The next time you enjoy an exquisite dish made from scratch, show your appreciation. It takes knowledge, time and attention to create perfection on a plate. As a chef, Danielle Saunders recognizes one ingredient as essential in the art of creating heavenly food memories.
“I was first taught that cooking is love, so that doesn’t mean pouring something out of a jar,” says the 2011 Grand Champion of Food Network’s “Chopped” competition. Saunders learned to cook with love in her family’s kitchens. “That was one of the main rules my mother and father taught me. If you are going to do something, be the best that you can be at whatever you do.”
Her passion for being the best fueled the 34-year-old chef’s performance on the grand finale of “Chopped Champions” last September. Geoffrey Zakarian, a “Chopped” judge and the Food Network’s newest Iron Chef, told Saunders her food “was both simple and complex” and “incredibly robust.”
The former personal chef to Sean “P. Diddy” Combs started cultivating her talent for cooking at the age of five. Her grandfather, Gernel Morgan, was a professional chef for 35 years. He and his wife, Ernestine, showed the young Saunders the meaning of “from scratch” cooking on their farm in South Carolina.
One of her indelible memories is learning to trim collard greens and cut them into narrow strips. Years later, the New York Restaurant School graduate found out chiffonade is the French name for the technique her grandmother taught her during those cooking-from-the-heart sessions.
“For the most part, when it comes to cooking for clients, for my family or whoever it might be, I give 150. That means cooking it with love and making sure it comes out right,” Saunders adds.
Her mother, Martha’s, Charleston roots and the New Orleans background of her father, Lamont Saunders, also seasoned her signature style. She calls it soul fusion, the art of refining soul food with new ingredients and techniques influenced by other cultures.
“Taking the negative connotation out of soul food is what I would love to do,” she says. “That’s my mission; to replace things that you don’t need to make the food taste good and really taking traditional Southern dishes and elevating them.”
Her culinary journey to becoming an award-winning chef includes stops in the upscale atmosphere surrounding such highly regarded chefs as Michael Lamonaco and Anne Rosenzweig. Later, Saunders traveled the world with Combs, cooking and talking with food professionals in different countries. Each experience prepared her for the intense competition on “Chopped.”
“Thank God, I am blessed with the talent to be able to cook well. I’ve worked for a lot of high profile people where being under pressure and having time restraints is just the regular way of life,” Saunders explains. “Being able to work for people like that really helped to set me up for a competition like ‘Chopped.'”
The $50,000 prize, minus taxes, is one of the rewards Saunders reaped from her concentration, skill and creativity on the reality cooking competition. The recognition that followed is providing new opportunities to pursue her vision and inspire others. She says, “Hard work and dedication will get you exactly what you need.”
Today, Saunders stays busy helping Combs and other clients eat healthier meals as the resident chef for the well-known “nutritionist to the stars,” Dr. Oz Garcia. She is also working on a memoir-style cookbook that will bring to life some 300 of her grandfather’s original recipes.
No matter how jammed her schedule, Saunders knows Sunday family dinners are still sacred. She shares that being tired or busy is not as important as what a good, from scratch meal can do for others. “I said to my mom, ‘God can make you an incubator of comfort for someone else.'”
Try this Risotto Jambalaya recipe for a taste of her soul fusion cuisine.
12 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped
4 ounces chicken, diced
1 tablespoon Creole seasoning
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper
1/4 cup chopped red bell peppers
1/4 cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
3 bay leaves
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon hot sauce
3/4 Arborio rice (an Italian short-grain rice)
1/2 cup wild rice
3 cups chicken stock
5 ounces Andouille sausage, cubed
Salt and pepper
1. In a bowl combine shrimp, chicken and Creole seasoning, and work in seasoning well.
2. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and add the onion, bell peppers and celery. Cook for 3 minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes, bay leaves, Worcestershire and hot sauce.
3. Stir in rice and slowly add broth. Reduce heat to medium and cook until rice absorbs liquid and becomes tender, stirring constantly. It takes about 15 minutes. When rice is just tender add the shrimp and chicken mixture along with the sausage.
4. Cook until the meat and shrimp are done, about 10 minutes more. Season to taste with salt, pepper and Creole seasoning.