Fear and excitement. That’s what I felt the morning of the shoot. I was anxious whether I would shine and make the $50,000 finals or flame out trying. Would it be like David and Goliath going against other pedigree competitors whom I hadn’t met? Would I panic when I opened my mystery basket? Would it rain or snow in NY since it was sand and wind during Season One in Arizona in 2012? Worse, I couldn’t shake the Godzilla versus Motra insecurity I felt in my stomach if Donna beat me.
My eight years of competitive barbecue experience and my Bucket List desire to be on Chopped Grill Masters would be decided in three short rounds. My brain had tunnel vision the morning of the shoot and was stuck in my playback loop of 12 weeks of self-training.
Lucky for me, I can relive that day through Donna’s wonderfully lucid story below. Since we were not permitted to take any pictures during the shoot, I’m posting pictures of our unique barbecue journey together as a loving couple but fierce competitors on weekends.
The Chopped Grill Masters Journey, Part VII
By Donna Fong
Hours before the crack of dawn, Harry and I walked down to the lobby to meet Tom Spaulding of Live Fire Cooking and Leslie Roark Scott of Ubons Barbeque from Yazoo City, Mississippi. Neither Harry nor I had met either Tom or Leslie before but knowing that they were both BBQ people put my mind at ease. I confessed on the ride to the set that I was nervous about accidentally cussing on television. That made everyone laugh and we became friends quickly. For the rest of the day, I tried hard to just be myself and make others feel at ease.
Leslie is part of a father-daughter BBQ competition team and restaurant. Her speech had a beautiful Southern drawl that always regarded her famous father with a great deal of affection. She called him “Daaaddie” and said she was his BBQ princess, not so much because of her stature but rather his stature as her King. She loved him as much as any daughter could. Her parents have two daughters and no sons. Leslie’s sister expressed no interest in BBQ, so Leslie carries on the family business. She describes herself as no “lady” but a “broad” which I took to mean she always said what was on her mind, regardless of manners.
Tom is the pit boss of a BBQ restaurant in Austin. We talked about whole animal butchery and Chianina cattle from Italy while waiting for the show to begin. He has a love for cooking and ranch to table sensibilities which matched my own tendencies. It was easy to like Tom and his quieter nature. On that day, he wore a cowboy hat and good old cowboy boots. He looked the part of someone who cooked meat and ate meat. I knew I didn’t look the part at all but I guess that’s the point.
The assistant who picked us up in the morning and drove us to the set, would be our monitor all day long and was present in the room at all times.
After we put on our rusty colored chef coats, we walked single file in the darkness as our assistant announced our procession from one small building to the next. He lifted his right shoulder and spoke into his walkie talkie, “Chefs are walking to sequester.”
The sequester room was where we waited to be on the set and where we’d recall our cooking experience in front of the camera. When we needed to go, he walked us to the bathroom saying, “Chefs are walking to bathrooms” or “Chefs returning to sequester” afterwards. It felt awkward. I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to protect us from being run over by a random golf cart or prevent us from gunning to the exit should we change our minds in the middle of the shoot. Bad stuff must have happened in previous episodes.
The sequester room was a small barn with four black chalkboards. The black chalkboard in the back of the room had the words Chopped on it with a cleaver drawn in. Along the sides were drawn on separate chalkboards a chicken, a goat, a pig and then a cow to the left of the entrance. The whole animals were drawn in white chalk and divided into primal and sub-primal sections. The artist had run out of time with the cow as it remained unfinished and not labeled at all. I felt a little sad as the beef is my favorite category. Bored, I wanted to finish the cow drawing but figured the assistant wouldn’t let me.
All day long, we were no longer Harry, Donna, Tom and Leslie but were called Chef. Of course, I never considered myself a chef, so the title felt unnatural. But that was standard protocol for all competitors whether they are a real chef or not. I yearned for someone to call me Mom instead but no one ever did. My daughter spent the two days with my dutiful brother who visited my two aunts in the city. They ate delicate Shanghai dumplings in Flushing while I stood in front of a camera that likely made me older and wider than I’d like to look. Fame, I desire you not.
