Chopped Star Power: Exclusive Interview with the Grand Champion
In this star-studded Chopped Star Power tournament, 16 stars from the web, sports, comedy and Hollywood competed over four preliminary rounds, but only four advanced to the grand finale. Returning winners Jodi Lyn O'Keefe, Jonathan Sadowski, Paige VanZant and Lazarus Lynch came back to the competition with the hopes of winning the title and $50,000 for charity. After cooking through three rounds of mystery baskets, one star emerged the brightest.
Appetizer: lobster tails, leaf lettuce iceberg, star fruit, cinnamon toaster pastries
Entree: yucca chips, bitter melon, brandy, swineapple
Dessert: macarons, soursop, drinkable yogurt, pistachios
Judges: Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli, Geoffrey Zakarian
Lazarus Lynch earned himself the Chopped champion title and $50,000 for his charity, 4H, by expertly cooking his way through all three rounds and presenting successful dishes. In the appetizer round, he impressed the judges with his elegant poached lobster over salad greens. In the entree round, Lazarus transformed the swineapple into a barbecue stew with the bitter melon, which the judges loved. And for his dessert, Lazarus baked a soursop skillet cake with caramel sauce that the judges appreciated. Hear what he winner had to say about the competition below.
Lazarus Lynch: I'm feeling so thrilled. There are really no words to describe how I feel about winning today. This has been a really long journey. I remember first applying to Chopped when I was in high school and didn't get called back. I applied again and I didn't get called back. Finally, I got called back to come, and not only did I win once, but I won the grand championship. That's huge.
How would you compare competing in this round to the first one you did?
LL: The stakes were certainly higher in the grand champion finale compared to the first competition. In the first competition, I feel like I just got my mojo juices running and flowing, but in the second one I knew what to expect, but I also knew that the stakes were higher, and I knew that I really had to deliver. This was certainly a harder battle and challenge to face.
What was your mindset like this morning? Did you have a winning mentality or did you have some nerves going on?
LL: Let's just say this morning I couldn't hold down breakfast. I was incredibly nervous. The hardest thing about Chopped, I think, is not knowing what those ingredients are. You can cook all your life, I've been cooking for a long time — relative to how old I am — and it still throws you for a loop. The idea of not knowing, not being in control of the direction of your dish is, I think, so scary and so this morning I was so excited to come back — don't get me wrong — very excited to come back, but also extremely nervous as to what would happen today.
In the appetizer round, you admitted you're not really good with salad, or at least you're not really into making them. What made you go in that direction?
LL: I came to Chopped saying, "I will not make a salad," because when you think about a salad, it's basic. … Personally, I don't enjoy salads all that much, because they don't wow me in any way. Today I think I delivered the salad in a way that wowed the judges, but it really was just highlighting simple ingredients and vegetables. The direction I chose for the appetizer round, I think, highlighted my sophistication as a chef and as a food thinker. I get to share my thoughts about food with the world every single day, and I get to embrace ingredients and all that they stand for. … The approach was take ingredients that have bold flavors, lock them really tightly and sophisticatedly into a salad and serve it, and it worked.
You got some really great comments on it. Alex even called it a sleeper dish, that you kind of set the standard. Did that help with your confidence in the following rounds, and did you feel like you had to deliver even more?
LL: The more praise those judges gave me, the more pressure was applied to the whole situation. It was nice to hear the judges talk about the fact that they loved the salad so much. You're talking about Iron Chefs up there and really, really respected chefs talking about my salad that way. When I get a compliment like that, it is certainly humbling. I cook a lot for a lot of different people, and some people are not experts in food, but they just love my food, so to hear those kind of accolades is really special to me. I think I'm going to pin Alex's comment on a wall. I think I'm going to frame her comment so every time someone says, if it ever happens, anytime anyone ever says that I can't cook, I'll remember what Alex Guarnaschelli told me today. It's going on my wall.
In the entree round, you ended putting the potatoes into a blender and pureeing them, and they turned gluey. Did you foresee that happening?
LL: What's really funny about competing is that sometimes, right before you do an action, the chef instinct in you will say, "Don't do that. That's wrong." But because of the pressure of trying to not make a mistake and abide within the time limit, you end up ignoring that natural instinct, and it's almost like good angel/bad angel. Before I put those potatoes into the blender, I already knew I was making a huge mistake. First of all, yucca is gummy and it's got a texture that's like cassava almost, and to put that into a blender — you just don't do it. The other thing I did, which I knew was wrong, was I took some cooking spray and put it on a cast-iron. Outside of the competition, if I was sitting at home watching this, I would say, "What in the world is that person doing?" Use real butter. Use a food mill. These are all things I know, but for some reason the pressure of competing here at Chopped just takes all that culinary education, throws it out the window. So, yeah I've made some mistakes today. Not proud of them. But the judges didn't really tell me something I didn't know, so that was hard.
I think it was Geoffrey who said he'd like to have a pork chop, he felt like your stew was more like a sauce — not really the center of the plate. Did you ever think that something was missing or that you could have done more in the entree round?
LL: To be honest with you, I thought the entire dish rose to a different level. I'm used to having time to develop recipes and think through it, but given the time and where I was in my head at the time, that was what I thought was my best, but I agree with Geoffrey. There should have been another element like a chicken seared off really nicely or a nice piece of pork or duck or something to bring that whole thing together, but I really do like the barbecue flavor I got out of that. It reminded me of eating a pulled pork taco in Memphis, Tennessee where there's such good barbecue, but the sugar and the vinegar I added and the little kick of spice that wasn't too overwhelming, I think it worked really well.
Do you think you'll have infinite bragging rights after winning this?
LL: To be honest with you, I'm really humbled by this. It's not something I'm going to brag about, but in the back of my mind it reinforces the principle that I live by which is I can do anything I put my mind to. I know it's really cliché, but my whole strategy has been nothing but come in here, do your best, give it your all, and that's what's brought me this far. That and my faith. So, this is not a bragging right, this is more of a, I faced something that was really challenging that I thought – I don't know how I'm really going to do – and what this does is it opens up the door for other people who are watching – specifically for my fans – people who have obstacles in their lives, a family issue or even a culinary task, it brings them to a point where they feel that they could do it. That is the ultimate bragging right.
After this do you think you'll want to do something different like follow your dream to become a restaurant chef or will you continue to do more web videos?
LL: I don't really live in a space where I have a dream to be a restaurant chef or a dream to forever be an internet star. It's really whatever my heart feels called to do. It's always worked. I know I'm never competing again. I will guarantee you that. … It was a great time. It was a thrilling experience. I think you should try everything once. I certainly enjoy what I do now, but I don't really know what the future holds. I definitely know that I want to get back into the kitchen. Competing on Chopped reinforces that I want to get back into the restaurant world and cook on the line, because that is some brutal stuff. That's really brutal, and if you can handle that pressure, you can handle Chopped.