As Chef de Cuisine at Prospect, the terrific new restaurant in Fort Greene, Vinson Petrillo doesn’t have much else to prove to Brooklyn’s food fans. As anyone that’s sat at the Chef’s Table can attest, he’s already adept at busting ass in the kitchen, keeping cool under pressure, and making occasionally oddball ingredients marry harmoniously on the plate (think Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Banana Walnut Cake, Blueberries, and Roasted Banana Sorbet…which is, incidentally, not a dessert).
So it’s a cool bit of trivia (if not a defining element) to know that he’s actually competed multiple times — and won — on the Food Network show, Chopped. You know, the one hosted by Ted Allen, where chefs go head to head in three rounds (appetizer, entrée, dessert), trying to make the best possible dishes with mystery basket ingredients like cinnamon schnapps, unshelled chickpeas, and pygmy marmoset testicles. In fact, he swept the competition twice, securing a spot in the Grand Champions finale, where he was eventually bested by a hard-to-clean abalone and an unfortunate smear of almond paste.
We spoke with the chef and Chopped Champion about killing the competition with pigs ears, how and where he spent all of his initial prize money, and why judge Alex Guarnaschelli is actually just as intimidating as she seems.
I understand you’d never seen the show Chopped before. So what made you decide to audition?
A friend of a friend was part of the casting crew. We were talking about food, and he told me I should try out. I think the show was still pretty new at that time. I actually went in to audition on my birthday. It was my first time ever being on camera.
What did the audition process entail?
I just answered a bunch of questions, took a bunch of pictures. They called me back seven months later and were like, “Hey, just so you know, you’re going to be on the show in a couple of weeks.”
So there was no actual cooking involved in the audition?
Nope. I guess they were just looking for personalities. Which I kind of feel like I lack a little bit.
How did you prep going into the show? Can you go in with some idea of dishes that you can easily swap mystery basket ingredients into, or is it better to just enter with an entirely open mind?
I still hadn’t watched the show, because I didn’t have cable at the time. But I pretty much understood the concept. I looked it up on the internet. I just kind of went in with an open mind, because I wasn’t sure how real it was going to be. But it’s real. You open up that basket and you start cooking. How you prepare really depends on the person you are though. Most chefs have ideas going through their head at all times… every day you’re transforming ingredients into something else. For me, it was definitely better to go in with a clear head.
What eventually airs is a highly edited, hour-long show, but obviously, there’s a lot more that goes on than what we see. How long did taping last?
It’s one day, 18 hours. You get there at 5am, and they mic you up and get you ready. They try to get you to eat some food, but not many people can eat because they’re so nervous. Then you go into this room and do a little bit of “I am the best chef here” stuff for the camera. Then you do a quick walk-thru of the kitchen itself. They time you, and you get one minute to look at the pantry. Once the show starts, all you get is a preheated oven and a pot of boiling water. The stoves are really low-burning stoves.
What was eliminated from the eventual hour-long show that really surprised you?
The first time I was on the show, they really made it all about my Fibromyalgia and my anxiety. And they had four different concepts that they could have done. Like, there’s a bio day, and they come to your work. I had to bring my girlfriend that day, and I had to bring my dog, and we all went to the park. So they had lots of things they could have featured, but the Fibromyalgia was what they went with. So yeah, I was a little surprised.
What was your impression of the three judges, Conant, Samuelsson, and Zakarian? Not the most easygoing crew.
I had never seen the show before, but I had heard Scott Conant was kind of an asshole and that Marcus Samuellson was a pretty decent guy, and that Geoffrey Zakarian could go either way. Even though viewers only see about a minute, each judge has 10 minutes to talk to you. Once I went up with my first dish, everyone could tell I was not really happy with it. And they all pretty much said, “We know that you can do better. We know that you’re better than this.” They were all so supportive and great. And actually, out of all of them, Scott Conant was like, a fan of mine. He really helped me out the most, by showing confidence in me. It carried me through the second round, where they told me my dish was perfect.
So what went through your mind when you saw that first basket, with wax beans, mandarinquats, sardines, and rice cakes? How did you conceptualize a dish?
I don’t think I did. It was like in high school during a math test… when I looked at the paper, no matter how much I’d studied, I just kind of went blank. It was the same with the basket. I just tried to throw all the stuff on the plate, and it was poorly done. I really thought I was going home… and if that other contestant didn’t leave an ingredient off of her plate, I think I would have. I was just running around grabbing random things and cutting them up and then not using them.