Chef Chat: Leia Gaccione to Compete in “Chopped” Finale

Having bested Alton's Maniacal Baskets once, Gaccione shares her thoughts in advance of her appearance in the tournament's final round.

gaccione chopped
Gaccione will compete in the Chopped: Alton's Maniacal Baskets finale on July 20. Photo courtesy of South + Pine

After competing in the first round of Chopped: Alton’s Maniacal Baskets, chef Leia Gaccione has reigned victorious and is headed to the finale. Watch her in the final showdown on Tuesday, July 20, at 9 pm EST.

We caught up with Gaccione to chat about her Chopped experience and what it felt like to be the last one standing. (This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

[RELATED: Chef Chat: Leia Gaccione Chops the Competition]

Table Hopping: Congratulations on your Chopped win!
Leia Gaccione: Thank you! It’s so crazy to watch the show on TV for so many years and then actually be in the Chopped kitchen.

TH: What was your biggest challenge in the kitchen?
LG: The first round was hardest because you’re just getting acclimated to having to work on a timer. It’s a little bit of a shock to the system. You’re cooking a dish in 20 minutes, so you have to get geared up for that.

TH: In the baskets were ingredients like black radishes, pickle-flavored jelly beans and lutefisk. What was most difficult to work with?
LG: Each round had their challenges. The lutefisk was extremely challenging. I’ve never heard of it until that moment. People keep making jokes asking me when I’m gonna put lutefisk on my menus. I was like, guys, never.

TH: Were there any ingredients you actually enjoyed using?
LG: I think the black limes were really interesting. They had a unique flavor. Any fresh ingredients, like the black radishes, I would work with again. I would never put musk stick cake or dill pickle jelly beans into another dish, but it was fun being able to push myself out of my comfort zone and cook things I’m not used to cooking with.

TH: Before opening the basket, do you have ideas of possible dishes in your head?
LG: I don’t think you can be prepared for something like that. Like, if my basket was different, I may not have been able to do a taco [in round two]. I always tell myself any time I do a cooking competition, it’s just cooking. Whether they give you the best local ingredients or they give you wild ones like lutefisk and fermented soybeans, I think that it’s just cooking.

TH: What’s the process like from seeing the ingredients to making them into a dish?
LG: Once you start to taste the basket ingredients and understand their flavor profiles, you can decide what direction you’re going to go in. It’s like putting pieces of a puzzle together.

That second basket had that weird barbecue jello thing with cottage cheese. That was a tough one for me. In my head, I was thinking the natto is probably going to be a little salty, there was probably going to be a little sweet from the barbecue sauce, and I can use the cottage cheese to whip into a creamy topping.

TH: Is there anything behind the scenes that goes on that we don’t see on TV?
LG: The time that you have to cook is true. When they tell you that you have 20 minutes to cook, you really only have 20 minutes. The most shocking thing was that it takes all day to film. We got there at 6 in the morning, and I got back to my hotel around 10:30 at night. It’s a long day. The judges have to go through and talk about each dish three times and then deliberate and decide who’s going to win. At the end of the day, when we do interviews, I just asked them for some shots of espresso!

TH: How did it feel being the last one standing?
LG: Any time I do a competition, I don’t go in thinking, “I’m gonna win this thing.” It’s a show—there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser—but I’m just going to go in and do my best. But to actually be the Chopped champion was pretty awesome and exciting. The experience was so valuable and cooking in that kitchen was an honor, to just stand in a room with people you admire.

TH: What can we expect from the finale episode? Even crazier baskets?
LG: There were even crazier basket ingredients. One of them looked like it was from a dinosaur. It is so crazy. I’ve never seen or heard of anything like that in my life! There is also an interesting ingredient in the dessert round. The finale episode is not to be missed.

Watch chef Leia Gaccione compete in the finale episode of “Chopped: Alton’s Maniacal Baskets” on Tuesday, July 20, at 9 pm EST. Also, visit her restaurants, Central + Main in Madison and South + Pine in Morristown.

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