SOBEWFF 2016: Chopped's Amanda Freitag and Marc Murphy Dish About Their TV Show, Cooking, and Bloody Marys

When Food Network launched the cooking competition Chopped in January 2009, it probably didn't predict the enormous following it would gain. The show, which tasks four hopeful chefs to make meals using ingredients in a mystery basket and then slowly chops the contestants until one remains, could have been just another bit of escapist television if not for its own secret ingredient — the judges.

Led by host Ted Allen, the judges can, at any given moment, be sympathetic, motivational, harsh, or snarky, depending upon the dish placed before them. They're also not above putting one another in the hot seat during the popular Chopped After Hours, which turns the tables on the judges as they attempt to make a cohesive meal from a basket containing items such as squid, kale, and jelly beans. This format can work only when the judges are seasoned kitchen veterans in their own right. Two such chefs are Marc Murphy and Amanda Freitag.

The son of a diplomat, Marc Murphy spent his childhood throughout France and Italy, a perfect way to forge a lifetime romance with food. Murphy's career spans more than two decades, in which he worked at some of the best kitchens in the world, including Le Miraville in Paris, Alain Ducasse's Louis XV in Monte Carlo, and Cellar in the Sky at the World Trade Center in New York. Murphy is the owner and executive chef of Benchmarc Restaurants (Landmarc and Ditch Plains), and he recently opened Grey Salt at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa. When he's not putting chefs on the Chopped block, the author of Season With Authority: Confident Home Cooking is a board member of the Food Council for City Harvest

Amanda Freitag is a stern Chopped judge with high standards and a weakness for chocolate. Her newest TV series, American Diner Revival, is in its second season and follows Freitag and costar Ty Pennington as they revitalize struggling family-owned eateries. But her success began long before Food Network stardom. The New Jersey native was executive chef at critically acclaimed New York City restaurants such as Gusto and the Harrison.

She and Murphy will host several South Beach Wine & Food Festival events before joining fellow Chopped alums Ted Allen, Scott Conant, Marcus Samuelsson, Chris Santos, Alex Guarnaschelli, Aarón Sánchez, Geoffrey Zakarian, and Maneet Chauhan at the Bloody Mary Brunch at the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale Sunday, February 28.

Marc Murphy

New Times: You just opened a restaurant in Tampa, Grey Salt. Why did you choose Tampa over Miami?

Marc Murphy: The Hard Rock is doing quite a lot of work and really expanding their culinary. The casino is very beautiful, and it's like working with a great little family. Going into Tampa, it's a different feeling than Miami. There, it's me and I'm not competing with six or seven celebrity chefs of the same caliber. Tom Colicchio and Alex Guarnaschelli just opened places in Miami. I'd rather be a big fish in a little pond than a little fish in a big pond. Besides, I gotta tell you, it's nice over there. There's a great culinary scene in Tampa, plus my son is a big Yankees fan, and that's where they have spring training.

If you were given a blank check, where would you open your next restaurant?

Right now I would probably choose Los Angeles. I think you need to anchor yourself on both coasts to get your reputation up, plus the produce is so beautiful. Five years ago, before Uber started, I wouldn't have considered California because people had to drive everywhere. Now people take Uber so they can have a bottle of wine and not have to drive home.

So, for you as a chef, Uber is a game changer?

It's interesting to me that certain areas are fighting Uber. So you're telling me that you would rather spend the time and expense of pulling over drunk drivers. You'd rather have your taxes from your taxi companies than have people alive. In Tampa, drunk-driving incidents are down like 30 percent since Uber started there. It's a no-brainer.

You're bringing the Chopped Bloody Mary brunch down from the New York Wine & Food Festival. What can fans expect?

We're going down to the Ritz-Carlton in Fort Lauderdale. It's going to be a bloody mary competition — which is good — and all the Chopped judges and Ted [Allen] will be there. It's a meet-your-fans thing.

And the Chopped cast really interacts with fans. You guys are not just behind a velvet rope or in some VIP area.

I think that's the personality of the cast. We're all very lucky to be on the show and there's no reason not to be nice and have a great time. We're not in some factory butting a bolt on a tire; we have great jobs. Why would we be cranky and not want to spend time with our fans? We've been doing this for close to seven years. There's a natural bond that's very apparent to people. When we get together, there's an energy that goes along with it.

The show gets really intense. There are a lot of contestant meltdowns.

