One-on-One with the Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay, Part 3 Champion
In the new Chopped tournament, 12 former Chopped champions are getting the chance to go up against Bobby Flay in battle. In every round, four chefs compete to earn a spot in the finale, at the end of which one single champion will get the opportunity of a lifetime, to cook head-to-head against a Food Network great. With $40,000 on the line, the stakes are high, the pressure is on and the cooks are ready to show what they've got. In Part 3, chefs Aarthi Sampath, Kathy Fang, Matt Romine and Mike Romine cooked for their lives, but only one earned the win and the last spot in the tournament's finale.
Appetizer: kale chips, gazpacho, mac and cheese-stuffed lobster, zucchini (Bobby's choice)
Entree: currants, egg-stuffed muffins, rainbow chard, goat leg (Bobby's choice)
Dessert: Turkish cotton candy, chokladkolasnittar, the ultimate milkshake, dates (Bobby's choice)
Judges: Aarón Sánchez, Alex Guarnaschelli, Bobby Flay
Kathy came into the competition nervous about having renowned chef Bobby Flay watching her cook, let alone judging her, but she soon found her composure. From the appetizer basket she made lobster cakes that the judges found delicate; the only negative was her choice of red apple in her slaw. The entree round basket surprised every chef with goat's leg, Bobby's choice of ingredient for its gaminess. It wasn't something Kathy had worked with before, but she reached into her Chinese roots and created a star anise-spiced stew with polenta she made from corn muffins. Bobby thought the move was genius, but he found some whole spices in his stew. Going into the dessert round, seeing her opponent making ice cream, Kathy decided she'd go an unexpected route and make a no-bake cheesecake, which had Bobby worried. The judges loved the flavor and texture Kathy created, but dinged her on burying the dates (Bobby’s choice) in the bottom of the ramekin. Deliberating on both chefs' courses, the judges felt Kathy worked the baskets the best. Kathy walks out a Chopped Champion, having earned the opportunity to cook in the finale. There she'll go up against Part 1 winner Demetrio Zavala and Part 2 winner Seis Kamimura. But she'll have to get through both of them if she wants to battle Bobby.
Kathy Fang: It feels amazing. Adrenaline is very high for me out here, but it’s just very exciting.
How different is it competing this time around, with the stakes being so much higher?
KF: You’d think that you would walk in the second time to compete and it would be a little easier because you’ve done it before, but I actually feel like there’s even more stress, because the stakes are higher and the journey is a little longer as well, and now you’ve got this celebrity chef at the end that you might get an opportunity to come head-to-head with.
Do you think that having competed here twice puts you at a better advantage, since Bobby hasn’t competed on Chopped before?
KF: I definitely think that having competed on Chopped twice would give me a great advantage when it comes to going head-to-head with Bobby, since he hasn’t been in the arena, and everything’s different the second you step on.
How hard were the baskets for you today? Was there any one particular ingredient or basket combination that threw you for a loop?
KF: I would say the goat probably threw me for a loop the most today, simply because I’ve never cooked with goat before. It’s really not a common ingredient in Asian cuisine at all, but I kind of stuck with my roots in creating a stew with some Asian flavors and treating it like beef brisket, which is a common Hong Kong dish from home. That was the most challenging for me, and I would also say that dessert started off as being something that was kind of challenging for me as well, just because I don’t personally like things that are too sweet and the mystery ingredients were all very sweet, so I had to find a way to balance that out.
With your dessert, Alex commented that it sort of reminded her of a breakfast, like a parfait. Is that something you were going for? Something on that lighter end?
KF: Yeah, so with the dessert, as I mentioned, things that are overly sweet, for me it’s too much for me to handle, so I wanted to counter the sweetness of the dates and the cookies with the acid in the Greek yogurt with that milkshake that was overly sweet. So, it was my take on doing a very light cheesecake, essentially, and then whipping those raspberries in there just brought more freshness to it.
What would you say was the dish you were most proud of?
KF: I would say the dish that I was most proud of was the first dish that I created today, simply because I felt like I really utilized that mac and cheese, which was probably the worst part of that basket; something that is old and really not tasty at all, but I turned it into something that was light and delicate. Along with the lobster and the use of the zucchini as being just a raw salad, I think … it’s a perfect dish that showcases how I truly can cook.
