What would you cook with some canned peaches, a bottle of punch-flavored Gatorade, mustard greens and some chunks of pork shoulder? Something that would impress celebrity chef judges with very discerning palates? If you’re chef Phillip Crispo, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and you’ve been invited to appear on Chopped on the Food Network, you whip together a Moroccan-Spiced “City Chicken” with Peach Tajine, a salad and seeded flatbread on the side.
In the tradition of 1-2-3 Cook and Iron Chef, Chopped is a culinary competition where four chefs dressed alike in dark gray chefs’ smocks open baskets full of four very unorthodox ingredients. Then they try to beat the clock (and each other) in three heats, with one chef being eliminated, or “chopped,” until one victor remains – a victor $10,000 richer.
Unnerving, it sounds like. I asked Chef Crispo if it was challenging. “Challenging is an understatement,” he said in his charming hybrid Scottish-American accent. He was born in Beacon, but moved to Scotland at age 8, returning about eight-and-a-half years ago. But Crispo seemed to keep his cool, and barely broke a sweat as he battled three other experienced chefs: Jeremy Langlois from Louisiana; Leslie Parks, a freelance caterer whose ex-husband had been a winner in a previous episode; and 16-year-old Greg Grossman. The judges were Marcus Samuelsson, Scott Conant and Lee Anne Wong: all brutally critical, tearing each dish to shreds, figuratively speaking, with their exacting standards.
The emcee was Ted Allen of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Frenzied cooking scenes alternated with calm musings behind the scenes by the contestants, and we are treated to vignettes of Chef Crispo fly-fishing and teaching CIA classes. Mishaps during the episode (not by Chef Crispo, of course) included a pan of crabcakes up in flames and some turnips forgotten in the oven.
In the first round, an appetizer course, the four chefs received ice cream cones, baby turnips, pickled ginger and lump crab meat. More than one version of crabcakes emerged, of course, and Chef Crispo’s was a Malaysian-style crabcake with glazed turnips and Korma curry sauce. “Last time I cooked with an ice cream cone,” he said, “was…never.” The ginger went in the caramel-glazed turnips and the ice cream cones were used as filler for the cakes.
Although judges found fault with tiny bits of crab cartilage in the filling and his using yogurt as a binder, they liked them. “You’re an instructor, so we’re going to hold you to a very high level,” Conant told him. Someone had to go, and the judges chopped the 16-year-old kid, chagrined and humbled.
Next was the main course round, with the aforementioned combination of ingredients. Although Samuelsson found the pieces of peach too big in Chef Crispo’s dish, the judges loved it, and the idea that he’d whipped up a quick flatbread from scratch to go with the meal. “I think that it’s brilliant,” said Samuelsson. Next the Louisiana chef was chopped for having overcooked his pork.
The two remaining competitors for the dessert round were Chef Crispo and the caterer. The ingredients were carob syrup, spaghetti squash, fresh figs and walnuts. The biggest challenge was that spaghetti squash takes a long time to cook. Timing was a problem for the caterer as well, her puddings not cooking enough in the time allotted. Chef Crispo decided to make crepes, but his first one – as is usual with crepes – didn’t work and stuck to the pan, making it very tiny. But it was too late to start over. He filled his crepes with caramelized figs and walnuts that were married by creamy mascarpone cheese. He decided that some sweetness and acidity were needed, and made small raspberry shooters to go on the side.
“I’ve enjoyed watching you cook, but I am baffled by your choices here,” Samuelsson said. However, although the caterer said that she thought she’d win, Crispo was the clear winner. He plans to spend his prize money flying his kids, who live in Scotland, to America for a visit. “My children are always an inspiration to do well,” he said, and, “If you don’t take chances in life, you don’t know if you’re going to succeed or not.”
And succeed he has, with stints as executive chef in Scotland and stateside, and as chef de partie at Harry Cipriani’s in New York. He applied to be on Chopped and was invited to an interview in Manhattan, then had a screen test of sorts, being filmed teaching and cooking. Since then, he said, he has had a couple of opportunities to do his own show, but was contracted to the Food Network. So now that the show is done, he’s hoping to have a chance to cook on TV in the future. The experience developed his confidence in his own ability to develop flavors quickly, he told me.
“The lesson I learned today,” he said at the end of the episode, “was to dig deep into all the experiences I’ve had through my life and put them on a plate.”