BTPD and Creme of the Crop brings ‘Chopped’ to young chefs
You know the show. You know about the rules and the mystery basket. Food Network’s “Chopped” pits the best of the best in the kitchen against one another to see who will be the culinary champion. The Bourbonnais Township Park District, along with Creme of the Crop, bought the competition to local, young culinary hopefuls.
Emily James, the new full-time recreation assistant, created this brand new program for kids.
“I love working with children, so this was the perfect job opportunity for me to take,” said James. “I love the show “Chopped” so it came to mind to try and incorporate some sort of cook-off featuring kids.”
For this past Sunday’s “Chopped” competition, three teams of two were required to make an appetizer, entree and a dessert with ingredients provided from their mystery basket. Judges were on-site to help guide the young chefs in the right direction and to critique their cooking.
The competition was hosted and supervised by Suzanne Nighswander, co-owner of Creme of the Crop catering, and the three judges, Maria Verkler, of Bourbonais, co-owner of Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, Deb Terrill, of Kankakee, and Andrea Sterk, of Bourbonnais.
Teams Grant Sheely (11, of Bourbonnais) and Millie Nichols (11, of Bourbonnais), and Alex Sheely (13, of Bourbonnais) and Spencer Frey (12, of Bourbonnais), took part in the cooking competition. And yes, there was a sibling rivalry.
The young chefs, used to their own kitchens at home, had never prepared meals in a commercial kitchen before, but Sunday, they had their chance.
Before starting the actual “Chopped” competition, Millie, Grant, Alex and Spencer got a walk-through of the entire kitchen, and were given a few rules to always follow while preparing their dishes: Always wear gloves, always wash your hands and always sanitize your work station, especially when working with raw meat to avoid cross-contamination.
Donning their Creme of the Crop aprons with 30 minutes on the clock, it was time to impress the judges with appetizers. But if you’ve watched “Chopped,” you know there’s a catch: the young chefs have several oddities in all three mystery baskets that they must use.
The first mystery basket contained baby bella mushrooms, mini-Chinese eggplants, pickled red onions and phyllo pastry shells.
Team Spencer and Alex found themselves roughly chopping the eggplant and mushrooms to go in an arugula salad, along with a creamy dressing. The salad was garnished with the skin from the eggplants and the pickled red onion for a nice touch of color in their presentation.
“At home, he’s a dessert guy,” said Spencer’s mom, Shannon. “He helps me with everything though! He makes really good sandwiches!”
Team Millie and Grant chose to stuff their baby bellas with cream cheese and bacon, with a salad of mixed greens with eggplant, pickled red onions and tossed with crushed phyllo shells, salt and pepper and a generous squeeze of lemon juice.
The local “Chopped” competition found itself with competitors harboring a sweet tooth.
“Millie has always wanted to cook,” said her mom Kata. “But she really likes baking.” For each round, the two teams had to present four plates: three for the judges, and one for the possibility of the chopping block.
Millie and Grant dominated round one with their stuffed mushrooms and salad, while Spencer and Alex’s dish was chopped in the first round. Spencer and Alex were missing one of the key ingredients in their appetizer, the phyllo pastry shells.
“The dressing was very flavorful,” Verkler said.
With an hour on the clock, it was time for entrees with the mystery basket bringing Parmesean flavored goldfish, crescent rolls, bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs, dandelion weeds and bitter melon. The young chefs did not hold back when expressing concerns about that last ingredient.
“It looks like a crinkly, old jalapeno,” said Grant. “Why does it look like cotton candy on the inside?”
Spencer and Alex quickly created a game plan, grabbing the Cajun rub, cracking a few eggs and crushing the goldfish in order to make an eggwash and coating for their chicken.
Grant and Millie struggled to make a decision as their hour ticked away. They later came up with the idea to separate their crescent rolls, and stuff chicken inside, making a dumpling of sorts and dropping them into the deep fryer on the Creme of the Crop food truck just outside of the commercial kitchen in Irwin, just 15 minutes southwest of Kankakee.
As for that bitter melon? Spencer covered it with crescent roll dough and threw it in the oven, while Grant chopped and sauteed the melon with butter and bacon, and Millie crushed the goldfish with melted butter in order to use that as a coating for the dumplings.
