Local chefs spill the tea on their experiences with TV cooking competitions
Words by Kay West
Television didn’t invent cooking competitions. Long before Gordon Ramsay was yelling at contestants and Padma Lakshmi was gently but firmly telling anxious cooks to pack their knives and go, there were plenty of contests for culinary preeminence. But television did make cooking a spectator sport, and the ratings success of that genre has created a programming binge.
Several Asheville chefs have joined the competitive fray and have the branded aprons to prove it. Clarence Robinson, the man behind Cooking With Comedy catering and owner of Soul on the Road food truck, has competed on Cutthroat Kitchen, while Ashleigh Shanti, the opening chef for Benne on Eagle who plans to open Good Hot Fish in Asheville this year, made it to the 11th round of “Top Chef: Houston” in 2021.
Erica Beneke, meanwhile, who owns Red Fiddle Vittles with husband Matt Farr, was a “Chopped” winner while still living in Austin, Texas. And pastry chef Melissa Gray parlayed her visibility as the owner of Cakes by Gray into a slot on “Sugar Rush Christmas,” which aired shortly after she opened her River Arts District restaurant, Rosabees, in September 2019.
More recently, J Chong, who in 2020 launched J Chong Eats to market her frozen dumplings, jumped from the frying pan into the fire as one of 10 chefs on the series premiere of Dan Levy’s HBO Max series “The Big Brunch.”
All contestants on these shows must sign nondisclosure agreements about the machinations of the programs, but Beneke, Gray and Chong shared with Edible Asheville what led them to try out for the shows, what the experience was like and offer advice for aspiring contestants.
ON THE FRY
With her culinary degree from Paul Smith’s College of the Adirondacks in hand, Erica Beneke moved to Austin in 2009, got a job as a line cook at the original location of Max’s Wine Dive and worked her way up to executive chef. When the staff heard “Chopped” producers were in town conducting open casting calls, Beneke thought it sounded fun.
“I did a video interview and submitted some photos of my food and menus,” she recalls. “I didn’t think it would go anywhere.”
She was wrong. The next thing she knew, a camera crew appeared at Max’s to shoot a normal day. “Of course, it was crazy busy that day, and the health inspector came,” she says. “That was some reality I could have done without.”
A few months later, “Chopped” flew Beneke to New York to tape a full episode. She met with a producer and three other chefs slated for that episode, and was then taken to the taping location. They were briefed on show logistics, given a quick tour of the kitchen and pantry, and told the theme of the episode: “Fry, Fry, Again.”
The premise of “Chopped” is a three-round elimination, cycling through appetizers, entrées and desserts. Each chef receives an identical mystery box of ingredients that must be incorporated into the dish following a theme. One chef is “chopped” out of the running on each round.
“My goal going in was not to be eliminated in the first round,” Beneke says, “and not to make some horrible, super embarrassing mistake.”
Out of the first mystery box came kosher pickles, catfish filets, green plantains and young coconut. Adding in items from the on-set pantry and cooler, Beneke made small bites of blackened catfish on fried plantains using the pickles and coconut to create garnish and sauce. Bam, on to round two.
In the box for that round: a capon, halloumi cheese, okra and cherry spoon fruit. Beneke stayed in the game with a dish of chicken and cherry gravy, along with roasted potatoes with halloumi.
It all came down to the final box: pizza dough, avocados, red jalapeño peppers and chocolate sandwich cookies. “I was a little surprised to make it that far, but also superstoked,” Beneke says. “There was less pressure each round, and I was just excited to cook.”
She stuffed the dough with cookies and cream and deep-fried it, candied the jalapeños and whipped up an avocado lime curd.
When the judges put down their forks, Beneke was declared the winner and awarded a $10,000 check, which she used to pay off her student loans.
Winning the show paid off in other ways, too. The resultant press brought so many “Chopped” fans to Max’s that the restaurant had to hire an additional sous chef to cover for her as she worked the dining room. When Beneke moved to Asheville in 2013, the title helped her promote her work as a private chef as well as the catering business she and Farr started, and then ultimately, the Red Fiddle Vittles storefront when it opened in February 2022.
“I had no idea how popular ‘Chopped’ was, and I’m forever grateful I took that chance,” she says.
A PIECE OF CAKE
Melissa Gray started working in restaurants when she was 15, and in her 30s steered her passion for pastry to A-B Tech’s culinary program. When she graduated in 2013, she started Cakes by Gray through a Facebook business page and grew the business with equal parts talent and hustle. Looking for more exposure, she started thinking about doing cooking competitions.
“I didn’t compete in sports as a kid, but by nature I’m a competitive person,” she says. “You have to be, as a single mom, to start your own business and succeed. I thought doing a show would be fun and help me grow Cakes by Gray.”
She learned how to apply to compete on TV shows, which she describes as “an intense application process with multiple interviews.” In 2018, she was cast for “Sugar Rush Christmas,” a holiday edition of Netflix’s “Sugar Rush” baking show that pits four teams of two for three elimination rounds. Gray chose friend and fellow Asheville baker Emma McShane of Verbena Cakes & Catering as her partner.
