How does a chef mix bubblegum-flavored candy with hot and sour soup? How about “something out of the ordinary in a can” paired with “pink paste?” Local chef Caitlin Salisbury found out back on May 11 when she put her kitchen skills to the test on the Food Network’s signature competitive cooking show, “Chopped.” The rest of the world will find out how it went when the episode airs at 10 p.m. next Tuesday, March 6.
“I do a lot of running around in circles and cursing,” said Salisbury of her appearance. “It’s very me.”
The hit cooking show features four contestants competing for a $10,000 prize. Over the course of three stages — appetizer, main course and dessert — contestants test their creativity and ability to think on their feet.
At the start of each round, the chefs are presented with a “mystery basket” of ingredients that they must incorporate into their dish. Typically, the ingredients include bizarre combinations — think watermelon, canned sardines and pepper jack cheese — that would make the average home cook throw up their hands, or maybe just throw up. Chopped competitors, on the other hand, have to combine the off-the-wall elements with a few other ingredients from their pantry and in just 30 minutes turn out a dish that will impress a panel of celebrity-chef judges. Winners move on to the next round, losers go home, and the last chef standing walks away with the cash.
Salisbury, 28, began cooking professionally just a few years ago after working as a server and bartender. Starting out under the tutelage of a former fiancé, she moved on to develop her own style, with an emphasis on “comfort food.” She has worked at local establishments including Grimaldi’s in New Paltz and Uptown Kingston favorites Yum Yum noodle bar and Diego’s Taqueria.
“It was a lot of cuts, a lot of bruises, a lot of crying it walk-in coolers,” said Salisbury of her culinary education. “A lot of being humiliated and then going back the next day to do it again.”
Salisbury went through her audition process for the show armed with a hair-trigger smile, an un-chef-like capacity for small talk, and a back story as a small-town devout if occasionally foul mouthed church girl.
“I think they liked my personality, because I couldn’t shut up,” said Salisbury with a laugh. “I think they also want female chefs because there’s a real deficit.”
On the day of the competition, recorded in Food Network’s New York City studio, Salisbury met her competition, three chefs with decades more experience in the kitchen than she had. Over the course of the day, Salisbury said, long periods of set-up and non-competition shooting were interspersed with bursts of frantic activity working against the clock while jumping over cables and whirling around camera stations.
“It’s like the SATs, you have to be smart to get a good score, but it’s also about stamina,” said Salisbury. “There’s a lot of standing, a lot of doing the same thing over and over again, then they say ‘Go’ and I’m like, ‘Okay, are we going to do a second take?’ and they’re like, ‘No, this is the part where you run.’ I’m used to twelve-hour shifts, but it was a long day.”
The upside to the pressure, Salisbury said, was the leveling effect of the race to beat the clock, something that she said put her on an even playing field with her more experienced competition.
“It doesn’t matter, you could be an amazing chef who makes $100,000 or a year or you could just be a line cook,” said Salisbury. “But when they say ‘Go,’ you all just meet in the middle.”
Salisbury’s contract with the network bars her from getting into specifics of how she fared in the cookoff. But an episode summary provided by the show’s production team offers a hint of what she had to contend with. The episode, titled “Dim Sum Yum,” includes an appetizer challenge based on sweet candy and hot and sour soup, a classic Cantonese dim sum challenge and a dessert course built on the aforementioned pink paste and mystery-in-a-can.
All Caitlin will share about her appearance is a bit of advice for would-be contestants “You’ve got to taste everything as a you go along.” She does promise “hilarious calamity” for viewers.
Salisbury will be taking in the show at Uptown watering hole Snapper Magee’s, where she plans to gather with family and friends for a viewing party on Tuesday. She’s even invented a drinking game for the occasion.
“You take a shot every time I get bleeped out or make a mistake,” said Salisbury. “Half the people would be dead by the end, so don’t be afraid to tap out.”
The Chopped episode Dim Sum Yum premieres Tuesday, March 6 at 10 p.m. on Food Network.