Norwich chef to be on Food Network show ‘Chopped’ Dec. 4
Norwich — When Ceil Vardar worked in the employee health department at the William W. Backus Hospital in the 1980s, co-workers kept pressuring her to open a restaurant.
When she left Backus and opened Talk of the Town Deli & Catering on Main Street in 1996, a colleague said: “What took you so long?”
At the deli, where she crafted specialty soups and sandwiches, customers and friends pressured her: “You should go on ‘Chopped,’” the popular Food Network competition show. Vardar retired from the restaurant in 2000 and continued cooking, catering private parties and offering private cooking lessons.
In January, “Chopped” put out a Facebook call for applicants for a competition: “Grandmothers with a Culinary Vision.” Friends again pressured Vardar to enter the contest, vowing that if she didn’t, they would fill out the application for her.
Vardar admitted last week that being on “Chopped” was a bucket list item for her in her culinary career, so she entered the grandmother contest. She was surprised and thrilled when she was one of four grandmothers selected for the daylong competition at the “Chopped” kitchen at the Food Network’s headquarters in New York April 7.
“When I entered the stage, it was exactly the way I’ve seen it on TV,” Vardar said.
Maybe more difficult than the stressful competition has been the eight months of silence she must maintain until “Holly Jolly Grandmas” airs on the Food Network at 9 p.m. Dec. 4. Vardar couldn’t even hint at how she did in front of judges Maneet Chauhan, Scott Conant and Amanda Freitag. In the show, contestants are given baskets of ingredients to create appetizers, a main dish and desserts.
Food Network spokesman Seth Hyman provided this description of the show:
“Four grandmas bring their homey cooking styles to the Chopped Kitchen and give the judges a holiday dining experience to remember. In the first round, the matriarchs cook appetizers with love, care and some unusual candy canes. A gilded surprise is the centerpiece of the second basket. Finally, the two grandmas who move on to the dessert round are delighted to find a selection of holiday cookies — but will they know what to make with them?”
“All I can say is, the baskets had some very, very unique items,” Vardar said.
At age 64, Vardar said she was the youngest grandmother on stage. A Food Network crew spent a day at her Norwich home interviewing her for what will be a brief biography on air. Vardar’s husband, Orrie Vardar, children Jonathan and Nina and three grandchildren, ages 10, 9 and 6, will be included in the biography. The grandchildren love cooking with their “Yaya,” the Greek word for grandmother.
Vardar’s friends, Becka and Ray Alberts, owners of These Guys Brewery on Franklin Street, will close the restaurant the night of the Dec. 4 premier to host a full-house private viewing party for Vardar and her family. Another friend, Matthew Dutrumble, owner of Craftsman Cliff’s Roasters coffeeshop on Broadway, will provide coffee for the gathering.
Vardar said she appreciates the support of today’s downtown restauranteurs, and she often dines at These Guys, the Harp & Dragon Irish Pub and Billy Wilson’s Ageing Still and has coffee at Craftsman Cliff’s.
At home, Cajun cooking is her specialty and great love, although she still loves Middle Eastern food and pays homage to her Middle Eastern heritage and to her mother, Mary Jane Yazbeck of Bethlehem, Pa., who instilled in her the love of cooking.
“My mom is 90 years old, and she can run circles around any of her children and grandchildren,” she said.
The Vardars lived for seven years in Louisiana before moving to Norwich in 1986 and fell in love with Cajun food. They host a fall party and cook four deep-fried turkeys. They cook blackened meats.
Last week, for lunch, Vardar concocted a shrimp and grits dish with Andouille sausage in a large cast iron skillet. As she stirred, she decided it needed a little cream and poured some in, and maybe a little sweetness and grabbed a squeeze jar of honey.
“I consider myself an extremely creative person,” Vardar said. “I don’t do recipes. I create dishes.”
Vardar said she doesn’t miss running a restaurant, describing the long, exhausting hours the business requires. She doesn’t want the “Chopped” show to be an advertisement for her private party catering business or classes.
“The main reason I decided to compete was to prove to myself I still have it,” she said. “I still have the talent in me.”