Chatting with the Winner of the Chopped Ultimate Champions Tournament
Tonight one professional chef and three amateur cooks faced off in the finale of the first Chopped Ultimate Champions tournament, battling for the chance to win $50,000 and a brand-new car, the largest prize in the show's history. Amateur cook Keith Young, hero cook Diana Sabater and celebrity cook Laila Ali all had what it takes to beat professional chef Giorgio Rapicavoli, and, in fact, one of them did just that. FN Dish has the exclusive interview with the winner.
Appetizer: duck confit, orange-cream ice pops, ramps, risotto
Entree: pig's head, ajvar, vegetable steamed buns, Chinese broccoli
Dessert: corn muffin tops, whiskey, macadamia nuts, chocolate-covered gummy bears
Judges: Geoffrey Zakarian, Alex Guarnaschelli, Scott Conant
Diana and Giorgio cooked their way into the dessert round, in a final battle of professional experience versus practical experience. Although Giorgio's plates may have made it appear as if he was winning, it was Diana's flavors that put her in the lead. For her, cooking outside of her comfort zone proved to be a risk worth taking, as she demonstrated her knack for conjuring international flavors, which the judges couldn't stop talking about. Diana's much closer to making her dream of transitioning into the culinary world and owning a food truck come true, especially with $50,000 in hand to help her achieve her goals.
How do you feel in this moment? What's going through your mind?
Diana Sabater: Oh my God. This is surreal. I've never done anything like this before. I'm just, like, "Oh my God, I just beat 15 people in the competition and now I'm the Chopped Grand Champion." This is amazing. I'm so excited and I'm still processing the whole thing.
You mentioned you were intimidated in the beginning, in the appetizer round? What changed after that to help you gain more confidence?
DS: After the appetizer round I got to see how my other competitors cooked, so based on that, then I was able to plan in my head how I was going to get through the other rounds if I went on.
DS: I was probably the most proud of the appetizer, because I've never worked with duck confit and risotto before, so I wasn't sure. At first I was like, "Oh my God, what am I going to do with this?" Then it kind of came to me, and the good thing about it was that I was the only one who did something different from the other competitors, which surprised me. So I didn't ruin the products. I transformed them without taking away … the texture of it. I was happy with that. That was my favorite dish.
Why did you decide to go outside of your comfort zone of Latin cuisine?
DS: Well, because Alex had already sat through one of my competitions, so she kind of already knew how I cook, because the first time I competed on Chopped, everything was Latin-based. So because of that I wanted to push myself and do something outside of the box. This is, like, the grand finale of the tournament, so I wanted to go outside of my comfort zone and I wanted to impress the judges and, you know, to see just where that would take me. I think I made a good decision.
How was your mindset today? You looked really focused.
DS: I'm always like that. I'm always focused, thinking, planning. I've always been like that since I was a kid. So in a competition like this, of this magnitude … I just wanted to stay focused, to get past every round, because look who I was going up against: the champ, and then a professional chef? I really had to bring my game.
I saw you tasting a lot from your palm. Where did you learn that?
DS: My grandma. I used to see her do that all the time. Plus, I don't want to keep washing the spoons and cross-contaminating. It just a way to kind of get past that.
DS: She was a huge influence on me. I spent a lot of weekends with my grandma. I always remember her spending hours in the kitchen; she would have her bolero music playing, and I would hear her singing while she was cooking. And it was almost like a ritual for her. I could tell growing up that my grandmother loved to cook, especially traditional Puerto Rican food. So when I got older and I was able to convince her to let me in the kitchen, then I started asking questions: "Why does that taste like that?" The one important thing that she showed me about Puerto Rican cooking was how to make sofrito. She's like, "This is how you make sofrito. This is how you get the food to have this distinctive taste." That recipe I'm trying to make my own signature, and I'm trying to perfect that recipe, because that's going to be my secret seasoning sauce for my food truck.
Do you think any of the dishes you've made here will make your food truck menu?
DS: Oh, definitely. The fish tacos that I made, which helped me secure a spot in the finale, are something typical, a type of taco that I would have on my food truck.
DS: This win means that I am now on the level of professional. Not only that, I'm a three-time Chopped winner now. It means a big title, and that title is going to help me get the reputation I need stepping into the food industry as a chef with no formal culinary training.
What will your kids say when they found out you won?
DS: My kids are going to flip out. As it is, the first time around they were really proud of me. They said, "Mom, we're so proud of you. This is something that you've always wanted. We know you enjoy cooking." To this day they never stop bragging, like "My mom's a Chopped champion." Now it's like a really, really big deal. This is beyond anything that I could have ever imagined. So they're going to be so excited, they really are. I don't think they're going to give me a hard time when I put them to work on the food truck [laughs]. They're not going to give me a hard time.