Traveling Food Consultant/Gluten-Free Chef
New York and Toronto
The name Sunshine is actually on my birth certificate: Nicole Sunshine Best. I grew up in foster care, from the age of 3 to 11, and lived with families of different backgrounds. I was dragged into the kitchen at an early age, but had no interest in cooking at the time; however, it came in handy later. I eventually went to Toronto to live with my grandparents, and the multicultural vibe of the city had a huge influence on my culinary background. I went from seeing fried chicken and sandwiches in the lunch room at school to roti, sushi, nana and chapattis at home and in the city. I went to culinary school at George Brown — it was addictive and so cool, and I became more mindful of what I ate. After suffering some health issues, I studied non-wheat based cuisines in South America and Africa. I thought there had to be an alternative to gluten-free food, which is horrible. I challenged myself to make gluten-free dishes that taste great and are made with natural ingredients. Today I teach gluten-free cooking expos and classes all over the world. My goal is to get people to eat Indian food at least once a week. I think I can win this competition because timelines don't really bother me. I can be creative on the fly and maintain my reputation as a chef.
Chef/Owner, Dosi Café
Staten Island, N.Y.
My love of cooking started in childhood making raviolis with my mother and grandmother. A lot of people in my extended family are chefs and bakers, so maybe it's in my genetic code. One of my downfalls in life is I love eating, but as Ferdinand Point said, "Don't trust a skinny chef." I'm a man with an appetite for food, travel and everything. My restaurant is Mediterranean, but it's basically whatever I want to cook. I have a base menu of staples, but I go to the market every morning, which makes it easier to keep prices down and give the best value for the buck. It's Italian-inspired, but I use curries, some Israeli ingredients and also some German fare. I purchase, prep, cook and sell every food item in the restaurant, and I'm also the main force in the wine program — we have a lot of local wines. I went to culinary school back in the mid-'90s before it was cool to be a chef. When Food Network launched, chefs started writing these beautiful cookbooks and the profession become popular. I'm a focused, determined and hard-working chef, which is why I think I can win. I've worked with some of the best in the business, including Todd English, chef for Robert Redford at Sundance. There's nothing you're going to tell or challenge me with that will be a surprise. I've catered for the Olympics, and I've had to work without water, some days without gas, and I did it. If it's cooking, nobody can beat me. Food is a lifestyle for me.
WINNER!: Mario Fernandez
Private Chef/Owner, Can Cook Cuisines
In my job I come to your home and do anything from a family-style dinner to special occasions, which can be a seven-course tasting menu with a wine pairing. Before I started doing this, I was the chef de cuisine at the Plaza Hotel's Oak Room. I realized I didn't want to be in a restaurant environment, and I had this business in Hawaii previously, so I decided to keep developing this idea and do it in New York. I have a fine-dining background, having worked at two Michelin-rated restaurants in San Francisco, one as the executive sous chef. But I love the freedom of owning a business and like the challenge of going to different spaces and environments. I have the flexibility to be more creative with the menu — the parameters are much broader as a personal chef. It's all about the "staycations" right now, so business is good. It's a small niche I fill — call me a high-end personal chef. It all started with my parents, who are big-time foodies. I grew up outside of Napa, and my folks created this environment where food was a big thing in our house. I was like a sous chef in many ways. Dad and I would watch the local Chinese channel in San Francisco, and Iron Chef before it was ever heard of in New York. Two weeks after high school, I went to culinary school. From the age of 18 to 29, I traveled across America. Other than San Francisco, where I'm from, and Hawaii, I've lived in Spain and Virginia. I'm passionate about experiencing other cultures and cooking. But New York is perfect for me because it embodies all cuisines and cooking styles. I think I can win this competition because of many reasons, but mainly because of my travel experience, culinary background and the fact that I'm comfortable with crazy ingredients. I just want to show people what I can do and be the Chopped champion!
Instructor, Institute of Culinary Education (ICE)
I've been working with students and corporate clients for 12 years, and being at ICE you must have incredible technique, more than most chefs — sick technique. Before ICE, I worked as a chef in various high-end New York restaurants, like Savoy. I started teaching as a break because I was burned out, and I thought I'd do it for a couple of years then realized it's where I belong. I do a radio show on food and cooking called Why We Cook, and I talk about everything: culinary history, food science and the origins of things. I concentrate on specific ingredients, techniques and how food and culture interplay. Wit is in my DNA, and so is sarcasm — big doses of benign sarcasm. Life's too short to be too serious and not laugh as much as possible. I love food. I love studying it. At an academic level, I know more than most chefs. I'm an idiot savant and absorb endless tidbits of knowledge. I'm constantly reading food books, magazines and websites. I have no idea what year the Civil War started, but I know what they ate. I like the constant motion and mental and physical nature of cooking. I tried working in an office for a while, and I wanted to tie myself to the copier and hurl it out the window. I'm an impulsive cook, not a planner. Spontaneity is good, and especially so for mystery ingredients. I like to cook what's around me. I'm more of a basic cook than the elaborate kind. I love to share my passion; for example, I'm helping to start a culinary hospitality training center in Vietnam for homeless children. I'm writing the curriculum for the program, and travel there several times a year to work in the kitchen and train the staff. I think I can become a Chopped champion because I have knowledge of food, and from teaching all these years, as I mentioned earlier, I have superb technique. You can't throw an ingredient my way that would scare me. Add my technique and I'm unstoppable.