#YokoChopped: Cutting It Close

I guess the loss may have troubled me more than it initially did. A couple of hours later and I was feeling a bit uneasy. I was hungry, tired, and I think a bit frustrated. I don’t think I was as upset with myself as I was confused, trying to figure out why this trait had leeched on to me and how to tackle it. One of the judge’s closing remarks was, “Petty Officer Flowers, time management.” I bit my lip and nodded my head in acknowledgement, my head flooded with the voices of everyone that I have ever worked with shouting, ” I tried to tell you.” And it didn’t feel  good. I’ve never ignored these voices, well most of them, but them “telling me” hasn’t yet provided  a solid solution. In scenarios other than the time crunch of Chopped, I’ve learned to cope with my weakness through planning all the details, starting earlier, or simplifying production; but these are luxuries not provided in the mystery basket or the pantry. You have half an hour or less to plan, prepare, and plate each dish with little time for adjustment or repair.

Anyway, here’s how it went down.



Appetizer Round

Mystery Ingredients


  • Scallops
  • Pickled Beets
  • Habanero Pepper
  • Mixed Nuts

Beets are one of my favorites, even if they come out of a jar. I thought classical and went for a salad, on spinach, with sliced tangerines and beets, crushed nuts and shaved cheese with and a spicy habanero yogurt-nut dressing and mixed nut crusted, beet marinated scallops. I didn’t want to cook my scallops to early. I was aiming for a quick and blazing hot unilateral sear.

Instead of the screaming sizzle of the scallops hitting the grill, someone had turned down the heat leaving me to hear nothing but “10, 9, 8….!” As the numbers fell of the clock, I was flinging scallops from the grill to the plates behind me. BUZZZ!



The buzzer goes off, my hands go up, and I exit to the judging table knowing this was over. I couldn’t think of a way to sell what I knew was a messy, undercooked if not bare plate.

The plates descending to the table had more scallops than I remember plating though. I was caught off guard and now a little uncomfortable. Organizers were uninterested in any questions I had to ask.

Huy Pham was chopped. Judges wanted to see more creativity

Entrée Round

Mystery Ingredients


  • Pork Belly
  • Arborio Rice
  • Tamarind Candies
  • Horseradish Sauce

Shaken by the ticking hands on the clock, my mission was to keep it simple and just get the food on the plate. The focus was basic flavor, proper technique, and a clean plate.

First thoughts:

Pork Belly. I’d never worked with pork belly but had seen it plenty of times, most commonly in Asian dishes. In line with what I knew I wanted to cut it small to ensure it cooked quickly enough. I wanted it too cook slowly to soften it and sorta melt the fat yet have a crisp, sticky texture. I marinated it in molasses, soy sauce, the horse radish, and tamarind “brine” (I’ll explain in a bit). Into the oven at about 300F till about 7 minutes remaining and would finish on the grill. I reserved some of the skin, cut it into strips and fried for a crunchy garnish.

Arborio Rice. Obviously risotto. And for that reason I wanted to go another direction but I didn’t. In fact the first thing I did was reconstitute a chicken base in boiling water, parch the rice grains (simply toast the grains in oil, trying to coat them in the oil). I then added the broth to the rice as i stirred with some thyme, salt and pepper while I tried to do everything else, giving it more attention while the pork was in the oven. I cooked some broccoli in the broth to make sure I had a vegetable on the plate. I finished with a bit of butter.

Tamarind. The first thing I did was put the knife to the candies to check for seeds. It would determine how much I could do with it. Sure enough, it had seeds. I grabbed some hot water (I should’ve used some other hot liquid like broth or tea or juice) and soaked the tamarind to extract its flavor. I used the liquid in the pork marinade and I think I poured a bit in the broth. I cut some of the tamarind off the seed but in the end didn’t use it. But I did rub the salty sugar crystals off the candy onto the risotto.

Horseradish Sauce. Keep it simple right? Horseradish is spicy; its tangy. Horseradish happens to be in someway related to mustard. Mustard complements pork. Easy. I threw a bit in the marinade and that was all.

