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You experienced some serious jitters in that first round. How were you able to recoup and keep going?
The judges were like, “You just need to cook food. That’s all you need to do.” So in the next round, I just looked at that basket as food. And it was easy.
The next basket had yak steaks, mangosteens, mustard greens, and dried shrimp. How did that dish come together for you?
They were all pretty straightforward ingredients. In my head, it all just kind of worked. You know, I’m on the line every day making sure food is cooked properly. So I was determined to keep a clear head and just make a really good dish.
It was actually a really well received dish. Have you ever made it again, since the show aired? What about any of the other dishes you made?
No, but on the show I had a lot of ingredients I was unfamiliar with, like red quinoa and amaranth. I’d never used that stuff before, but now I like to bring it into the restaurant. We change the menu every week, and we have a lot of opportunity to play around with different things. I’m the kind of guy that when I’m not good at something, I like to make sure that eventually, I will be.
I have to believe that the majority of chefs on the show are a whole lot more talented and creative than they tend to come across. Do you think this kind of show can accurately represent a chef and their skill?
There’s no way that it could represent any chef positively and accurately, I would think. Sometimes it takes me three days to make a sauce, or two days to cook a protein. I think the chefs that do best are actually the one’s that have less creative minds. And they keep it so simple, but it works. Especially chefs of a higher caliber, everything they do takes time. So if you have 30 minutes, making a dish the way you’d want it is almost impossible.
How were you feeling, going into dessert? Is making sweets something you’re at all comfortable with?
I’m very involved with desserts and always have been. I think it’s just about expressing yourself in a different way in the kitchen. So I was very confident. Especially since I’m familiar with desserts, and know that a lot of chefs aren’t.
I understand you proposed to your girlfriend right after the show. What led you to make the plunge?
Proposing was already in my mind because we’d been together for five years and have known each other our whole lives. But with Chopped, it was perfect, because all my friends and family were already together, so we went to a bar. And since Chopped was all about me, I figured it was the perfect time to make it all about her.
So what did you end up doing with that 10,000 you won?
I paid off my credit card debt and went to Costa Rica, and some of it went towards the engagement ring. After that, there wasn’t much left.
So, Chopped Champions. Were you able to size up your competition? How confident were you feeling going in?
I was feeling comfortable with the fact I knew the kitchen, and how the stove worked, and where some stuff was. And I had plenty of time to watch the show. So I was feeling much more confident than I was the first time around.
You had Zakarian as a judge again, plus Amanda Freitag and Alex Guarnaschelli. How’d you feel about that lineup?
Yeah, Freitag seems pretty nice and smart. I think the judge I was most scared of was Alex Guernaschelli. When she’s sitting there and has her ten minutes, she looks down at the food and plays with it, and looks at you, and looks back down at the food, and looks at you — all with this blank expression on her face. It’s like she’s trying to drive something out of you. And she did with me. I’m just like, “Ok, you’re right, it sucks.” But that’s not actually what she’s after at all, it’s just her way of thinking.
You killed it in the first round with some rather wonky ingredients. How do you marry pigs ears and apple strudel?
On Chopped it’s usually playing it safe to make a salad, but I wanted to create something more composed. When I saw the apple strudel, I thought croutons. When I saw the pigs ear, I knew it had to be crispy. And there were ramps…I knew charring them would be a good element on the plate. But it’s for 50,000, so it can’t just be any salad. I compressed a cucumber, I made sure the pigs ear was super crispy. I took some honey and the bitterness from the honey actually tuned down the sweetness of the apple strudel. I had a pretty clear head, and the reaction from the judges made it seem like it was the best dish of the round.
You were pretty upfront about your dissatisfaction with your second dish. Do you think that had anything to do with your being Chopped?
Maybe. A little bit. Maybe if I had stood behind my dish. But I shouldn’t have put that almond paste on the plate, and I should’ve added some greens, and I would’ve cut the abalone a little thinner and spent some more time on my knife work. Abalone was a tough one…I expected fish heads or brains. Anything. But abalone is so hard to cook the way I cook food, with so little time. It was not happy with my dish at all. One part was kind of American/Italian, and one part was Chinese/Japanese. It wasn’t cohesive. I knew I was going to go home.
Any other cooking competitions in your future? We hear that Top Chef is auditioning in Brooklyn!
I do have a couple, but I just can’t talk about them right now.
For more info, visit vinsonpetrillo.com