Spencer and Alex found themselves searching for jalapenos, but ended up with green chilies instead. They took those green chilies, sun-dried tomatoes, dandelion weed and red and green bell peppers, broke out the food processor and made their play on a bright green salsa verde.
Impressive skill levels were shown, as Spencer took to the chiffonade technique (cutting into long, thin strips), for the dandelion weed that went into the salsa verde.
The thing about chicken is that it has to be cooked thoroughly at 165 degrees.
With only eight minutes remaining on the clock, as Spencer and Alex started plating their salsa verde with chips, and their bitter melon, their chicken only read at 160 degrees. Returning the chicken to a 425 degree oven, the heat worked its magic and added a crispy, golden brown finish. As for the dumplings, only time would tell if the chicken was cooked thoroughly.
The judges ate the oven fried chicken, salsa verde and chips and bitter melon (topped with the salad dressing from round one), from Spencer and Alex with delight.
“I like that no one got too carried away with seasonings,” said Terrill.
“Check your chicken,” said Nighswander, as each judge carefully cut into the fried dumplings from Grant and Millie. The judges found not only the dumplings to be under cooked, but the chicken as well.
“With the skin on, it’s gelatinous,” said Terrill. “You needed to cook the chicken first. It cooks at too dramatically a rate than the dough.”
Grant and Millie, visibly disappointed but not down for the count, joined Spencer and Alex off the kitchen while the judges made their decision. After deliberation, it was revealed that Grant and Millie’s dumplings were on the chopping block.
The judges were impressed with not only Spencer and Alex’s skill level, but the eclectic mix of food on the plate, ranging from Mexican, Indian and Soul food.
Time for dessert
With another 30 minutes on the clock, the third and final mystery basket served to be confusing for the young chefs — Butter pecan cake mix, nutter butter cookie sandwiches, a whole coconut and the killer of the third and final round: rambutans. A strange, sea urchin-looking edible fruit, from the tree of the same name.
Looks are intimidating and sometimes deceiving, as the chefs broke their rambutans open, they found a small fruit resembling and tasting like a peeled grape.
After both teams went outside with a mallet to crack open their coconuts, they came back and got to work. Spencer and Alex were thinking parfaits as they collected clear plastic cups, as both teams started grating and thinly slicing their coconuts, making the host, judges and parents very nervous.
Millie and Grant started working on a buttercreme, coconut, nutter butter, rambutan and oreo topping, or what was mean to be buttercreme (stay tuned) for their cake.
Spencer and Alex added a generous amount of cinnamon to a sour cream and cream cheese mousse, mixing that with granola, dry cake mix and the remaining ingredients, layered with strawberries and topped with a single cinnamon stick to create their parfait.
“It’s anybody’s game at this point,” said Sterk.
Millie and Grant got their butter pecan cake into the oven pretty late in the game, but were allowed extra time at the end of the round to get their plates together for the judges.
The butter pecan cake from Millie and Grant didn’t bake all the way through, but that didn’t stop them from impressing the judges with a nice presentation of a caramel swirl, and edges from the cake topped with their whipped (buttercreme icing needs butter), topping, a single oreo cookie and a cherry on top.
“I’m really impressed that you used all the cake batter and it doesn’t taste like it, and you were smart to mix it with sour cream so it’s not overly sweet,” said Sterk of Spencer and Alex’s parfait.
“It’s a really pretty presentation, I just wish I could taste the rambutans,” said Verkler of Grant and Millie’s cake and whipped topping.
After deliberation it was time to see who’s dessert was on the chopping block. To the chef’s surprise, the block was empty. The competition ended in a tie. “You all did a great job, and gave it your all,” said Nighswander as she handed each chef gift certificates for the Creme of the Crop food truck.
The Bourbonnais Township Park District and Creme of the Crop will be hosting another “Chopped” event on Sunday, Oct. 7, from noon to 3 p.m.
If you think you have what it takes, go to any one of the Bourbonnais Township Park District facilities, or follow this link ( https://tinyurl.com/yb8x6rz5 ), to sign up!