The two were flown to Berkeley, California, for the two-day taping: Day one is cooking and day two is post-contest interviews. “You get driven to the lot, walk into a gross warehouse and then you walk onto the set, and it’s magical,” says Gray. “Sugar Rush” has three rounds: a cupcake challenge, a plated dessert, then two teams bake for the grand prize in the cake challenge.
“Emma and I made it to the final round,” remembers Gray. “The cake had to be two feet tall or two feet wide, have several different components and be on-theme, which was The Nut- cracker, specifically the Rat King. So, we had to use cheese.”
Not an issue for Gray. “My whole thing with Cakes by Gray is unique flavors, so we did my almond cake with pear compote and bleu cheese butter cream.”
The biggest challenge was the clock. “Baking and pastry are not like savory cooking, and decorating a cake is multiple steps and time between those steps,” Gray explains. “We were on a clock, but there is off-clock time for the unique aspects of baking and decorating.”
Gray and McShane were bested by the other team, and Gray thinks she knows why. “We didn’t put a crunch element into our cake and the other team did. That’s basic, and we should have known it.”
Not only did “Sugar Rush” help Gray’s baking business— and draw attention to Rosabees—the experience was icing on the cake. “It was really fun to feel like a celebrity for a minute and live in that world,” she says. “I would tell people to just have a good time, enjoy the experience and remember that however it turns out, it doesn’t validate you as a chef or a person. I’d do it again in a minute!”
WORD OF MOUTH
J Chong, who is Chinese-Canadian, moved to Asheville seven years ago when her wife, Danielle Wheeler, accepted a job at New Belgium Brewing’s Asheville location. The Johnson & Wales Culinary grad took a sous chef position with chef Katie Button at Cúrate. Chong was happy there, but in February 2020 she put in her notice with the goal of pursuing her own path.
“We all daydream about what we might do if we could do anything, and it always came back to dumplings for me,” she explains. “It was important to me to reintroduce what Cantonese and Chinese food is and allow people to understand where it comes from.”
COVID sped up Chong’s plan and that spring she dove into selling her frozen dumplings under the name J Chong Eats—first delivering them door to door, then setting up at local tailgate markets. She enlisted Wheeler to film cooking tutorials in their home kitchen. “We had an iPhone and a lot of time on our hands,” she says. “But that was the extent of my experience cooking on camera.”
It was Chong’s dental hygienist—a fan of actor Dan Levy—who told her about the Canadian star’s plans for a new HBO Max competitive cooking show called “The Big Brunch” and suggested she give it a shot. “I sat on it a bit,” says Chong. “I don’t watch those shows, but I felt like Dan was doing something different with a different culture and purpose.”
She decided to go for it, opting to make a video for the application. “I just went into my personality,” she says. “I watched it one time to make sure I wasn’t cussing and sent it in.”
Chong’s energetic, positive and openly emotive personality won over the producers, and she was cast for the series debut of The Big Brunch. “All of us got along and gelled right away,” she says. “Some shows have a bit of aggression or edge to them; this show did not. At its core, from start to finish, ‘Big Brunch’ was kind, supportive and uplifting. That is really driven by Dan and his personality.”
Contestants brought their own knives and wardrobe, but everything else was provided in the sparkling cooking stations and fully stocked pantry and walk-ins. Levy welcomed them into the kitchen on the first day of shooting. “Dan explained his overall concept to us, and then we started the first challenge: make a dish that says where we come from and one that says where we want to go. Obviously, for me that was dumplings,” says Chong.
On November 11, 2022, a couple hundred people crowded into New Belgium’s taproom in Asheville to see the premiere of “The Big Brunch” on a big screen and erupted in cheers when Chong won the first episode. “I knew, but it was all new again seeing it that night with my wife and so many people who have supported me,” she remembers. “It was so emotional. I kept tearing up.”
In a later episode, Chong cooked congee with grilled prawns and the chili oil that is now part of her regular product menu. “I wanted to showcase something every Chinese household eats and everyone’s grandma makes,” she says. “It’s part of our upbringing, our culture, and I was so happy to have an opportunity to bring that to the table.”
Chong made it through multiple eliminations to the final episode with two other contestants: Danielle Sepsy and Daniel Harthausen. In the end, the three judges awarded the $300,000 cash prize to Harthausen.
Yet Chong happily says that she accomplished her goal. “Yes, the show is about food; food is my career and the reason why I was there and talking now. But the most important thing for me to do through ‘Big Brunch’ was to uplift and showcase my Asian culture and my queerness and do it in a way that would allow people to listen and hear. The brilliance of this show is it’s not just food; it shows us all as diverse humans outside the kitchen.”
Kay West covered food and restaurants for over 30 years in Nashville and since 2019 in Asheville. She has written five books, including Around the Opry Table: A Feast of Recipes and Stories from the Grand Ole Opry.