Chef Chat: Leia Gaccione Chops the Competition

The New Jersey restauranteur turned competitive chef reflects on lessons learned while raging against the clock on the Food Network's Chopped.

chopped leia gaccione
Gaccione, restauranteur and Chopped champion. Photo courtesy of South + Pine

[UPDATE: On Tuesday, July 6, Leia Gaccione won her episode of “Chopped,” mastering a fiendish list of ingredients (suggested by fans of guest judge Alton Brown) that included lutefisk, a Scandinavian form of dried cod tenderized in lye and boiled to a gummy consistency.]

Leia Gaccione, chef and owner of Central + Main in Madison and South + Pine in Morristown, is headed back to the Food Network for some competition against the clock.

Gaccione, no stranger to competition, has already appeared on Beat Bobby Flay in the past to take on her former mentor. This time, she’s headed into the Chopped kitchen to test her skills under the watchful eyes of esteemed judges Alton Brown, Maneet Chauhan and Marcus Samuelsson. Brown was responsible for selecting out-of-the-ordinary basket ingredients the competitors were required to use in their dishes.

“Regardless of the outcome, it was an incredible opportunity to stand in front of such huge talent,” says Gaccione. “Having them give feedback on my cooking was priceless.” (This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

[RELATED: Chef Chat: Shaka’s Kiersten Gormeley Serves Up the Aloha Spirit]

Table Hopping: You’ve been on the Food Network before, but what was it like being in the Chopped kitchen for the first time?
Leia Gaccione: It was definitely surreal walking into that kitchen because I’ve watched it on TV for so many years. It’s bizarre to be there after watching such an iconic show—it was really a “pinch me” moment.

TH: What’s your favorite aspect of the competition?
LG: Before I ever did any cooking competitions on TV, I was scared shitless. Now, I love it, and I live for that rush of being challenged to make a dish in under 20 minutes. It’s definitely nerve-wracking, but it’s also exhilarating.

TH: What was most challenging?
LG: The time goes very fast. We get around 20 minutes, but it feels like five. I think the biggest challenge was that the name of the episode was “Alton’s Maniacal Baskets,” with the hardest baskets in Chopped history. There were things I had never heard of in my life. I didn’t even know it was going to be a special episode until the morning of. Alton got to choose three of the ingredients, and he asked viewers to pick one. The viewers were brutal.

TH: As a Food Network veteran, compare being on Chopped to Beat Bobby Flay.
LG: I don’t want to say that I like one more than the other. It’s definitely fun to compete against Bobby Flay because he’s one of my mentors, though it was really cool to go up against other chefs who were not celebrity chefs but extremely talented individuals.

It was a really diverse group of chefs. We formed a nice camaraderie even though we were all competing against each other, which I think was nice. Some people have an old-school mentality about competition like there can only be a winner and a loser, but we all have to support each other. I think that’s a valuable lesson in competition, in business and in life. We formed a nice friendship and had such a fun day hanging out.

TH: Do you think you’ll continue to do more Food Network shows?
LG: If they’ll have me, I’ll definitely go back! You’re so in the moment in the show, it’s almost like an out-of-body experience. This was also a tournament challenge, so the finale will air July 20.

Watch Gaccione’s appearance on the Food Network’s “Chopped” airing July 6 and 20. Also, visit her restaurants, Central + Main in Madison and South + Pine in Morristown.

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