Capital Area Food Bank Manager Becomes First Local Winner of Food Network’s Chopped
By Martin Austermuhle, November 15, 2012
At the end of a hectic first 20-minute round in which the four chefs on the Food Network’s cooking competitionChopped were charged with making an appetizer with Bangers, apple chips, asparagus, and chocolate-covered almonds, things weren’t looking good for Grace Lichaa.
The 31-year-old Capital Area Food Bankmanager had forgotten to plate the final ingredient, a mistake that’s considered something of a cardinal sin for a show in which chefs are tasked with cooking three different courses with ingredients revealed to them only before the clock starts.
Lichaa didn’t only survive the first round—the three celebrity chefs congratulated her for her Bangers and mash salad made with arugula, purple potatoes and raisins—but she went on to win the competition, besting three other chefs on her way being the first local chef to claim a win on the show and the $10,000 in prize money that comes with it. (Bayou Bakery’s David Guas has been on the show, as were D.C. Central Kitchen’s Alli Sosna and 1789’s Dan Giusti. Pizzeria Orso’s Will Artley will be on the November 25 episode.)
She might be able to savor the victory that much more because she wasn’t originally supposed to be on the show. After a friend pointed the show’s producers in her direction, she applied and interviewed—over Skype—only to be told that she hadn’t been selected.
But a week before the show taped in March, the producers called and asked if she could come to New York to film the episode, which featured chefs that work for non-profit groups. “I think somebody dropped out or it didn’t work out with someone, and I was Plan B, I guess,” said Lichaa, laughing at the stroke of luck that landed her on the show.
A week later she found herself at a Starbucks at 6 a.m. with her fellow competitors, after which they were taken to the Chopped set in a building in Chelsea Market. What followed was a 14-hour day of cooking and on-camera interviews, where contestants are asked to speak—without giving away the results or timing of the episode’s filming—about the ingredients and how they think they handled them.
Over the course of the three rounds, Lichaa said her confidence grew. “The first round I thought I was going to be out, the second round I thought ‘maybe, hopefully,’ but I was working against people who are 20 years older than me and cook every day. I have some cooking in my job, but it’s mostly educational and it’s a very peripheral part of my job. These people are producing meals and meals every day, and I don’t do that. By the last round, that’s when I started being more confident,” she said.
After surviving the first round’s close call, Lichaa made it through the second round with venison with roasted cauliflower, chick peas and sweet potato (the ingredients included venison, hamantaschen, cauliflower, and cola) before being crowned victorious after the dessert round, during which she used marshmallow cream, balsamic vinegar, ancho chiles, and almond cookies to make a spicy Mexican chocolate tart crumble.
Like many cooking challenges, the show sells suspense and tension based not only on the secret ingredients, but also the short time allotted to turn them into meals fit for celebrity chefs with discriminating palettes. For Lichaa, though, the time proved to be less daunting than expected.
“Honestly, I was a little bit nervous, but I think nerves are the hardest part of it. That’s kind of how I cook dinner. I feel like that’s my weekday challenge—coming home from work opening my fridge and cooking up dinner with what’s in there,” she said. “I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it wasn’t as hard as I would have thought. Once you start cooking you’re cooking, and I thought, ‘I can do this.’ For me, everything melted away.”
She largely had to savor her victory in silence, though—the show’s producers stress that contestants are not to talk about being on the show until an air date is set, and even after that they have to refrain from talking about how they did. To Lichaa’s misfortune, the show originally aired on November 6, when most of America was focused on the election returns. It aired again this week, when Lichaa hosted a fundraiser for the Capital Area Food Bank at The Getaway in Columbia Heights, and will air again on November 20 at 6 p.m.
As for the prize money, Lichaa used it to pay off student loans, and says that at some point she hopes to open her own restaurant that blends eating and education. Until then, she’ll remain at the food bank, where she works with kids and parents on healthy eating.
“When I hear feedback from kids at our sites in the community about the food that we send, or meeting with parents and hearing how important the programs that we run are for them…that’s why I work here,” she said.