As host Ted Allen best put it at the beginning of last night's Chopped Champions grand finale: "We could not be more pumped about this ultimate tournament grand finale lineup. Three amazing bold amateurs versus one strong and steady pro."
That pro was Giorgio Rapicavoli, chef and owner of Eating House, who after winning Chopped Champions' first round, pushed through to the dessert round in the finale, losing to Diana Sabater at the very end.
Chopped Champions winners from four rounds ("pros," "heroes," "amateurs," and "celebrities") went head-to-head in one last kitchen battle for $50,000 and a new car.
Rapicavoli kicked the episode off by stating, "Cooking is my life, not my hobby." He was joined by hero Diana Sabater, a single mom of two and police department dropout with dreams of owning a food truck; amateur Keith Young, who's a hero in his own right as one of the New York City firefighters who survived 9/11; and celebrity Laila Ali, who inherited the boxing gene from dad Muhammad Ali and has been fighting professionally for ten years.
Chances are nobody took Sabater seriously in the beginning when she said, "Giorgio could take his foie gras and keep it moving, 'cause I'm gonna win this 50K." The ambitious cook did just that, although the competition was neck-and-neck.
First-round baskets were filled with duck confit, orange cream ice pops, ramp, and risotto. An instant smirk from Rapicavoli showed the chef already had something up his sleeve. "Giorgio must feel an immense amount of pressure," said judge and owner of Scarpetta, Scott Conant.
Responded Rapicavoli: "Being the only professional here, all these eyes are on me, but I like that I think it brings out the best in me."
He made a duck confit l'orange with orange cream risotto and a purée of ramp. His station also caught on fire when a napkin that was left on the heated stove. The chef had no idea until Ali pointed it out. "It's kind of embarrassing that my paper towel is on fire, but there's definitely a lot more pressure on me being the only pro. I have a walking target on my back." That pressure got to him in round one; he knew his risotto was off before he even fed it to judges Geoffrey Zakarian, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Conant. Conant commented that it tasted like wallpaper. When each chef was called on to make a comment in round one, Rapicavoli mentioned his competitors' talents. "They say amateurs, but they can cook. These aren't three random Joes. They are talented people."
Still, one of them wasn't talented enough. Young was eliminated in round one for having too much ketchup in his dish. Round two's basket came filled with pig's head, ajvar, vegetable steam buns, and Chinese broccoli. Rapicavoli was probably the only contestant excited by the pig's head; he seized the opportunity to go back to his Italian roots with a pasta amatraciana. Tossing his pasta into the water only ten minutes before the clock was up not only concerned the judges but also had the audience on edge wondering whether Rapicavoli was gonna make it. He did, although Zakarian was hard on him for his pasta being undercooked. It was Ali's dish, however, and her overwhelmingly dense pancake that got her sent home.
Asked whom she'd want to take to the last round, Ali chose Rapicavoli, calling him very talented. But Rapicavoli didn't feel the same, selecting Sabater when the judges flipped the question to him. Getting his wish and moving into round three, Rapicavoli and Sabater opened their baskets to find corn muffin tops (lots of jokes here), whiskey madacamia nuts, and chocolate-covered gummy bears.
From the get-go, Sabater was on a mission, and she went right into making a
chocolate gummy tart with macadamia corn crust. Rapicavoli went with a loose take on an apple pie à la mode, tooting his horn and letting the audience know dessert is one of his strong suits. The final round and all of its suspense came down to the last second, with catastrophe striking Sabater when her chocolate tart crumbled to pieces upon plating. "I see my food truck crumbling with it," she said.
Rapicavoli's dessert comment proved right -- his dish wowed the judges. They called it the best course he'd cooked all night and praised his presentation. It seemed certain he would take the Chopped title for the third time, but his mistakes in the previous two courses sent the judges in a different direction. Sabater was named the first Chopped Champions champion and the proud owner of a new car and $50,000.
New Times spoke with Rapicavoli after last night's show. "Going up against stories instead of chefs definitely changed the dynamic of the show for me. You sit in a room with these people and hear their stories and struggles, and that resonates with you. As much as you don't want it to, it gets in your head when you're cooking. The judges said I was in my head a bit too much, and they were right."
The family-centric chef said all he thought about was his mom and the fact that she, like Sabater with her two children, had raised him and his sister by herself. "There are more important things than just money and materials. This experience was different from the others I've had on Chopped. I learned that I can put down my desire to win, put my ego aside, and I can take a loss."
Asked about the gummy risotto and undercooked pasta, the chef chuckled and reminded us of his Italian background and his famed pasta carbonara at Eating House.
"Diana was an awesome lady. She busts her balls and is so obsessed and proud of her kids. To me, family has always been the most important thing, and this experience reminded me of that."
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Calls to Sabater for comment were unsuccessful.
Follow Carla on Twitter @ohcarlucha