Executive Chef, Valbella
I'm Colombian but people don't know it. I was born there but moved here at eight months old. I grew up speaking Spanish and had a hard time communicating. People are like, “Dude, you're the whitest Spanish person we know." My parent's people are from Spain. I have 12 brothers and sisters, and I have brothers going into their 80s. I just love to cook. It's my profession, hobby and passion. I've traveled around the U.S. and was a chef in California at a ski resort and worked at a drag-queen restaurant in Miami. My culinary background is all French. I do northern Italian, but I put a lot of French into it. I've found that no two chefs cook alike, and I don't mind sharing my tricks; it's just food, not a cure for a disease. I tell my chefs at Valbella to have fun. I’ve worked with such anal chefs that scream — they’re crazy! I’m just trying to make a living, pay my mortgages and help my kids out. My friends call me the pretty chef because I have NO burns or cuts. I shock them. People say, "Mo, you have the prettiest hands for a chef." I don’t get these people — you’re proud that your hands are cut and burned? It’s not a trophy. It’s a mistake! I would never let my kids into my business. But I’m addicted to it. My wife was a pastry chef when I fell in love with her, but now she’s a school teacher. My ultimate goal is to open my own outside truck, like one of those Mexican trucks with really refined food. The food can be made cheaper, and I can charge a regular price. I would name the truck after my kids, M and E, and locate it down on Wall Street. I'm told my food is beautiful, and I believe it can be done without the high price. I trained with Brendan Walsh at Arizona 206 in Manhattan and did 15 weeks at Le Bernadin, but a lot I've taught myself. I was afraid to ask because I didn't want to feel stupid. My best experience came with John Tesar in the Hamptons. He wouldn't explain, he'd say, "Just do it, Mo!" I feel I was born to cook; it's natural to me. I do my work out of pure pleasure, but most importantly, I do it for my children.
Line Cook, The Modern
I’ve been training since I was 14, traveling since I was 18, and I haven’t settled down yet. I’m looking for that perfect destination, and I made a guarantee to a former chef: "I will work in four or five top-class restaurants before I make the move to sous chef, and I'll stay in each for a minimum of 18 months." I’m in my last one now. I did San Francisco, 11 Madison Park, Blantyre for three–and-a-half years and six months in France. I’ve got eight more months to go, and then I’m actively searching for the next position. The message is you need to work in a number of good restaurants and learn from each individual one before you make that jump. Two restaurants are only going to give you a style. Different restaurants will give you the ability to merge and create your own diverse style. I’ve studied California and classical cuisines and souvide cooking, which is cooking in a bag — a very good way to cook meat and fish (makes them almost like butter). And I studied molecular gastronomy at the Modern. This added another dimension and aspect to my cooking that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. I’ve seen so many different ingredients, and actually one of the things that gets me excited about Chopped is I have seen so many things; for example, umebochi. We used it in a foie gras at 11 Madison Park. I know how to cook meat in a pan, sear and poach fish and braise because I’ve spent these years learning all the skills of the trade. It gives me such an advantage toward any other cook. I started in a tiny pizza place in my hometown, Lennox, Mass., called Salerno’s. The kitchen is the environment that gives me such joy. You create what people need: something delicious that’s also memorable. The thing that hooked me initially was the absolute intensity. I’m physically addicted to being in kitchen. All you wanna do is go work, but when I'm alone, I don't cook. My girlfriend and I, when we’re together, cook once in a while, but it's New York City, we want to try other restaurants. I think I can win this competition because improvising is what you always have to do in a kitchen. It’s almost like ballet dancing: You want to be able to dance around the kitchen without using too much effort.
Pastry Chef, Toqueville
I'm basically the head pastry chef at Toqueville, and we make our own breads, butters, petit fours, etc. Normally I work six days a week and long hours. I grew up in Surrey, England, and worked in London for two years. I spent all my time in the city, but Manhattan is even better. It's always non-stop, which suits me; I'm still young enough for the moment. As a chef you work long hours and in London the subway stops at 11 p.m. and bars close at 11:30 p.m. So living in Manhattan is a major change for me. My girlfriend, a fashion designer, came over first and then asked me to join her. We live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I cycle in over the bridge every day. I began cooking because when it was cold I couldn't go outside, so I'd help my mum and dad in the kitchen. There was no sitting still or getting bored. I did a four-year modern apprenticeship, which means you do one day at college and then five days in a kitchen. I was in a five-star country hotel near where I lived. The first two years you move around; you do meat, fish, garnish, garde manger and then another year of pastry. I’m doing pastry now because Toqueville needed it. I started out in the main kitchen and then they found out I’ve done pastry and put me there. Pastry is extremely disciplined. There are no shortcuts like there are in the main kitchen. I really like knowing everything that’s going on in the kitchen. Hopefully when I’m head chef somewhere I’ll be able to look at every area and know everything. I want my own place, somewhere in New York. I’d like a small place, nothing too big. Start off small and try to be a little bit different. I’d like to do it in the next two years. I don’t want to say I’ve got a passion for food because everybody says that, and I hate it. Eating is a daily need, so to make something basic, like chicken soup, really satisfies me. Also, nothing is ever the same in the culinary world. There are always new ingredients to use and a different way to prepare a meal. I think I can win Chopped because I know all areas of the kitchen. I've worked at a lot of great places, and I can pretty much make something out of anything.
WINNER!: Jessica Mogardo
Currently staging at various restaurants in NYC
I left Florida for New York to find a permanent position, and Manhattan is definitely the place to prove yourself. I grew up on Cape Cod in a really small town and went to Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. It just seemed like the school had their stuff together, and I wanted to be close to home. I went to school with the mindset that I would do pastry, but I wanted a culinary background, too. I was going be a sous chef at a hotel in Louisiana, and then they needed a pastry sous chef. That job turned into four years. I’m obsessed with food and all things food. I love to read about it, and I’m as interested in the savory side as I am in pastry. I had two working parents. My dad’s a high school principal, and my mom’s in advertising and marketing. My dad’s mother had her own catering and bake shop, so I think I inherited my love of baking from her. I started my first job at 13, cooking at a beach concession stand on the Cape. I was making nachos, hot dogs and hamburgers and was paid cash under the table. I got the job because my dad knew somebody, even though I was underage. I was baking at home and baked all through high school. One of my friend’s parents had a bakery, and I was the baker there. I was so excited the first time I made a beurre blanc; oh my god, I just thought it was the most amazing thing. Currently I'm staging to learn some different skills and see how a kitchen works, but I’ve opened eight restaurants. To me it’s a lot easier to take a raw space and make it your own than to go into something that’s already been there. You create it and train somebody to take it over. It doesn’t matter what the concept is because you’re teaching other people to think on their feet. You have to delegate all the time, and that gives other people a chance to prove themselves. They will become assets in another company. It perpetuates the cycle. I think a pastry chef can do well on Chopped; in fact, it would be abysmal if a pastry chef lost in the third round. I don't know if I'm doing anything seriously groundbreaking, but a lot of what I do has savory inflections. I’m somewhat competitive by nature, having a team-sport athletic background. This is completely random and fulfills my competitive nature, and I think I have an aptitude for it. It’s certainly fun to watch.