One-on-One with the Chopped Grill Masters, Part 1 Winner
Last night Chopped headed to Napa for Season 3 of Chopped Grill Masters, the five-part grilling and barbecuing tournament. In each of the four preliminary rounds, four expert grillers, barbecuers and chefs from across the nation compete for four spots in the finale, where only one will win big. In this first part, four fierce competitors took up the challenge, but in each round, one chef got knocked out; in the end, only one remained, winning $10,000 and going on to the finale for a chance at an additional $50,000 in cold, hard cash. Hear from the Chopped Champion.
Appetizer: octopus, fruit pops, purple cauliflower, Italian sausage
Entree: veal chops, pickled smoked okra, watermelon radishes, nachos
Dessert: honey gelato cones, petimezi, pineapple, Anaheim chiles
Judges: Marc Murphy, Amanda Freitag, Michael Chiarello
Jonathon came into the competition as a mad scientist/creative genius chef from Cleveland, hoping to take home the win for his hometown — while doing cartwheels, no less! And he did just that with three dishes that showed off his way with food and his personality. For his appetizer dish, Jonathon was inspired to bring out the flavor of the sea in the octopus with a sweet and savory marinade. He also grilled his cauliflower over mesquite wood chips, however, the vegetable didn't cook all the way through. The judges liked his dish enough to keep him for the entree round. Despite the fact that the judges found Jonathon's entree, the Oaxacan Block Party, a bit on the small side, they did appreciate his flavors. Marc's biggest critique was that the veal did not have enough time to rest. Going into the dessert round under much pressure to succeed, Jonathon knew exactly which ingredients he wanted to make shine: the pineapple and the Anaheim chiles. His dessert was so well-received that the only comment was from Amanda, who wanted more of his "cannoli" cream. Jonathon survived the chopping block, and he won $10,000 and a spot in the finale, where he'll face the next three Chopped Champions for a chance to win an additional $50,000.
What did you think of the basket ingredients, and which basket would you say was the most difficult?
Jonathon Sawyer: I feel like the baskets today were very telling. ... As I opened them and looked inside, each one had a story and country that it wanted to tell the story of, which for me was very difficult. You know, my restaurants are based on narratives that we’re telling through our local ingredients, but with a country in mind, you know, whether it’s northern Italy in Trentino, whether it’s a Parisian bistro at The Greenhouse Tavern or a ramen-ya straight from Tokyo, but looking at the ingredients, I saw Israel, Turkey, Oaxaca, Spain. ... So, it was very hard to do what I’m very good at. I wasn’t able to do any Trentino food, I wasn’t able to do any Parisian food, I wasn’t able to do any ramen. So, I was very out of my comfort zone, and I was hoping that the stories I was telling felt genuine, because I was speaking for the ingredients.
JS: Honestly, the dish I’m most proud of is the dish I feel like the judges disliked the most. You know, when I pulled the dish together that was the Oaxacan Street Party ... I really felt like I had five phenomenal pieces of flavor on there. Each one, you know, complex, layered, seasoned to the max and astounding on its own. As I was thinking about, like, people that have failed or done ... competitions like this before, I [felt] I will be OK failing if I still am able to represent myself, and that dish may not be like the food we cook all the time, but it was compelling. ... It wasn’t, like, a scoop and then a protein or, like, a quenelle and then a protein. There was tons of flavors, and I knew I was opening myself up to criticism having seven different things on the plate, and it came back to hurt me.
Is there anything you wished you would have done differently?
JS: Yeah, I wish I would have thought of that Oaxacan Street Party differently. You know, I wish I would have plated that thing in a manner that wasn’t so pretentious. I felt like the judges saw it and they felt like they were in the middle of a tasting menu as opposed to at a street party. So, I definitely misjudged the entree portion of the contest. I should have constructed it a little bit more cleanly, allowed it to be more personal and less interesting.
JS: You know, 14 hours later, what did it mean to compete today? It was awesome to tell our story. You know, people around the world will know what The Greenhouse Tavern is and what Cleveland’s proud of, and I’m honored to be a part of it.
JS: My strategy going into the finale was going to be asking the chef judges three or four more questions, like, if I had plated more protein, would my entree have been the best dish that time? My strategy going forward is to continue to put bold flavors on the plate that speak for themselves — that compel people to think about whether they love or hate my dish. I think that I’m going to consider texture a little bit more and plating a little bit less.
If you win the $50,000, what would you do with the prize money?
JS: When I get to be the Chopped Grill Masters Champion, all the money will go to my kids, ensuring their fun, safe and interesting future through the education that they desire, albeit college, travel or anything. Whatever makes them happy is what I want them to do for their lives.
JS: My grilling philosophy is sort of out with the old, in with the new. You know, I think it’s so tired to just grill and put protein down. I think it’s much more interesting to use live fire as an ingredient as opposed to a cooking technique. Anyone can turn on this and put that on it, but when you start to think about it as a way to layer flavor, or as Michael said, accordion in flavor, that’s when you start to really understand the next level of grilling.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Chopped Grill Masters tournament, next Tuesday at 10|9c, to find out who earns the second spot in the finale.