The Chopped Grill Masters Journey, Part VIII
By Donna Fong
By the time the sun rose, the heater in the sequester room was working. Unlike the studio productions in Manhattan, this episode had a hard schedule and a larger crew. Filming would end when the sun went down. The production crew had to fight a tight schedule, a new set, loud airplanes and emergency vehicles, and the possible chance of rain. Whenever a siren was heard, filming stopped. A falling tree branch, a plane and or visible crews stopped the tapping.
A woman walked in and asked us to hand over the knives we had brought from home. She labeled our names on individual cookie sheet pans lined with a towel and laid our knives on top. We were asked our glove size. Tom’s big hands were going to be problematic.
Then the sound guys came in. Everyone is dressed in black and had badges with Chopped logos on them. Little batteries packs were hooked in our waists and microphones taped to the inside of our coats, lined with a good luck shirt underneath. Each device was labeled for a particular chef so they knew who was talking.
I wore my Ricky Henderson Oakland A’s shirt underneath. Leslie wore a t-shirt that had a cartoon okra in front. When I noticed the okra, she made a risqué joke about okra being both hard and slimy. I laughed and shook my head. Leslie was cool.
Two production people walked in and introduced themselves. They talked about what was going to happen and asked us to listen to Sean, the producer who managed the filming. Harry asked a few nervous questions about when we would see the set, worried that the pyrotechnics people hadn’t set up the grills and smokers properly. He also worried that he wouldn’t have all of the necessary tools he’d need for cooking. I figured if something was missing, it’d be missing for all of us.
On a bathroom break, the assistant escorted me 30 feet to the next building. I glimpsed to my left and saw Ted Allen standing handsomely looking at us. He smiled and I thought, “He’s even better looking in real life”. And he was nice enough to smile back at Leslie and myself. I tried to exhale and relax, realizing that this was starting to feel real.
When the set, the cameras and the sound crew were ready, we were called out. The culinary producer guided us around the set. She was very experienced but still gave off a nervous energy. We were given a few minutes to walk around the set and look at our pantry items. Spices were on a rack on the left. Refrigerated dairy and meats were on the farm truck on the right. Grains, oils, vinegars, wines were on the left truck. Blenders and mixers were behind the truck on the other side. A WSM smoker was in the back. A Weber genesis propane grill was behind the cooking counter and a Weber charcoal grill to the left of the propane grill.
Sean, the producer and the person really in charge, asked us to approach our cooking counter. I stood in front of it and someone had to tell me that I was standing between the counter and the camera. I was blocking their view of the cook area with my backside. I walked around the other side embarrassed. I had no natural skills for television.
We march in single file with Tom leading, then Leslie, then me and then Harry. That meant, Harry would be to my left during the competition. I felt a little relieved to have Harry by my side. We walked across the path and hid behind the corner of the bathrooms.
Another assistant held us in place until Sean asked for Tom. We were advised to look as energetic as possible as we entered and turned the corner. I nodded my sleep-deprived 47-year-old head, thinking “Energetic, right.” Tom walked out and then came back and walked out again. We kept doing this until the shot was acceptable. Cameras followed us out, floating through the air. I ran onto the set because that’s what I always do at an awards ceremony; I run because I am grateful. And I was grateful because I made it onto a show when others who wanted it more, didn’t. So I smiled and shined, accepting my opportunity or fate.
After 20 minutes of shooting our entrance onto the set, we finally stood at our stations with the judges to our right, and a crowd of 40 people behind what seemed like almost a dozen cameras. My eyes moved from camera to camera, from person to person and my head swirled. Was it really necessary to have this many people? Harry said there were another 40 people elsewhere! What had I gotten myself into?