One-on-One with the Chopped: Impossible, Part 2 Winner
In this new Impossible tournament, Chopped is switching up the format: Chefs will compete in three preliminary rounds for a chance to earn a spot in the finale, where the champion will get the opportunity to compete against Robert Irvine in a wild-card round. Just for getting there, the champion will pocket $15,000, but upon beating Robert, he or she will win an additional $25,000, for a total of $40,000.
On tonight's episode, four very accomplished chefs who've competed successfully on Chopped before will return to take on the most-impossible mystery baskets, but only competitor will earn a spot in the finale for an opportunity to get to Robert.
Appetizer: prosciutto, dried olives, green gelatin, salted duck
Entree: chicken in a can, sweet lemons, corn cob jelly, crawfish tails
Dessert: an ostrich egg, balsamic vinegar, meat lover's sub sandwich, chunky peanut butter
Judges: Geoffrey Zakarian, Maneet Chauhan, Robert Irvine
Ballpark Chef James came into the competition ready to take on the impossible, but when it came to facing the baskets, he found the ingredients far more unexpected than he imagined. But no matter what, he didn't let Robert's mind games get to him. Although James might have been intimidated, he did a good job of hiding it. For his appetizer he created a green eggs-and-ham-inspired frittata that got mixed reactions. His entree dish fared better, but the judges called him out for not connecting the chicken and the crawfish. By the dessert round James had found his stride, and although he faced off against a formidable competitor, Nong, he managed to create a dessert that showcased his knowledge of technique. In the end, James made it through without getting chopped, earning the second spot in the finale for a chance to go up against Robert on Nov. 12.
How does it feel to be back on Chopped for your second time?
James Major: It's good to be back. I really had a good time the first time. I had a good time this time, so it's great to be back.
Do you feel there was something different about this competition for you?
JM: Yeah, you know, there was some different stuff today. ... I don't know if I was tired or what, but [with] ... the first two baskets, there was just some kind of a disconnect. I guess I was used to having something that connected. In the last episode, there was something that tied one ingredient to another ingredient. Once I realized that I have to change my mindset, that's [when] I think I kicked it really hard [in the] dessert round.
JM: [The] dessert round was my strongest round today. ... I did notice it was going to be really close, so ... I just couldn't do a cake. I needed to do a cake; I needed to do an ice cream. I needed to really show that I want to be here and really execute it.
You mentioned that you had trouble in the appetizer round. What threw you off?
JM: The two judges ... I knew [Robert] was going to be tough. I knew he was going to try and get in our heads, but the other two judges, I've never seen them. I've watched the show, and they're always tough, so maybe that got me a little nervous. ... [In] that first round, all I kept thinking when ... the dome was on the plate was: "Please, not me this time. There's so much more. There's more fire."
How did you come up with the concept of the green eggs and duck?
JM: When I write menus, I always tell my staff and my students to kind of have fun with it — be whimsical. Food's not serious; it's fun. So when I was thinking of it, I kept thinking Green Eggs and Ham. I knew that the duck would be a little saltier, so that's when I said, "Well, let's kind of name it something fun." That backfired. They didn't seem to like that, so I think that might [have] ... rattled me a little bit, too, because usually when I write a menu, you know, [like] Steak Me Out to the Ball Game, things like that, people dig it. I was a little nervous at that point. I think that's when it hit me that, you know, kitschy is not going to get it with these guys.
Geoffrey seemed to be the most hard on you with that dish, but Robert defended it a bit, saying that he liked it. What was going through your mind when you were hearing these divergent comments?
JM: What's going through your mind is: “Am I going home? Am I going home? Am I going home? They don't like it. They don't like it.” I mean, Geoffrey was tough today. ... I've seen them tough, but he was tough. ... Like I said, I knew Robert was going to try and get ... into my head, but, you know, Geoffrey was really tough, and I've got tell you, it made me a nervous wreck.
With your entree, at one point you said that maybe you could have not used the chicken meat. Do you think you had regrets on that dish at all?
JM: That would be the regret, is the chicken meat. If I would have just used a little bit more of that liquid, made a little bit more of a thinner, more of a grittier kind of thing, put that in and then maybe drizzled that sauce on top, I would have had a complete dish. ... If you notice in [the] dessert round, I used [only a few] of the ingredients from that sub that I wanted to use, and that was it. So I think that's where you kind of saw that transformation of my plan.
You had trouble finding the grits, so you decided to use lentils instead?
JM: I did. I couldn't find grits. I couldn't find cornmeal, and, you know, you're mind's racing during this, [and] you know Robert just yelled at us. I mean, who yells at anybody anymore nowadays, you know? But he, like, yelled at us, and then I couldn't find it. I said, "You know, I've done the lentil thing before." I thought it would be cool, [and] I thought they might appreciate it. At least ... I thought [the judges] would have said, “Wow, look at this guy take lentils and make something really cool out of it.”
JM: She loved it. ... She said she was going to take it from me, which was kind of nice, you know. I'd just like to hear that from another chef, you know.
After the dessert round, you told the judges that you left it all on the table (and you said earlier, too, that you felt it was your strongest round), but you got really emotional then. Can you talk about how you were feeling in that final round?
JM: I think, because I knew it was so close, and I knew that [the judges had] been pushing us all day, and ... I think it was my adrenaline, and I was just so amped up, and everything was firing on all cylinders. I felt great, you know. ... As a father ... and a husband ... I see my wife and my kids, I mean the whole time I'm cooking, I see that. You know, that's my, like, light at the end of the tunnel. ... I had a couple shaky rounds, because I really wasn't sure how to play it, so ... I wanted to leave it all out there.
Robert commented that as he saw the chefs progressing through the day that you all got better with each round, maybe finding the key to unlock the mystery baskets. Do you think you did the baskets justice?
JM: I think I did. ... Robert hasn't worked behind the table yet, and ... it always looks easier [to] anybody that sits at home. "Oh, that's easy. I can do that. I can do that." ... He's only going to step behind the table once. ... By the time I meet him, I'll have been behind that table eight [rounds], and it doesn't get any easier. So, you know, would I have done something differently? ... Once you're going in a certain direction, you go with it and hope that your dish is not the worst of the three. And that's all you do, you know. It's: "Don't criticize a man until you walked a mile in his shoes."
JM: I said it at the panel, and I'll say it again. I'm not really thinking about him right now. I have two more rounds I have to get through to get to him. ... I'm not really going to think about it. At this point, I don't have to see him again until that last round anyway. So, you know, I don't really have a strategy for him. I just need to cook better than him.
What are some of your strengths that you think would help you beat Robert?
JM: Drive. Ambition. Creativity. Positive. Happy. I mean, I'm a happy guy. That seems to be the joke ... this is a nice guy. You can't ever put a mean face on him, and that's it. I'm just going to kill everybody with kindness. I've done it my whole life. The only thing I'm going to say is, if he pokes the bear enough, you're going to see the claws.
What would you do with the prize money if you won?
JM: It's all about the family, you know. It's all about that, and ... hopefully I [will] be able to give some money to a couple [of] charities that I really hold dear ... to my heart.
Tune in next week to find out who earns the next spot in the Chopped: Impossible finale for a chance to beat Robert for up to $40,000.