Plating. My pork was out. Now sitting on the grill. I covered it because I was nervous it wouldn’t finish. Should I have cut it smaller? I cooked the marinade and poured it on the base of my plate. It was looser than I would have liked but its flavor was great. Next the risotto took the center. It could have been creamier but I thought I didn’t stir it enough to release that starch. But it was cooked. The broccoli shot out from alternating sides like Cupid’s arrows. Shredded cabbage lay in a nest atop the risotto. Falling from the center of the risotto were the cubes of pork. I sprinkled the crispy pork skin on top. Looked around. Time  still ticking but m plates were done. Whew!



“Petty Officer Castillo, wha’d you do?” He too prepared a risotto! (That’s why I didn’t wanna make one.) Anyway, his was a horseradish risotto. And he did the one thing I forgot to do. He added cream to his risotto. Risotto is commonly finished with cream to provide that rich- well- creamy finish… along with wine and parmesan- but that’s beyond the point. He fried his pork belly and put a streak of horseradish alongside the risotto for judges to add as desired. Upon tasting, the judges felt they were missing something, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on it.

As for my plate, they loved its flavor and presentation, thankful for the addition of the vegetables, to which the dish owed “depth and color”. Their critique was that the pork was undercooked. Agh!

The last dish presented during the round, presented by Petty Officer Laurentino was thinly sliced pork belly (genius) grilled with a horseradish-tamarind sauce served with boiled arborio rice and sliced pineapples. The judges didn’t mind the dish but weren’t impressed. They felt he had potential for so much more than what was offered.  Chopped

Dessert Round

Mystery Ingredients

  • Egg Nog
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Grapefruit
  • Honey

Honestly, the ingredients had thrown me for a loop. No ingredient really suggested a direction. I planned to make grapefruit caramel with the grapefruit and hone. Caramel, usually, isn’t as harder as most people imagine. The way I usually approach it is combining the sugar with enough water to dissolve it, bring it to a simmer and watch it boil as the sugars complex flavor is developed and intensified. when its done, a nub of butter and cream ad a nice velvety feel. And a balancing splash of something sour is welcome. I would simply plug the egg nog and grapefruit into the equation, eggnog being the cream, grapefruit being the sour. But now what do I do with the cottage cheese.

Was the eggnog thick enough to whip into whipped cream? Should I try to demonstrate some sort of baking technique? Oooh! How about bread pudding? Nah, to typical. And I thought I heard Castillo ask for the bread. (He hadn’t.)

I set out to make a cake. Some butter, sugar, eggs, flour, eggnog, cottage cheese, baking powder- I think; I’m not sure it ever made it in there. When the cake came out it didn’t appear to rise. I thought it was because of how big the pan was, but it had a texture that didn’t feel like…rise. While it was in the oven, I had the bright idea to make an eggnog pudding- another one of those ratios running through my head. It came out well though.

I cut the cake into small lozenge, or diamond shapes and threw them on the grill with butter, hoping to toast and brown them. In the end what I ended up with was a bowl of delicious yellow pudding, surrounded by pieces of yellow cake (I called them financiers hoping to win favor with the judges) and splashes of a grapefruit sauce. It was monotonous and I wasn’t so sure. I did too much.

Castillo had turned out these puff pastry pinwheels, surrounding grapefruit, jam, and chocolate chip center. The eggnog and cottage cheese had found there way to an icing, which he drizzled over the top. I believe he played it smart.

Nonetheless, I hoped the risks I had taken playing in the scratch-made world of baking would payoff, especially considering how much they seemed to like the pudding. “Is this what you had envisioned when you opened the basket?” They’d asked. And no. No it wasn’t.

I don’t remember much of the conversation Castillo and I had while we were awaiting the results. We were called to return to the judges table. I swooped low enough to sniff the plate lid as though I could tell whose dish was beneath it.

The Champ is here!


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