them and boiled the asparagus and then dipped the asparagus in ice cold water to bring out the color. All of the items felt so familiar that I began cooking as I did at home which was my greatest downfall.
The judges wanted me to grill and my tendency is not to grill. In my head, I began cooking for my 10-year-old daughter, not grilling for judges. I did try to grill the shrimp on the gas grill but couldn’t get it hot enough so I threw them on the charcoal grill which was even colder. The briquettes were still black, and I didn’t have the smarts to push them around to get something going. Nor did I ask for help from the food staff. By the time I plated the shrimp, I wasn’t sure if they were even cooked through.
For the sauce, I diced some onions, garlic and added some butter and the brisket ice cream. I decided to make the sauce on the electric stove in front of me. By the time the sauce was done, it had clarified. I had forgotten to use the prosciutto in my basket, nor any of the other items that I randomly gathered for no apparent reason. I shopped with no goal in mind. And then I put the basket on the ground, where I quickly forgot about them. Occasionally, I reached for a lemon to give it kick. And I borrowed some granulated garlic from Harry which I used in the sauce. I even added a little sugar and made sure I seasoned the shrimp and asparagus enough.
The dish turned out okay, and I felt the flavors combined well but it was boring. Luckily, none of my competitors were that much more creative. Harry nailed his dish with some bold flavors on shelled shrimp, but I was also worried it was underdone. It was harder to cook a shrimp with the shell on.
With 5 minutes left, I heard Ted Allen announce the time, so I ran to the plates and tried to figure out the one that made the most sense. It took me longer than I thought it would take because I didn’t like any of them. I settled on a square cast iron plate because I grew very fond of cast iron cooking during my practices.
I plated my dish and heard Alex rush us from 70 feet away. I responded and agreed with her wise instruction. Four ingredients were on four dishes. I didn’t cut myself. I didn’t cross contaminate. I didn’t put too much or too little on the plate and it wasn’t going to be the worst thing the judges have ever eaten. I accomplished my goals. My plates looked decent albeit boring.
I spoke to Harry besides me briefly before we were done to ensure he was okay. He said he was fine.
Food Network Chopped Grill Masters, Part X – Day of the Shoot 4
By Donna Fong
After we were done cooking, I gave Harry a big hug and kiss. I looked at his dish and wondered if they were done but it looked good. Then Sean asked us to stare at our dishes for a long time. It felt like minutes. The camera in front of me zoomed in and out, again and again. The plate was getting cold and the butter was solidifying. But I was proud of the result.
We made a few practice walks to the judges and then sat down on chairs that faced the opposite direction from the panel. We did this many times. Then we took turns talking about our dishes and listening to the judges’ critique our appetizers.
As the judges ate my dish, I was criticized for the butter sauce which had clarified and no longer the right consistency. They also didn’t like that my asparagus was boiled and that my shrimp didn’t have enough charring. The others hadn’t cut off the woody part of the asparagus stems enough or the sauce was no good. Tom’s knuckle started bleeding during the cook so he lost a minute or two from the bandaging.
And of course, they loved Harry’s dish for its flavors and presentation. I was proud of Harry and glad his shrimp were done. We walked off the set and waited. The assistants took away Tom to film the good-bye shot, even though no one had been voted off yet. We had to film it in the interest of time. Finally, we walked back to the set to hear our fate and even though I thought I had about as good a chance as the others, save Harry, I was the first to be chopped.
I was so happy. Honestly, I was exhausted and wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep. The stress of it all had taken its toll on me and I was tired of the cameras and people telling me what to do and how to do it. I missed my daughter and brother. I gave Harry a hug and the others too. I shook the hands of the judges and thanked everyone and walked off delightfully happy.
It would be another two hours or so before I could go home. It took a long time to film the goodbye scenes and sign the paperwork. When I hopped in the van back to the hotel, my conversation with the driver made me realize how hard this industry is for young people. He talked about his father being in the production business and even though he majored in film, he was driving a van and fetching stuff for people higher up.
As I slipped out of the van, I hear my name being called. I looked up to see Danielle Dimovski outside drinking a cup of Starbucks coffee. I couldn’t believe it. A big smile washed over my face and I gave her a huge hug. We last saw each other in October in Lancaster where I met her for the first time. As Harry mentioned, she had lost a lot of weight and looked terrific. We talked for a while and I liked her even more than I did last time. Even though our personalities are completely different from one another, we get along very well. She made me feel better about being losing in the first round and I wished her the very best.
I went into my room and crossed my fingers for Harry as I went to sleep. When I got up, he still hadn’t come back to the hotel yet. I made an appointment with a local massage therapist, got a massage that I needed and came back home with some food as I watched Tom enter his hotel room. I guess Tom just got chopped next. Harry was going against Leslie in the dessert round. God help him. Our phones were taken away when we got on the set so I had no idea what was going on.
Donna and brother, Ray, enjoying Sicilian pizza
When my daughter and brother arrived that evening, I was glad to see them. We went out for pizza down the street for dinner while we waited for Harry to come home. Finally, around 10pm, Harry comes home….sad. He didn’t make it to the next round. I gave him a hug and knew this one would sting for weeks. And it did.