RANDOLPH, NJ- A few years ago, on a recommendation from a friend, I was approached by a talent agency out of NY to test for an upcoming show where they have 3 catering chefs compete to create an ultimate event. The show was delayed in taping, so they asked if I would be interested in competing on CHOPPED. To be honest, I had never really seen the show, so I asked them to give me time to see what the show was about and I would get back to them. I watched and thought, “Ah, this should be easy. Ok, I’ll do it.”
Flash forward to a cool morning in September at 5am while I was waiting in a diner in Queens, NY right near the film site. Here I met the competition: a young aspiring chef, a chef from a culinary school and a private chef who owns a baby food company; all of them very nice people, well trained and creative.
We’re all talking a little with an associate from the production company while waiting to go over to the studio. It was funny; I realized everyone was looking at each other to figure the others out. Now understand, I just found out that I had stage 4 CLL, so I was a little tired and sick from chemo treatment the night before and was only thinking about not getting knocked out in the first round, so my focus wasn’t where I wanted it to be. Finally at 5:50 am, they called and we walked over. Here we go…
We entered the studio and it still didn’t seem real. They asked us to remove our cell phones and personal items and place them in a private room. Then they brought us to the sequester room, where later we realized was the holding pen for us during judgment time and became our holding cell to get to know each other on an entirely new level.
Trying to make the most of a strange moment of quiet time, I began the conversation by asking questions. One of the contestants made a comment about not being able to use all of the knives this person brought and only one side towel given. I said “no worries, ill share mine”… that’s when this person turned and said “Um, no, I wont need any of your help or anyone’s for that matter.” My response was “Meow!,” which I think annoyed this person, but the others laughed at least.
They gave us our chef jackets and said wait here (no, we were not allowed to keep them). They came back into the cell and said its time to have a quick look at the studio and walked us in to point out where things were. The associate producer and producer came back and discussed the process of the competition and said “the next time you see us it will be time to go.”
“Ok Chefs, time to go;” It was as if we were going to the chair. The tension was more than I anticipated it to be; it just became real and only 3 people stood in my way of winning $10,000 and the title of Food Network’s CHOPPED Champion. I was the last one on line when they lined us up. It was so quiet you could hear the electric current in the studio light bulbs.
An associate stood inside the door to the competition and said “Chef Eric, please make sure you close the door behind you, but don’t slam it.” Of course me being a joker I said, “Well that’s no fun, I love to make an impact!” He said “Good luck and the next time any of you see me that’s because you have been ‘chopped’ and I will see you as you exit down the stairs”, I laughed and got a creepy grim reaper vibe….and out the door we went.
With no concept of time, we walked into an illuminated studio with over 30 camera crew members. The Host, Ted Alen and the judges sat at the ‘Table of Death’, otherwise known as “The Chopping Block”. The judges were introduced and Ted went through the rules of the competition. The only thing I heard was “Blah blah blah and you will be chopped”. That got my attention! The next thing I heard was Ted say, “Chefs, open your baskets and let’s look at what your mystery ingredients are.”He told us what they were as we extracted them from the basket. Then he said those little words of encouragement, “Chefs, you have 20 minutes to complete your appetizers. Your time begins now”…..no time to think, just time to cook!
Now, watching the show and competing are two very different things. For one, 20 minutes is all you get, you cut your finger, you have to clear your counter and start all over again. 20 minutes seemed like a long time watching on TV, but 20 minutes in an unfamiliar kitchen with unfamiliar layouts and unfamiliar surroundings, well, it was just like catering. Controlled chaos is what we do, so it was the perfect environment for me. It wasn’t easy at all, but it was a pure rush.
I was on the far side nearest the judges, which was a disadvantage as the pantry was further away, but it was an advantage since I had closer interaction with the judges, who though were tough on me, were amazing people and I am now friends with one of them.
One of the challenges for me was trying not to run over the camera guys! I was polite, but actually knocked one to the side, poor little guy. Another challenge was not having a corkscrew, but I hope they will show how I solved that problem. It was the first time I used this method and, no, I didn’t push it in with my steel…they got a kick out of it.
After time was up (which felt like 5 minutes), we had to stare at our dishes for the camera to tape us looking at our dishes as an added effect (that was a test of will because I wanted to do some things a little differently). Then, we walked around the work stations and stood in front of the judges to explain our dishes.
The day was done at 9:45pm so it was a long day, since you only cook for the time on the clock. The rest is pre and post round conversations, judge discussion and exit interviews. The timing that people do not realize is that after each chef presents you go back to the cell. They tape the judges comments, then you all go back, the next chef explains their dish and you go back to the cell, come out and then they ask you questions and beat your dish up. The process is long and drawn out.
The strangest thing must have been the “stare downs”. It was the most uncomfortable silence ever. If you know me, you know I have a very twisted sense of humor. As the camera passes behind the judges during the “CHOPPED” moment, you have to stare at each judge as they stare at you, harder than anything not to laugh, smile or make a stupid face to break the tension. When the cameras stopped filming for a moment, all I could do was burst out laughing like a schoolgirl.
After they finished smacking you and your dish around they sent us back to the cell so the judges could discuss your dish and figure out who they would chop first. So we all went back in the cell and started talking, I was feeling pretty good, not great because everyone had their issues, but pretty good. I kept thinking, “If I can just make it out of the first round, I would feel like I accomplished something”…They came back in and said, “We are ready for judgment Chef.”
If I didn’t feel the adrenaline before and during the competition, I sure did then. We walked the walk of death and lined up…Ted said, “Four of you have started this competition. The judges have reached their decision and someone must be chopped.” Ted had his hand on the lid of the chopped dish and it took four takes (the only thing that was shot over and over again) before he finally revealed who it was….. After a very long day, and two more rounds I was blessed to be chosen the "Chopped Champion."
Eric LeVine is Chef/Partner at Morris Tap & Grill in Randolph and Paragon Tap & Table in Clark