I was surprised how fast a casting associate from Food Network contacted me after I submitted my online application. We chatted briefly on the phone, and I was careful not to say, “You can’t cook barbecue in 30 minutes!” which was my big blunder in 2012. Due to the time zone difference between LA and NY where my casting producer was based, I did my 10-minute Skype interview one morning at work on my cell phone. It was not the best video and sound, but I guess it was good enough to get past the first round of audition.
About 2 minutes into my interview, I mentioned how my fiancé Donna was also a Grand Champion pitmaster and the 2012 Oakland Grand Champion. She was very interested in learning about Donna so I described how we lived 400 miles apart, LA for me and Alameda for her, and how we battled each other on weekends as two separate BBQ teams. Our friends and fellow pitmasters take delight in our fierce competitive spirit and often “bet” that Donna will beat Harry. Since I’m a gentleman, I always give Donna first-call during awards to call “winner” or “loser”. So if she calls loser and I win that day, I’ll buy dinner. If she calls winner and I lose, then I buy dinner. To make it interesting and to up the ante, we sometimes also dress up for contests such as at the 70’s themed Rub Stock contest near Sacramento.
After a couple of more interviews and email exchanges, we were lucky to be 2 out of 16 contestants chosen in a nationwide search. Hurray! Unfortunately, the euphoria lasted about 15 seconds before panic set in. Both of us are not professional cooks so we don’t have formal culinary training nor decades of restaurant cooking experience. Were we going to make total fools of ourselves? The IT nerd from LA suffering a breakdown on the set and the molecular biologist from Alameda tripped up by mystery ingredients?
After a short period of self-doubt, I decided winning Chopped Grill Masters would allow me to help the two charities I support: Operation Homefront and Save The Children. I suspect Donna was motivated to show her daughter that she had the chutzpah to take me down. Besides, if Donna beat Harry, imagine how many years the stain of losing to Donna would permeate our household when we get married? There was no way I was going to be beat by Donna on the show! So, I embarked on an intensive 16-week training regimen that would have made Rocky proud! I’ll share my training regimen in the next installment of this blog.
The Chopped Grill Masters Journey, Part 2
By Donna Fong, Butchers Daughter BBQ
I was away on a business trip when I was scheduled for my Chopped Grill Masters Skype interview. I propped up my smart phone on top of a pile of dusty VHS tapes in a small room. I looked down before the interview and realized that I looked like a middle-aged secretary. I was wearing a conservative blouse and unremarkable glasses. They’re never going to go for this, I thought. I tried to act excited even though I was jet-lagged. I tried to act like a grilling expert though I didn’t own a charcoal grill and was a true grilling novice. And I struggled to memorize the list of things they wanted me to say in front of the camera.
“Hi, my name is Donna Fong. I’m 47 years old and I’m a trained scientist. I currently work as a technical writer for Lockheed Martin.” Then I had to say something about how I was going to win Chopped Grill Masters, which I never believed. The list of sheepish exaggerations that I uttered that day seemed endless.
I returned to Diamond Bar, reporting that I underwent the interview but did poorly. As fate would have it, we were both accepted to the show. My heart filled with dread. It would be taped somewhere outside of New York. It would be the second in the Chopped Grill Masters series. April in New York sounded cold. Having lived in Boston for six years, I knew the weather might be iffy.
Realizing that we were both merely home cooks and that we’d likely be pitted against professional chefs, Harry and I began a rigorous 3-month self-training program. We filled spreadsheets, watched YouTube videos, read cookbooks, and spent our free moments in the kitchen or down the aisle of foreign grocery stores.
Harry practiced to win. I practiced to avoid humiliation. I had watched competitors cut their fingers, burn their food, forget basket ingredients, picked food up from the floor, or drop a hair onto a plate. Every scenario seemed like a plausible outcome in my future.