Chefs Chop Away At Hunger

Voters in the presidential election decided Barack Obama would run the United States for another four years. But that same night on the Food Network, another decision was under consideration: Which chef who works for a nonprofit made the best use of cauliflower and cola in their venison entrée?

Chopped, hosted by former Queer Eye for the Straight Guy star Ted Allen, features four contestants who are challenged to cook a three-course meal that is judged by a panel of celebrity chefs. The catch is that the competitors must include ingredients from a “mystery basket.” The ingredients rarely mesh in an obvious way, and include something as mundane as apples to something more exotic. One episode included goat brains as an ingredient.

“If your dish doesn’t cut it, then you will be chopped.” That’s the blunt explanation Allen gives the four contestants before the cooking begins. Don’t worry, there’s no violence involved: Being “chopped” simply means you are eliminated from the competition.

The competitors are usually chefs of restaurants from around the country, but the episode that ran on Election Day and re-run in January, “Unsung Heroes,” featured four chefs working the kitchens of nonprofits.

Keith Lucas represented MANNA in Philadelphia, Pa.; also from Philadelphia was Linda Miles, a Philabundance volunteer. Tony Biggs joined from Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadia, based in New Orleans, La. Grace Lichaa, with the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB) in Washington, D.C., was the eventual winner.

“I thought it would be fun, but also people think hunger is not in their communities. This was a great way to show that it is,” said Lichaa. “We serve a very rich metro area and people don’t think hunger is local.”

Cooking a meal with ingredients you don’t know until the basket is opened is a lot of pressure, Lucas said, but the overall experience was great. “The people there treated you well, tried to make it as pleasant as possible.”

For this episode, the contestants had to make do with the following ingredients in each of the three rounds:

  • Appetizer: Bangers, apple chips, asparagus, and chocolate-covered almonds.
  • Entrée: Venison tenderloin, hamantaschen, cola, and cauliflower.
  • Dessert: Marshmallow spread, balsamic vinegar, ancho chiles, and almond butter cookies.

The dessert round pitted Chef Lichaa against Chef Lucas. Lichaa won the contest despite not plating the chocolate almonds in the appetizer round. While forgetting an item is not an automatic disqualification, the dish has to be fairly outstanding to not go on the chopping block. In this case, the judges told her that her appetizer was the best salad ever prepared on the show. That, along with her dessert – a Spicy Mexican Chocolate Tart Crumble that the judges said was a little heavy but very creative – helped her claim the prize. She received $10,000, and said show producers told her she could choose between keeping the money or donating it directly to CAFB. “I’m still paying off student loans” from pursuing her masters of public health degree, said Lichaa, so she kept the prize money.

Lucas was ultimately done-in by an entrée (Grilled Tenderloin with Potato Stew) that was too dry and a dessert (Berries Romanoff with Balsamic Chile Reduction) that was judged too simplistic. Judges also said the reduction was too thick and bitter.

Part of the challenge of “Chopped” is not only cooking with ingredients that might be unknown to the contestant, but also making meals for judges whose job is to examine every little detail of your dish, from taste to creativity. In this episode, the judges were chefs Alex Guarnaschelli, owner of the restaurants Butter and Darby in New York City, Chris Santos, owner of restaurant The Stanton Social in New York City, and Scott Conant founder of the Scarpetta restaurants.

Cooking for the celebrity chefs was more difficult than instructing at Philabundance, said Miles. “The students want your knowledge and they’re not critical of your knowledge,” she said. “Whereas with the celebrity chefs, they’re judging you, and it’s harder to cook for someone who’s judging you, especially when you don’t have time to plan.”

Lichaa, on the other hand, thought planning the menu each day for the kids that Capital Area Food Bank serves was more challenging. “With the kids, you have all these specific components. You have to make sure (the meal is) healthy and make sure they like it,” said Lichaa. “When you’re cooking for people in that (show) environment, you’re not worried about health, just if it meets the judges’ requirements.” Lichaa is the meal planner for CAFB’s Kids Café, a program that provides after-school snacks and dinners to kids in the D.C. area at risk of hunger.

Lucas agreed with Lichaa, saying preparing about 5,000 meals per day with a small staff at MANNA was harder than cooking for three judges. “If you make a soup, you have to make 120 gallons of it, so there’s a lot of production,” he said.

Cooking for the judges was also difficult, but in a different way. “It’s people high up in the industry. They give you mystery ingredients, and you have to make something that looks good, tastes good, and doing it in 20 or 30 minutes with no idea what the ingredients are was pretty tough,” said Lucas.

Food Network declined to comment regarding the casting process, motivation for running a nonprofit-centric episode, or ratings for Chopped. Biggs has moved to Asia since the episode was taped and could not be reached for comment.

It was tough to tell just how effective the chefs’ appearances were as awareness vehicles for their organizations. “There was nothing that was significant,” said Mike Daly, corporate relations and media manager for Lucas’s organization, MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance), referring to increases in donations, web traffic or volunteers. Second Harvest did not see any appreciable jumps in donations or web traffic since the episode either, according to spokeswoman Terri Kaup.

Lichaa said, “We’ve had more people who are interested, had volunteers come through because of (the show), donations, a lot of different types of awareness.” And, Philabundance had 865 unique visitors to its website on the night the episode first aired, a 156 percent increase compared to Nov. 6, 2011, when there were 338 unique visitors. Philabundance public relations coordinator Lindsay Bues said Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall the prior weekend, and a call to action regarding a food shortage might also have contributed to the jump in traffic. Bues said there was no jump in traffic after the show re-aired.

MANNA’s executive chef Lucas said after the episode aired in November and January, he received phone calls and emails from people interested in MANNA. “People want to know about the website, and people made donations because they saw the show and liked our mission,” he said, but added “it wasn’t a huge spike” in traffic or donations.

Miles, a volunteer instructor with the Pennsylvania nonprofit Philabundance, said she went on the show to draw awareness to the organization. “My main reason (for going on Chopped) was Philabundance,” she said. “I wanted people to see what they’re about because I believe in the organization.” Miles, who said she has volunteered all her life, characterized Philabundance as “one of the best programs I worked with.” Philabundance trains low- or no-income adults in culinary arts in a 14-week program, for which Miles serves as an instructor.

There is one thing Lichaa, Lucas and Miles can agree on: They get to use their skills in the kitchen to make a difference outside of it. Miles, in addition to being a volunteer helping to train people to get better jobs, owns a catering business where she can “help grieving families.” Lichaa said she started in the restaurant business, and although she liked it, “I wanted to help people,” she said. “I saw the need for food education and providing access to healthier foods. I’m working specifically to increase access to healthy foods,” said Lichaa.

Though Lucas fell into the nonprofit sector by answering a blind ad that turned out to be for MANNA, he’s stayed with the organization for 13 years, eventually becoming its executive chef. “You actually go to work and use your craft to help people,” he said. “That’s a really big deal for me.”  NPT