Saluting Jersey’s Chopped Champs

Some of New Jersey's top, young chefs have been drawing national attention for their efforts on the Food Network's reality cooking show Chopped.

New Jersey chefs have been rising like soufflés on the Food Network’s reality cooking show, Chopped. In a one-day competition, four chefs vie for a $10,000 prize. Utilizing a basket of unusual, sometimes problematic, mandatory ingredients, plus anything in the studio’s extensive pantry and fridge, the chefs must work against the clock to whip up a convincing appetizer, entrée and dessert. After each round, the judges chop one contestant.

WINNER: Eric LeVine, 41 RESIDES: Florham Park CURRENT POSITION: Executive chef, Montammy Golf Club, Alpine EPISODE DATE: January 2011
After his win, LeVine negotiated to open a restaurant in Hoboken, which he foresaw as serving “global cuisine with a healthy cooking style.” That didn’t happen. However, his hors d’oeuvres cookbook, Stick It, Spoon It, Put It in a Glass, was published in February by Catersource.

WINNER: Wade Burch, 44 RESIDES: New Providence CURRENT POSITION: Executive chef, Southwest NY restaurant, Manhattan EPISODE DATE: November 2010
Burch came across a Food Network table at a trade show. “A producer asked if I wanted to be on the show,” he recalls. “I said no, because I hadn’t done a competition in some time. She said, ‘The prize is $10,000.’ I stopped in my tracks.” Burch trained hard. He studied previous episodes to orient himself to where all the equipment and ingredients were located. “Our neighbors came over with a bag from Whole Foods and told me to make a dessert.” Burch says the $10,000 went for a trip to Disney World with his family. “We went the day after the Super Bowl, because, for me, this was like winning the Super Bowl.”

WINNER: Erik Weatherspool, 41 RESIDES: Brick CURRENT POSITION: Chef/owner, Bistro 44, Toms River EPISODE DATE: March 2010
Nervous in the interview and on the way to the taping, Weatherspool says his nerves settled “halfway through the first course.” But his experience at Bistro 44 put him at ease. “We order ingredients and then put new things together for our specials,” he says, noting that his win has been great for business. “The Bistro got a real boost from it.”

WINNER: Justin Gaines, 29 RESIDES: West New York CURRENT POSITION: Chef de partie, Bouchon Bakery, Rockefeller Center, Manhattan EPISODE DATE: January 2010
When a friend suggested that Gaines, a CIA grad, try out for Chopped, “I didn’t even know what the show was about,” he confesses. Fortunately, Chopped’s format is similar to the CIA’s cooking practicals—exercises with mandatory ingredients. “Also, I had a boss in New Orleans who would challenge me on the spot to create dishes for dinner features, and he wanted dishes he had not already seen,” says Gaines, a Montclair native. In addition to his job (Bouchon Bakery is part of the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group), he has a personal chef and catering business (, which brings him back to New Jersey for weddings and other events. Opening his own restaurant in New Jersey is “inevitable,” he says. “Montclair is home.”

Mike Carrino, 32 RESIDES: Nutley
CURRENT POSITION: Chef/owner, Restaurant Passionné, Montclair EPISODE DATE: April 2009
“I thought it would be exciting to be part of a new show,” says Carrino. Dessert was the most challenging course for him. His basket included gummy bears, kiwi, wontons and blackberries, which he turned into wontons filled with kiwi and gummy bears. “I used the blackberries to make a sauce with pink peppercorns.” A CIA graduate, Carrino, 32, has also cooked on Today, Good Day New York, and other morning programs. “TV has been a great way to introduce people to what I do,” he says.

WINNER: Darius Peacock, 41 RESIDES: Columbus CURRENT POSITION: Director of culinary operations, Max and David’s restaurant, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. EPISODE DATES: February and September 2009
In 2008, when he was a caterer in Trenton, Peacock approached the Food Network about hosting a cooking show, and they countered by inviting him to compete on their new series, Chopped. Peacock also appeared on the first Chopped Champions episode and won a second $10,000. To practice, “I did a guest lecture for Chef Timothy Witcher, a friend teaching at Burlington County Institute of Technology, and we imitated the show as a class. It was a great test.” He still hopes to land his own cooking show. “I’m in negotiations with different networks,” he says.

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