I’m a “Chopped” aficionado. I adore this Food Network show, hosted by Ted Allen of “Queer Eye” fame, which pits four chefs against each other and the clock. It’s just plain fun to watch the competitors sweat, bleed (cut fingers), and struggle with concepts, ingredients and equipment. Woe be to the chef who underseasons or overcooks or fails to get a basket ingredient on the plate before the clock runs out. I’ve been watching cooking shows since Julia Child days, and “Chopped” has taught me the most: how to scope out what’s in the pantry and fridge and put it together fast and fearlessly.
The other day I found myself in Queens, NY, at lunchtime and remembered a recent episode in which a handsome young chef from a Greek restaurant in Astoria had to prepare his “unforgettable appetizer course” using Manila clams, kumquats and croissants. Alas, the judges found his salad too busy and too sweet, and he was chopped in the first round. “Imagine you’re on a Greek island,” was his answer to the critique. “We’re not,” retorted judge Chris Santos.
If Pete was good enough to get on the show, I figured, his restaurant would be more than good enough for my lunch. I googled “Astoria Greek Chopped” on my phone and—envisioning a whole lamb turning on a spit, the juicy slices carved and served with orzo and lemony potatoes—got directions to Ovelia Psistaria Greek Grill House on 30th Avenue and 34th Street.
Ovelia is an airy corner café with no lamb on spit, but with lots of glass and outdoor tables with umbrellas. I sat at the bar, where Erica, the attractive barista, recommended the Tiropita Toast Sandwich—grilled chicken on homemade feta bread with a side of Greek salad. Just as I was digging in, Chef Pete Giannakas came up from the kitchen and agreed to a short interview.
“So,” I asked him, “are the ingredients in the basket really a surprise?”
“Do they show you around the kitchen? Nobody seems to know where the pantry ingredients are or how to use the equipment.”
“They give you a five-minute tour and you’re on your own.”
“Cruel. And do you really have only 20 minutes to make that appetizer?”
His little smile told me that an unqualified ‘yes’ was not the answer to that question.
“I don’t want to get into trouble by violating the confidentiality agreement I signed,” he said. “Reality TV is produced. They shoot everything from every angle and do a lot of quick cutting.”
“Do they stop the clock to get a shot?”
“Well, they asked me to put more honey on my salad so they could shoot it from another angle, and then they chopped me because they said it was too sweet.”
“Do you think the show is fixed?”
“Not at all, but they might know who they’d like to win.”
“Hmm. Do you think they try to exaggerate the personality characteristics of each chef: the bad boy, the dancing girl, the one who throws pots and pans on the floor, the arrogant one who criticizes other contestants?”
“I wish it was more about the food and less about personality.”
“How long does the whole process take?”
“If you go all the way through to dessert, more than 12 hours. You get there at 7 in the morning and might not leave until 8 or 9 at night. There’s half an hour between the time you finish a dish and it goes in front of the judges. By that time it’s cold and everything is wilted.”
“No wonder the contestants sweat so much.”
And with that Chef Pete and I shook hands. He went back to the kitchen to continue prepping dinner and I went back to my sandwich. If I were a judge, how would I rate it? The feta bread was unusual and delicious, but the grilled chicken was dry and the tomato wedges were unacceptable: pinkish-white and hard as a rock. Would Pete be chopped? Yes (unless another contestant put something even more egregious on my plate). When I pointed out the unacceptable tomato, his reply was that the sous-chef in the back had apparently pulled the wrong one out of the crate. I guess that’s one of the pitfalls of having to delegate…
That was not the case at dinner that evening. It was my birthday, and my husband took me to Chopped judge Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster Harlem, where I ate one of the best restaurant meals of my life. My first course of roasted corn bisque garnished with crayfish was sublime. I won’t ask how much butter and cream was in there. And the Berbere roast chicken was perfectly tender and juicy and the spice-rubbed skin extraordinarily crispy. Well, that’s what separates the great chefs from the rest of us. The place was hoppin’. Loud and crazy, filled with live Latin music and very decorative and happy people, all having wonderful food and a wonderful time.
Marcus was there, launching his new memoir, Yes, Chef, and he graciously signed my book. I’m enjoying following his journey from Ethiopian orphan to Swedish adoptee to James Beard-award-winning chef and Chopped All-Stars champion who recently beat out all the other judges. The book feels too real to have been ghost-written, and he’s as good at writing as he is at cooking: smart, honest, evocative. Right now, I’m in the chapter where he’s learning how to make that divine chicken in his grandmother’s kitchen.
A Chopped contestant. A Chopped judge. What about trying out myself? The Food Network is looking for contestants in the “amateur” and “mom” categories. A little box on the website asks, “Are you a talented chef with the skills to triumph on the Chopping Block? We want to hear all about you.” I just might fill in that questionnaire and see what happens. Would my 20-minute appetizer course have to include eel, artichokes, packaged chicken-noodle soup and peppermint patties? What happens to me couldn’t be worse than what happened to Chef Pete, could it?