So how do you train for a grilling throwdown against pros who show up with culinary school pedigrees and decades of commercial kitchen experience? As weekend competitive cooks, Donna and I know how to coax that magical bite out of a brisket to explode like a fireworks of flavors in the judge’s mouth. But to do so takes a long time, up to 14-hours to create a symphony of appearance, taste, and tenderness. Our goal is to tantalize the 8,000 taste buds in the mouths of certified barbecue judges into giving us high scores. From a time perspective, our fastest duration cook is chicken which takes about 2 1/2 hours. Consequently, our cooking methods, no matter how well-developed, don’t work for a start-to-finish 20-minute appetizer round and 30-minute main course and dessert rounds.
So after being among the lucky 16 chosen after a nationwide search by Food Network, we had no training game plan. As Donna put it succinctly in Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series, she would train to avoid humiliation while I would train to win. She tolerated going on Chopped Grill Masters to support my Bucket List desire to be on that show. For that I love her deeply. I truly appreciate Donna’s sacrifice in her demonstration of love to me as I know she fought mightily to overcome her slug-to-salt abhorrence of being on TV. So please do me a favor and do not go up to Donna and say to her that you saw her on Chopped because that would really irk her.
Nuff said. On to training strategy:
My approach to training for Chopped Grill Masters was to follow the sports method to watch tape. That is, review and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of prior contestants to develop a winning strategy. I went to Wikipedia and downloaded the entire database of 280+ episodes for analysis.
I made copious notes and came up with Harry’s Three Main Rules which are 1) Don’t Panic, 2) Don’t Cut Yourself, 3) Don’t forget 4 + 4 + 4 ingredients.
I also developed Five Guiding Principles which were 1) To accept that each mystery basket, no matter how crazy, is a problem waiting to be solved, 2) Be mindful of portion sizes, 3) Watch the clock and sequence of your ingredient prep and cook, 4) Taste and Season, 5) Don’t forget your carbs for main course.
Using the Three Main Rules and Five Guiding Principles, I built a 12-week training program leading up to the show. I would shop on weekends and practice cook three nights a week. I practiced my numerous 20-minute and 30-minute test cook sessions on Marinades, Rubs, Vinaigrette, Salads, Soups, Herbs, Batters, Custards, Land animals, Sea animals, Carbs, Sauces, Garnishes, Vegetables, Dessert, and Presentation. One favorite training method was to practice cook using the mystery ingredients in prior episodes and to troll the aisles of ethnic grocery stores looking for unusual ingredients.
Donna and I live 400 miles apart but through our similar but geographically separate training programs, we were able to use each other as training partners to become better grill masters than the sum of our individual parts. We cooked, texted pictures, Skyped, compared notes on our successes and failures, and went back to the drawing board to refine our techniques and methods until up to the very weekend before the shoot in NY.
The Chopped Grill Masters Journey, Part III
By Donna Fong
Over the weeks, Jamie Oliver became my favorite YouTube instructor. Ina Gardner’s recipes were always rock solid, and so were Alton Brown’s recipes. Mario Battali made the difficult task of making tender gnocchi look simple and full of love. And I realized that I really like Martha Stewart, not because of her talent or chutzpa, but because of her honesty on television. She never lets her fame get in the way of just being herself in front of a camera. Harry gave me a present, Michael Rulman’s book of portions. Though it was helpful, it was difficult to translate in a Chopped kitchen without scales or time. But I did learn something about how all recipes are related.
My 3-month journey had made me a much better cook with a refrigerator full of uneaten failures and successes. I combined new school ways of learning (videos on YouTube) with old school methods (talking to your fish monger, produce manager, cheese monger & butcher). I found those conversations enjoyable and sometimes pleasantly surprising. What I learned I passed onto my daughter, who will someday bring much joy to people with her food.
Harry and I shopped at Mexican and Asian grocery stores, searching for unfamiliar ingredients. We bought cactus leaves, Oxacan cheeses, beef tongue, pig kidneys, skate wings, quail, veal liver, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens and black radishes. Though I’ve never trusted Quinoa, I bought a bag and cooked it. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it’d be. Then there was Israeli couscous, wheat berries, polenta, watermelon radishes, rutabagas and chayote. I bought a CO2 foam dispenser, two cast iron pans, and Harry bought me a new Cuisinart food processor. I made crepes, bread puddings, crème caramel, caramel, mayonnaise, flatbread, German apple pancakes, duck fat potatoes, and roasted sun chokes. I baked trout in parchment paper, grilled salmon, orange roughy, swordfish, grouper, fried smelt and shucked oysters. So much of this turned out absolutely delicious. Sauces were especially delightful: hollandaise, béarnaise, béchamel sauce, voloute sauce, Korean BBQ sauce and a white Alabama sauce. The problem was that I cooked them all slowly, longer than the 20-30min I knew I would have on the show.
Early on, we held a mini contest in my kitchen. Harry cooked duck breast and I cooked game hen. I failed miserably; my daughter refusing to eat my dish as her head nodded approvingly while she ate his food. My pureed roasted sunchoke was gummy and anemic looking. On our second match-up, I faired a little better, but still lost to his better-looking dishes that had more rounded flavors. My dishes were simple and his were layered and elevated with homemade pasta that I would never attempt in that amount of time.
Harry taught me how to use the knobs on his gas grill and I taught him how to cut open a sea urchin and how to remove the membrane from lamb testicles. He explained how to make fried rice and I explained why one couldn’t make caramel sauce in his roughly surfaced pots.
In our separate homes during the week, we’d practice & share photos. My fried plantains chips and caramelized bananas were delicious but couldn’t outshine his Asian sweet and sour whole branzino though I doubted the presentation would work for an American audience.
Two weeks before the show, I was making mayonnaise in a blender at midnight a few hours before jumping on a plane for a business trip. It would be my last time in the kitchen before going on the show. I wasted five eggs and 2 cups of oil before understanding the proper technique.