Get Ready to Compete

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Thinking about auditioning for a reality TV cooking show? This former Le Cordon Bleu instructor, cancer survivor and ‘Chopped’ winner says go for it!

The episode was themed around “survivors” who had experienced the 9/11 tragedy, carbon monoxide poisoning or—in my case—cancer. They seemed to be looking for people with an interesting story or an outgoing personality.

The audition started with a phone interview with show producers. After I was selected a few months later, I received a stipend to travel from Los Angeles to New York for the competition.

Once all the contestants arrived, they spent some time attaching microphones and fitting us into chef jackets. They took us on a quick tour of the kitchen, and that’s about it. They didn’t do any hair or makeup, and we didn’t even keep the jackets after the show. They did spend a lot of time, however, determining camera angles and lighting.

I realized that you can’t practice for shows like this because you don’t know what will be in your mystery basket. When you open it up, you have about five seconds to see everything. And I should mention that the time frames are real. If they say they’re giving us 20 minutes to create an appetizer, it really is 20 minutes; so when you see stressed-out people, it’s authentic.

My greatest fear was public shame. I didn’t want to be the first contestant to be sent home. In the first round, the judges were critical about my knife skills, and I thought, “My students will never let me live that down.” (I was making a dish where the size of onions wasn’t important, but then I decided to change directions!) I laughed about it with my students later on. It was a good lesson to learn.

What else did I learn? Don’t be defensive, and don’t argue with the judges. You have to be receptive and listen a lot. Viewers don’t see it at home, but the judges spend considerable time on each critique. They seemed to care and wanted to discuss your choices and process. I have a lot of respect for the judges; they were terrific.

While you might expect the competitors to be evil, the ones from my show were very nice, and everyone was willing to share ingredients. Perhaps it was because we were all “survivors.” I mean, we were competitive, but no one was nasty or unfriendly.

During the competition, it’s hard to stay calm. The suspense is brutal. When we’re facing the judges, our reactions are genuine. When contestants get “chopped,” they really do leave the show, and we never see them again.

I think I won because I’ve been cooking for a long time. My experience has created a flavor library in my mind, so when I was given horchata liqueur—which was very strong and sweet—I decided to add an acidic ingredient for balance. That comes from years of cooking.

When I won, I had a sense of disbelief. Honestly, when I saw my competitor’s last dish, I thought I’d lost. His dessert looked so good, but it didn’t taste good to the judges. You never know what will happen in these competitions.

Winning felt incredibly odd but very exciting. I wasn’t allowed to talk about the show before it aired. In the meantime, I received a check for $10,000. With that prize, I took a trip to Ireland with my mother. Throughout my illness, she took care of me, and I wanted to share this with her.

I encourage instructors and students to compete in similar opportunities, to push yourself professionally and personally. Go in thinking, “Let’s have some fun”—and it is incredibly fun. Why not go for it? You can’t let fear limit what you do.

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