“Judges, no joke: A nun, a priest, a pastor and a rabbi have walked into the Chopped kitchen!”
That’s how Ted Allen, host of the Food Network’s Chopped, kicked off the competition on Tuesday night’s show. Called “Leap of Faith,” the hour-long episode pitted four foodie spiritual leaders against one another to see who could cook their way to a $10,000 prize.
I attended the screening party at Edison Ballroom in Manhattan for Rabbi Henoch Hecht, one of the four. Hecht was animated and friendly, moving through the crowd chatting with his guests — a mix of family, friends and congregants from the Rhinebeck Jewish Center in Rhinebeck, New York, which he leads. I didn’t know whether or not Hecht had won the competition, but I sort of assumed he had, given the party and his high spirits. Before sitting down to watch the show on a big screen, guests milled around an open bar and a buffet of kosher deli sandwiches, sushi and savory baked goods.
At 10 p.m., the episode began.
“Steadfast in their faith and passionate about their food, four devoted cooks see who will triumph in our kitchen and who will be chopped,” Allen announced. “These four competitors count on a higher power to guide their way, and their faithful paths have led them to the Chopped kitchen.”
The four competitors were sister Sara Marks, a nun-in-training at St. Francis of Philadelphia; Father Justin Matro, a Benedictine monk and the pastor at St. Bartholomew parish in Crabtree, Pennsylvania; Pastor Areli Biggers of Family Life Church at Vineyard Church in Hopkinton, Massachusets; and Rabbi Hecht, who, in addition to leading the Rhinebeck congregation teaches a kosher lecture at the Culinary Institute of America.
“I will be the first rabbi to be a Chopped champion and receive a mazel tov from the judges,” Hecht said when he was introduced.
If you’re not familiar with Chopped, here’s the gist, as Allen relays at the beginning of each show: Four chefs compete before a panel of expert judges and turn baskets of mystery ingredients into a three-course meal. Course by course, the chefs are “chopped” from the competition until only the winner remains.
For the appetizer course, the baskets contained salmon, spring onions, raw white honey and Ezekiel Bread.
“It’s a Biblical basket!” Hecht exclaimed. Beginning to cook, he started singing Havah Negila. Occassionally he turned to Pastor Biggers and asked her to taste something.
“I keep the highest level of kosher, and therefore since the kitchen itself is not kosher, I can’t taste any of my food, so I’ve got to be creative,” he said.
Watching this, Sister Marks said, “I think that the camaraderie in the kitchen, with helping each other out is just a beautiful witness to what it’s like to live in a community. We all come from different faith backgrounds, but we have God in common.”
When he presented his first course to the judges, Hecht said, “Shalom esteemed tribunal. I have prepared for you a typical Friday night dinner, but it’s usually done with a different type of fish.”
The judges were generally positive. “The whole thing has a sort of wonderful homey stewed quality that I find delicious,” commented Alex Guarnaschelli.
“Thank you, I’ll buy your cookbook,” the Rabbi said.
“It is warming,” Marc Murphy said, “but it’s more of a main course.
“Okay, fair enough, I won’t buy your cookbook,” Hecht said, laughing.
Geoffrey Zakarian said the dish suffered from a lack of salt. Hecht admitted that the pastor had suggested he add more. “I should have listened,” he said.
“It’s really, I have to say, very touching to see that kind of behavior here,” Guarnaschelli said.
At the end of the first round, Father Matro was chopped.
The main course baskets contained lamb shoulder steaks, quinces, cerignola olives and sweet kosher wine.
Hecht remarked that the basket was a challenge. “But the Jews are the wandering people, and I’ve studied in Yeshiva in Israel, in Europe, and in Brazil, and I did come into contact with other cultures, other different cooking styles. So that gives me an edge.”
He dubbed his dish “A Taste of Lebanon.”
