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.
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