Cooking-Show Dynamos – Local Chefs Winning National Recognition
Not only is our area home to dozens of top-notch restaurants, it also boasts several award-winning chefs. In recent years, three local restaurant owners cooked their way to the top on popular cooking shows, putting us on the map as a go-to food destination.
December 2017 marked the season 15 premiere of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” and television debut for Birdman Juke Joint owner, Chef Chris Scott. After applying for the show several times without success, Chef Scott decided to focus on family and his restaurants at the time, Brooklyn’s Butterfunk Kitchen and Sumner’s Luncheonette. When an offer to appear on the show came months later, he initially declined. “When I told my wife she just stared at me, and very calmly told me to call back and say yes,” he explains with a smile. “I clearly wasn’t in a position to be away for seven weeks,” he continues, “but she held my hands and told me, ‘don’t worry, we’ll find a way.’” What followed was a whirlwind experience competing in a dozen challenges against a field of 14 other chefs. Overall, Chef Scott had three “top three” finishes, won three elimination rounds, and two “quickfire” rounds. Creating dishes like pepper pot shrimp and grits, a chicken rillette taco, and chicken and biscuits, Chef Scott was one of the last chefs to be eliminated. His new Black Rock restaurant focuses on soulful, agriculture-based dishes including fried green tomatoes with roasted peanut hummus and buckwheat relish, southern style cauliflower rice and beans, and roasted kobacha squash salad with smoked black-eyed peas and pumpkin seed vinaigrette.
The following year, two more notable local chefs competed on the Food Network’s “Chopped.” Matt Storch, chef-owner of Match, Match Taco, Nom-eez, and Match Burger Lobster, and Eric Felitto, head chef at The Chelsea and co-owner of The Tasty Yolk food trucks, both wowed the judges and took home the top prize on their respective 2018 episodes.
For Chef Storch, the inspiration came from home. “My kids wanted me to be on the show,” he says. “They loved it and asked why I wasn’t on it, so I made a few phone calls and was lucky enough to get on.” To prepare, he had his CIA-trained sister and his restaurant chefs create “mystery baskets” for him to practice. “They were mean!” he jokes, but felt it helped him learn how to work during a timed challenge. When it came time to compete, every dish prepared on the show had to be a sandwich. For the appetizer round, he drew upon his experience with Vietnamese cooking to create a Bahn Mi he restructured from the roast beef sandwich in his basket. The next round he made Peking duck from a turducken, and finally, for dessert, a sweet and savory biscuit that incorporated a Lunchables kit and salt and vinegar potato chips. “I love being creative and working under pressure,” Chef Storch says. His grace under pressure paid off when Storch was crowned “Chopped” champ.
When the Food Network called The Chelsea asking if Chef Felitto was interested in competing on “Chopped,” it was a no-brainer. “I’ve been on a recent kick to not say no to things and to get the fullest experience in life I can,” he explains, “so I agreed.” The very next day he was asked to travel to New York for a camera interview, and soon enough, he was on set powering through the “breakfast battle” episode. Each of the three dishes he prepared incorporated elements from his cooking back in Fairfield. At one point, after his Hollandaise sauce “broke”, he made a game-time decision to switch to a salsa verde similar to one he makes on the food truck. “I liked competing once I got comfortable,” he says. “Once I found my way around the kitchen, I was able to cook with love and confidence, and it let my food shine.” And shine it did. “I knew I had the competition when I saw Martha Stewart feeding Ted Allen my ice cream, and Ted shouting ‘I love cardamom ice cream’ and Amanda Freitag said, ‘this ice cream is amazing!’” His big win translated into an impressive uptick in customers as well. Felitto added two more trucks to the Tasty Yolk fleet, and The Chelsea is busier than ever.