“Kosher wine, man this is the sugary sweet stuff that we grew up as kids stealing with the Kiddush, having these little shots with the old men, sitting around,” he said. He decided to reduce it, cooking it with the quince. The olives went into a Mediterranean rice to serve with the lamb.
“Look at his knife skills,” Guarnaschelli said to fellow judge Jeffrey Zakarian.
“Yeah, he’s got great knife skills.” Zakarian said.
Guarnaschelli was worried when she saw Hecht slicing a whole jalapeño, but she needn’t have been.
He was whipping up something he called “The Rabbi’s Heat,” a kind of relish he said he makes every single week for Shabbat. A fresh raw mix of garlic, dill, hot peppers and quince, this element of the meal turned out to be a favorite of the judges.
It’s at this point in the show that I realize this guy is brilliant.
Having said that, when he slices his lamb he saw that some of it was verging on raw.
“Oy gavalt!” he exclaimed. ”But I’ve got to go with it. To know that I’m going to stand in front of the judges, to serve them a second dish, I was like, Baruch Hashem.” A caption on the screen said, “Thank god.”
His dish looked beautiful.
“I’d imagine when you’re congregants eat they nitpick less than our judges,” Allen said.
Zakarian pointed out that the meat was unevenly cooked. Murphy wished there were more olives in the rice.
“I think the rice is overcooked and the quince is undercooked, but I really don’t care,” Guarnaschelli said, “because I love the dill and the olive oil and the jalapeno.”
At the end of this round, Sister Marks was chopped.
Pastor Areli and Rabbi Hecht would compete in the final round, making dessert. The basket contained fresh figs, rainbow carrots, macademia nuts and hamantaschen.
“Hamantasch!” Hecht said, highly animated. “I was going to make a hamantash! I can’t make a hamantash if he gave us a hamantasch! How do you repurpose a hamantasch?”
He decided to make rugelach and incorporate the hamantaschen filling into his rugelach filling.
But there was an issue. Made with butter and milk, rugelach is dairy, and the contestants had just cooked meat. To accommodate Hecht’s observance of the dietary laws, Chopped had stocked the pantry with items such as margarine and nondairy milk and cream.
“So I added in margarine, and nondairy milk, and I’ll have a Jewish dough!” Hecht said. He turned to the fresh figs.
“Figs are one of the seven fruits that Israel was blessed with,” he said. He opted to candy them, putting them in a dry pan over the flame so the sugars would caramelize.
For his filling, he added apple to the nut mixture. He rolled out his dough.
Rather than make each rugelach individually, he rolled one long log and sliced it into cookies. Just when I was started to wonder what Hecht was going to do with the gorgeous rainbow carrots, another basket ingredient, he started to discuss them.
“There is a Jewish dish called tsimmes. It’s a sweet carrot side dish. You go to your bubbe’s house and that’s what you get,” he said.
He said he was making a dessert tsimmes, and simmered the carrots in a simple syrup with some cinnamon and star anise.
The dish he presented to the judges was stunning.
“Before I tell you what I made,” he said, “I just want to thank everybody for how accommodating you’ve been to me, and thank you to my competitor as well, for helping me along the way. I should have listened to you more.”
The judges loved the dessert. Zakarian declared it the best food Hecht had cooked all day. “The dough is delicious,” he said. “It’s light, it’s airy. I give you a lot of props for that.”
I was certain Hecht had nailed the title. He’d certainly won the round. So when Allen revealed that the rabbi had been chopped, I was shocked. The judges cited a few missteps in earlier rounds — overcooked rice; undercooked lamb.
Hecht seemed entirely undefeated. “I did win,” he said as he walked the long hall to the exit door. “The fact that I got to compete, the fact that I represented kosher, I think, in a dignified manner… I hope I made a true Kiddush Hashem, a true sanctification of God’s name and Judaism. So from that perspective, I did win.”
Sure seems like it to me.
Liza Schoenfein is food editor at the Forward. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter, @LifeDeathDinner