One-on-One with the Chopped Champions, Battle 1 Winner

Get the exclusive interview with the Battle 1 winner of Chopped Champions, Season 5.
Show: Chopped

From left, judges Aaron Sanchez, Maneet Chauhan and Marc Murphy and host Ted Allen face chefs Meny Vaknin and Elderoy Arendse following the dessert round, as seen on Food Network's Chopped, Season 28.

Photo by: Jason DeCrow ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Jason DeCrow, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Tonight the Champions tournament returned for Season 5 with four previous Chopped champs battling it out for a coveted spot in the finale. There the winners of all four preliminary rounds will compete one last time for a chance to walk away with $50,000. In Battle 1, two very worthy chefs made it to the dessert round, and both put out strong desserts, but it was the sum of all three courses — appetizer, entree and dessert — that would determine who'd take the first finale spot. Find out who managed to sweep this preliminary battle with the best dishes.

The Baskets

Appetizer: soft pretzels, green romano beans, papaya, pig ears

Entree: grouper, frilly mustard greens, bread cheese, a beer flight

Dessert: curry cooking sauce, Lady apples, coconut brittle, baby artichokes

Elimination Details
First round: Stacey Givens
Second round: Daniel Sharp
Final round: Elderoy Arendse
Winner: Meny Vaknin

Judges: Aarón Sánchez, Maneet Chauhan, Marc Murphy

Chef Meny Vaknin reacts after winning and advancing to the grand finale, as seen on Food Network's Chopped, Season 28.

Photo by: Jason DeCrow ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Jason DeCrow, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Cooking with his familiar Mediterranean flavors, along with beautiful plating and clear creativity, sealed Chef Meny's fate as the winner of the first battle. The appetizer round may have been a tossup when all the chefs made salads with fried pig ears and pretzel croutons, however, Meny's rendition was well-received. His entree of grouper with beer fumé and herb salad also struck the right chord with the judges, even though they felt the bread cheese didn't have a place in the dish. The dessert pizza Meny came up with on the fly proved his creativity under pressure, and the judges praised him for highlighting the basket ingredients' full potential. Meny, once again, became a Chopped champion and earned a spot in the tournament's April 26 finale.

How do you feel after winning this first battle?

Meny Vaknin: I feel so good right now. I feel so accomplished.

How would you compare this to the last time you appeared on Chopped?

MV: Well, this one was truly, truly challenging. It was so inspiringly challenging. It was hard work. It was like, you got to work for that win. You know, [the] last one ... [felt] a lot lighter. I don’t know. I [felt] like I kind of walked through it. This one feels like I [had] to earn it, and I did.

Thinking of the three baskets today, which one was the most difficult for you?

MV: Even though the ingredients were so weird in the dessert one ... I had a harder time on the ... appetizer. It was [a] bunch of ingredients I [didn't] really know, I don’t really use, one of which I’ve never eaten before, and it threw me off.

The judges really liked the hummus you created in that round. Do you think that going with a Mediterranean style helped you find the connection between the ingredients and put them together?

MV: Yeah, because this is what I do well ... and I feel like in order for me to succeed in something, whatever it is ... it’s bringing it into my world. ... I still kept it twisted a little bit, but if I bring part of my world into that, then it will be successful. So, that was the hummus part of it.

When it came to the entree dish, the judges mentioned the sweet potato was something that they've seen from you before. What made you think about using that ingredient again?

MV: It’s something I love in an entree instead of a starch, and they did like that part of it was grilled, and it was inside the broth, and I felt like that’s what I needed to do. ... I feel like overall they liked the dish — the way it came together. But, yes, somehow I used sweet potatoes again ... but it [worked] because it was in different preparation; it tasted better. I felt like it was a better dish than last time because it was also fish in the last competition in the main course.

I think the cheese was the only thing they really didn't like.

MV: Yeah, that cheese was tough. It was uncooperative. ... I didn’t know what to do with it.

You burned it the first time around. Did you think, "Well, maybe I should try something new"? What made you try grilling it again?

MV: I felt like I threw it on the grill a little too early. I still wanted it grilled; I wanted that texture. I wanted the flavor. So I felt like, let me wait and put it there again and toward the end. Then I left it for a little too long again. You know, it was a tough one, but it had to be on the plate, so it ended up on the plate, however. So, as long as it’s on the plate, you know, it can be good or bad eventually, but it was on the plate.

Chef Meny Vaknin cooks with curry cooking sauce, lady apples, coconut brittle and artichokes during the dessert round, as seen on Food Network's Chopped, Season 28.

Photo by: Jason DeCrow ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Jason DeCrow, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Maneet thought you did very well creativity-wise with your dessert. How did you come up with the pizza concept when looking at those ingredients? I don't think most chefs would have seen that.

MV: I had to really push it to really showcase something, you know, a sense of creativity, flavor. ... I felt like, if I ... show a technique, you know, if I showed that I [took] a risk, because working with pizza dough is not easy, especially not in a short period of time like that. So I just had to put all the elements together. You know, I needed the risk, I needed the flavor, I needed the creativity, and the pizza dough was just ready, proofed, you know, easy to work with ... and I just love pizza, I just do. You know, I think it can be sweet, savory. It just works out.

How would you characterize that dish? Would you say it was one of your best ones?

MV: Yeah, I feel like it was the most-composed one. It was the most-thoughtful one, and it made it through the way I wanted.

When it came to the final chopping, and you saw that Elderoy's dish was under the cloche and not yours, what was going through your mind?

MV: Well, I was just overwhelmingly happy, relieved and ... I was just like, OK, I deserve it. Now I can, you know, enjoy it.

What’s your strategy going into the finale?

MV: I feel like ... I should prioritize things throughout the dishes a little bit better, you know, as far as the preparation. I feel like I should stick a little bit more to my Mediterranean flavors, just like they mentioned, to bring that truth, you know, out. And I’m just going to give my best, you know, I’m just going to do it — do what I do.

What would winning the competition mean to you?

MV: Financially ... it would be great. Again, like the third time is the charm, you know, it’s a beautiful charm, ... it’s a lot of validation, ... it’s a lot of self-satisfaction, a lot of being able to remind myself why I’m doing it the way I’m doing it, and keep doing it every day, because it’s not easy.

What would you do with the prize money?

MV: I’m definitely 100 percent going to take my wife to a little tiny getaway, whatever it is ... whatever we can squeeze in within, you know, the restaurant schedule and the family and all that, but that’s the first thing I’m doing. It’s done.

Tune in Tuesday at 10|9c for Battle 2 of the Chopped Champions tournament.

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