We had planned to have a couple of days in New York before my taping to enjoy all that the city had to offer. We were going to get cheap, last minute tickets to a Broadway show; we were going to walk around and take in all of the holiday-dressed windows; we were going to take a cruise around Manhattan; and on and on. That had been the plan; however, so much of it got derailed by the pain I was experiencing. We managed to have some fun, and we did get to see The Tree. But the next day, the pain was so intense that we had the concierge at our hotel locate a walk-in clinic so that I could get medication to help with the pain, at the very least. The doctor determined that I likely had a pinched nerve, and all that could be done for it was ice, two different anti-inflammatory meds, and muscle relaxers. Time would see me through it. Unfortunately, time is exactly what I didn’t have just then. But, just having a diagnosis helped a little. For the next 36 hours, I took all of the various meds as prescribed and tried my best to make the trip as enjoyable as possible.
I felt so bad for Leah. We went early to enjoy the city together, but it ended up becoming more of a trip with her taking care of me. We walked around the city in the chilly rain, going in and out of stores for as long as I could keep going, doing everything we could to keep our minds off the pain I was in and what was might happen in the taping the following day.
Finally, it was taping day! You would think I would have been so excited for this, wouldn’t you? Instead of not being able to sleep from the excitement, I was awake with excruciating pain! At 4 am that morning as I was pounding on the floor and crying out in pain, Leah asked me if I wanted to go to the E.R.
“No!” I said. “The devil is trying to stop me, and I’m not going to let him!”
I had no fear of what was in that basket. I just let God lead me. Within twenty minutes, we had to cook and plate an appetizer consisting of duck breast, kumquats, goji berries, and bitter melon. (By the way, just in case you missed my on-air declaration, bitter melon is NASTY!) I knew immediately that I wanted to make a southwestern spiced duck and serve it atop a ratatouille or “warm salsa” made with the remaining ingredients. I added jalapenos, garlic, onion, sweet peppers, and cilantro from the pantry to round it out.
You will recall that I said I had no strength or feeling in my right hand as I stood in front of that first basket, and at one point, that nearly cost me my chance in the appetizer round. As I began to plate my dish, I attempted to pick up the pan that was full of the cooked ratatouille. My grip was only enough to get the pan off the stove before it gave out, and the pan fell. With what I can only call divinely assisted reflexes, I managed to catch it mid fall with a cross-body snatch of my left hand. I was shaken, but relieved and quietly praising God for the save as I got that ratatouille on the plates and completed my appetizer with less than half a minute to spare.
As Ted called time, I was exhausted but confident that I had done a good job. Despite how it appears on the show, the actual judging is a lengthy process, and both the contestants and the judges were quite touched as Chef Elizabeth had the opportunity to share the compelling story of her transformation. All of the chefs were then led to the sequester room where we had the opportunity to decompress, albeit on camera, while the judges made their determination. In the end, Chef Elizabeth was the first one of us one to be chopped.
With all the nerves of the first round out of the way, my confidence level was high. I continued to pray every moment I could, asking for knowledge and strength.
The remaining chefs, Chris, Joel and I, were again called one by one to stand behind our baskets, waiting for those famous words, “Chefs, open your baskets.” In the months leading up to the competition, I had a strong feeling we would be getting a whole fish to filet in the entrée round. I found out that my feeling was correct! We opened the baskets to find a whole black cod, dinosaur kale, coconut oil and pork rinds.
“Time starts now!” exclaimed Ted Allen.
Without hesitation, I ran to the pantry and formulated a plan. I grabbed asparagus, oranges, sesame seeds, soy sauce and sesame oil. I thought to myself that the judges would probably want a starch, so I grabbed lentils and stock before running back to my station.
I wanted the final dish to consist of sesame crusted black cod, topped with a pork rind gremolata. It would be served with sautéed dinosaur kale, asparagus and lentils. It would be finished with a sesame shoyu (soy) sauce and grated orange zest. However, things don’t always work as planned. The lentils did not have time to get done, so I decided to leave them off the plate entirely. I was not about to serve the judges hard lentils. Instead, I plated what I like to call “my food.” Simple, clean and elegant.
Standing in front of the judges, I was not confidant in my dish because I thought for sure they were going to nail me to a wall for not having a starch with the fish. I couldn’t have been more wrong. All three judges spoke highly of the dish, saying it was cooked perfectly! Chef Marcus Samuelsan suggested I make this dish a signature! The amazing feeling of being told my food was spectacular by these three esteemed judges quickly came to an end when Scott Conant found bones in his fish. I was deflated.
Each of us was given an opportunity to share more details of our transformation story during the judging of this round, and it was a bonding moment between us “former fat kids,” as Chef Joel dubbed us.
As we proceeded to the sequester room, I felt pretty confidant, but I was afraid the bones would come back to bite me. We spent the down time getting to know one another better, telling stories and sharing our dreams of becoming the next Chopped Champion. It was amazing the camaraderie that formed between all of us right from the start. It was also a relief to discover that none of us was out to slander or verbally bully the others. Our mutual struggles with weight had bound us together, and we spent our time speaking encouragement into one another instead of gloating over any mistakes that were pointed out in our respective dishes.
Unfortunately, one of us had to go, and Chef Chris was the next chef to find his dish on the chopping block.
Now, it was just me and Chef Joel. Joel wanted to win, and badly. That was his goal. Of course, I wanted to win too, but I was there to let everyone know that, at any age, anyone can change the way they eat and their way of life. I wanted to show the audience that nothing can stop you if you don’t let it. And, I wanted to show the devil that despite all of his efforts, I was going to reign as champion through Jesus Christ! I focused on what I knew to be true greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world.
Joel walked in the kitchen from one side, and I from the other. We met in the middle and gave each other a long challenging stare.
“Chefs, open your baskets,” Ted commanded for the final time.
The exact second that I opened the basket, I knew what to do with: angel food cake, clotted cream, spirulina, and passion fruit puree. I was going to make a fresh fruit dessert by macerating the fruit with a powder made with spirulina, mint and sugar. The dish would be topped with a “dressing” consisting of sweetened mascarpone cheese, clotted cream and passion fruit puree. I wanted to add a crunch component to the dessert, so I toasted cubes of angel food cake to make “croutons.” I was on cruise control. I plated the dessert and thought to myself, I’ve got this! That was until Ted called out 30 seconds remaining, and I noticed I hadn’t put the dressing on the dish! So, I quickly grabbed the pitcher it was in and drizzled some over the fruit.
Of all the rounds, dessert was the most nerve-wracking. As I stood before the judges, I listened to each one completely destroy my dish. For the first time all day, I thought I was going to be chopped. At one point, I was even told that it was far from being a dessert, but was, rather, a garnish! Wow, that was rough. I wasn’t the only one being deflated though. Joel’s dish, while a great effort, wasn’t up to par either. This round was not a good one for either of us. The judges were going to have to decide the winner based on our other courses. There was not a clear winner.
The walk out of the sequester room to the line up in front of the judges was the longest thirty feet of my life. Thoughts and doubts assailed me, what will the judges decide…had I done all I could? It didn’t matter at this point; I could do no more than what had already been done. It was up to the judges to decide. So, I put my faith in God and gave it to Him.
Ted grabbed the handle on top of the cloche and said, “Whose dish is on the chopping block?” With a dramatic sweep of his arm, Ted lifted the cloche high, and there, on the dreaded chopping block, sat the dish of my opponent. I immediately put my hands together, closed my eyes, and began thanking God as I heard Ted tell Joel that he had been chopped.