Now two-time Chopped victors Chefs Vinson Petrillo, Rob Evans, Kenneth Johnson and Jun Tanaka are no strangers to the kitchen. They've successfully outcooked the chopping block before, but the competition has never been more intense than it is in this Grand Finale battle with fellow champions.
In their first-course baskets, the chefs find pig ears, ramps, pine nuts and apple strudel, an exceptionally sweet ingredient that will be challenging to incorporate alongside the other savory picks. Chef Kenneth gets to work washing the ramps, which he will feature in a vinaigrette atop an arugula salad with crispy pigs ears.
With just six minutes on the clock, Chef Rob preps homemade pasta dough to be made into what he calls "freeform ravioli to tie all the basket ingredients together." His fellow competitors and the judges alike are impressed with his decision to take on such a challenge with little time. "To see him creating pasta in this first round is quite unbelievable," Judge Amanda Freitag remarks.
Although he's struggled with nerves in the Chopped kitchen before, Chef Vinson is calm and confident during the first round of this battle. "Today feels different," he says. "It's about food. It's about determination." Here he's multitasking his appetizer preparation by sauteing honey-apple strudel croutons at the same time he drizzles olive oil into what will be a ramp pesto.
Judge Amanda applauds Chef Vinson's "creativity level" in making "pig candy," sweetened sauteed pigs' ears, though she notes that it's a bit too hard. But "the strudel is a little disappointing" to Judge Geoffrey Zakarian. "It wasn't crispy," he says. "It was not a crouton."
Before being called to the judges' table, the chefs take a moment to look at what they've completed in only 20 quick minutes and mentally pit their dishes against their competitors'. "I look over at Vinson's dish, and it's beautifully plated. That's the plate to beat," Chef Jun notes.
"I grew up eating Japanese food, so I'm excited that I can show a different side to my repertoire," Chef Jun says of his plans for the entree round. With such must-use entree ingredients as abalone, curry leaves, Serrano ham and amaranth grain, he'll prepare a broth of lemongrass and dashi with abalone and shiitake mushrooms and top it with a fried grain-coated poached egg.
From Judge Alex, Chef Rob receives perhaps his highest compliment of the competition so far. "I don't have a thing to say to you," she tells him of his scaloppini-style dish. "I can't believe this dish. It really, really works. What I can say to you is that this is the way to get to $50,000. The first course was not."
Chef Vinson opts for a side-by-side showing of fried and raw sunomono-style preparations of the abalone — "expensive, giant snails" according to host Ted Allen — but his plan proves less than successful. "I was picking through and trying to find the good stuff," Judge Alex says of his dish made of "pieces." Chef Vinson is ultimately chopped with just one round left.
In keeping with his style of modernist cooking, Chef Rob creates a chilled carrot gelee topped with almond foam and cinnamon-scented French toast in what he calls a "component" plate. Judge Alex tells him that "There's something about the ritual that you've required us to do here that resonates with me deeply," but given the plate's presentation, she later questions whether the dish is in fact a dessert.
The frangipane that Chef Jun prepares as his third-course offering is inspired by both his appreciation of French desserts and the baking classes he watched his mother teach when he was a child. In reviewing Chef Jun's almond-scented cakes, Judge Geoffrey Zakarian notes, "The little man that was paying attention to his mom's baking class really got baking."
The judges' panel agrees that Chef Rob's entree offering far surpasses Chef Jun's, but the former's dessert — despite its creative elements — "didn't really come together cohesively," according to Judge Alex. In the end, after six Champions baskets and two Chopped victories, Chef Rob is chopped.
Chef Jun Tanaka is ultimately named the Chopped Grand Champion and claims a $50,000 prize that he'll use to start his own restaurant. "I can't believe that I'm the Grand Champion," he says excitedly. "I'm going to take that accolade back to Britain and take it to the next level."