In that dish, Alex pointed out that she didn’t agree with your choice of apple, and she was sort of on the fence about it being a little sweet, and your use of the gazpacho was something else they critiqued. Was there any other concept you had going for that dish?
KF: So actually, with the apple choice, the first thing I grabbed was the green apple, because I knew it would be more tart and in just 20 seconds in my mind I was like, "Oh, well, you know the red apple colorwise would pop more, and I think that was clearly a small mistake. If I just went with my gut, which was the green apple that was tart, that would have been perfect. But, you know, I second-guessed myself and I said, "Hey, let me go for the red," simply because of that color, and I thought more about plating than I did about the actual flavor of that apple.
How did you come up with that really unique corn polenta made out of the muffins in the entree basket?
KF: In my mind I was just thinking that corn makes me think of polenta, and I think a great way to have a stew is to have some sort of vessel to eat it with. For us sometimes that means porridge, and that means polenta in some cases, so I thought that was the perfect translation of taking something that’s kind of dry and hydrating it into something that’s creamy that would be perfect for a stew. It’s kind of like [a] comfort meal.
Bobby pointed out something interesting: that your stew was Chinese-influenced, but then the porridge polenta was Southern. Did that ever cross your mind that it would be something they would critique?
KF: You know, not really, because in my mind I just thought “comfort meal,” and those are two comforting elements. I didn’t think too much of, "Oh, Asian and Southern flavors," although now when I think about it, my husband’s from the South, so maybe his influence is starting to seep into the way that I cook.
What would you say has been your biggest struggle today, whether it was time, ingredients or plating?
KF: I think my biggest struggle was, honestly, plating in the second and the third rounds, just because the second round I actually wanted a nice big bowl. That’s something that’s really common in Asian dishes. We have all these different sizes of bowls. It would have been a really nice presentation. I couldn’t find something like that, and polenta just doesn’t look so good on a flat plate. Same thing with the dessert. I think all the elements were good, but the dates and the cookies got lost because it was all the way in the bottom of that small vessel when I probably should have either layered extra layers of it in between or found something that was a little bit more shallow. I think all the ideas were great for each of the dishes; it was just that final execution on how to plate and pull it together that kind of faltered a little bit, but you still got all the flavors.
Do you have any strategy going into the finale? You’ll have possibly have the chance to face Bobby. How do you plan to beat him?
KF: My strategy for beating Bobby is honestly to just stick with the food that I cook and find the most-creative way to take these mystery ingredients and fusing it into dishes that I would serve at my own restaurant, because that’s my strong suit; that’s who I am as a chef. If I can cook my food but use those mystery ingredients in the appropriate ways, hands down I will beat Bobby.
Do you think you’ll be digging deeper into your background more in this next round? I know that the judges mentioned they didn’t see as much Chinese influence as they had hoped for.
KF: I’m definitely going to be reminiscing and thinking about stuff that I grew up eating — you know, dishes that my parents used to cook for me all the time when I was younger, even stuff that my grandparents would cook for me. Just bring it back to simplicity, comfort meals, things that kind of drove me into food in the first place.
KF: I would say that I’m very well-versed in Asian cuisine and Chinese cooking, so I have this one specialty that I’m just really good at, and if I focus on that, I think that would be pretty hard to beat. Obviously, Bobby also has his forte, but being in a new arena, doing Chopped and all that, I really think I would have the leg up if I got to cook the food that I really am good at and grew up eating.
If you do win, what do you plan to do with the prize money?
KF: If I win, I plan to use a huge portion of that money to plan a family vacation where I would take my parents all over China and go discover all these different food cities in China and explore our roots. It’s something that we’ve never been able to do all together as one family. I think that would be a trip of a lifetime for us, and it makes sense. Something that my parents taught me, I used that, and now I was able to make this money with it, and then I’m going to treat them to this trip where it ties it all back to food again.
Tune in for the finale of the Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay tournament next Thursday at 9|8c, and find out which chef will ultimately cook against Bobby.