Here's the deal: Some people get upset, some cry, some of the food is pretty nasty. Some people come into the competition thinking they're hotshots, and then when they realize 20 minutes is really 20 minutes, they go, "Oh shit." That's the best one — when they're standing in front of you after coming in all cocky and they're like, "Oh, God, it looked a lot easier when I was watching it on TV." It's interesting, because it's a long, tiring day. It's really grueling and people get emotional. Us chef boys, we're really very sensitive.

Marc Murphy will appear at the following SOBEWFF events:

Dinner hosted by Marc Murphy, Anne Burrell, and Brendan Connor: 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, February 27, at Whisk, 7382 SW 56th Ave., Miami. Tickets cost $250. Visit sobefest.com

Bloody Mary Brunch, hosted by the Cast of Chopped: Noon to 2 p.m. Sunday, February 28, at the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale, 1 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $175. Visit sobefest.com

Amanda Freitag

New Times: Your cooking style seems like a combination of French, Southeast Asian, American, and more. Has any one particular region influenced your style most?

Amanda Freitag: I cooked Italian food for many, many, many years, and I love it, and I love the sensibility of Italian food, which falls over into Mediterranean or Israeli or even American regional foods. They cook what grows in their backyard... so I love how those cuisines are very ingredient-driven, and that's how I like to cook.

As a celebrity chef, what is your home cooking really like?

That's such a relevant question right now because I launched my first cookbook, The Chef Next Door. It's kind of a love letter to the home cook to say, no, I don't make gourmet meals and cook fois gras and duck at home, because I also don't have a dishwasher and I don't have a stack of sauté pans and industrial ovens at home — nobody does. It's very hard to cook professionally at home. I had to adjust to make things just as delicious, just as good at home. And usually, they're one pan or one pot or one sheet pan that goes in the oven kind of meals, because for me, in New York, I store a lot of things in my oven. I have to take everything out before I actually cook in it.

So The Chef Next Door is an accurate representation of how you cook at home?

It's spot on. I still make all of those recipes at home, and they're perfect for making in a small kitchen with very little equipment. That was the whole idea... an anti-recipe and anti-cookbook cookbook... I wanted you to be able to get the book, open it, and start cooking right away — that was the deal.

What is it like to be an executive chef when that role is so male-dominated?

I've been an executive chef in many different restaurants, and I think the future for female chefs is great. My point of view is really to just call us chefs... Yes, I know that by way of osmosis, I may be a role model for other females who are looking to be in this industry, but I think if we can drop the word "female" and just be a chef, then things will get very different, and as men and women in the kitchen, that will balance out. And it is — I see that happening a lot more. It's very different than it was when I started. I eat all over the country when I travel, and it's always different points of view — whether you're a man, a woman, whether you're Indian, Asian, Italian, anybody who's cooking brings a different point of view. Your background and whoever you are shows in the food, so I think it's great to have a balance and diversity in the kitchen.

You're hosting the Bloody Mary Brunch Sunday with the rest of the Chopped judges. What is it like to host an event with the whole crew?

Well, it gets really loud... We rarely are in one place at one time because we're rotating and we're all very busy, so to have us all in one room is so much fun. To see the reaction of our fans to see us all together is always so great, and we're also drinking a whole lot of bloody marys, which, over the years, it's blown my mind how creative the chefs have gotten with their bloody marys.

You're known on Chopped for your love of chocolate. Does it work when contestants try to win you over with it?

Well, it's not necessarily an automatic win, putting chocolate in a dessert, but chocolate is always in the pantry... and nine times out of ten, chocolate would be a great addition to anything you have in that basket. But Ted and I have talked about this several times: chocolate mousse. Chocolate mousse is one of the easy, easy, easy, most delicious chocolate desserts in the world, and rarely do people make it. You can make a mousse and put lots of crunchy garnishes, and there you go. So there's a good tip.

Nowadays, the culinary world seems to be all about progression and innovation. Do you have that one staple recipe you'll never mess with?

That's such a good question because I'm a huge advocate for if you're afraid to cook, get in the kitchen, use a recipe once to make yourself comfortable, but then riff, make it your own... I think people who are afraid to cook think they have to stick to that recipe and they have to do it exactly how it says, and yeah, recipes are a guideline that can show you how to do it, but once you get a few under your belt, I think it's great to put your own signature on it... and that's the fun of being in the kitchen.

Amanda Freitag will appear at the following SOBEWFF event:

Bloody Mary Brunch, hosted by the Cast of Chopped: Noon to 2 p.m. Sunday, February 28, at the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale, 1 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $175. Visit sobefest.com

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