Cooking competitions on television entertain hundreds of thousands of viewers each week. The time clock stress, colorful personalities and culinary problem-solving on such shows as “Beat Bobby Flay,” “Chopped,” “The Great Food Truck Race,” “Food Network Star” and “Guy’s Grocery Games” are now the staple of the Food Network.
A 2014 article in The Atlantic examined the growth of cooking competitions on the Food Network. A study reported the number of shows had increased from two in 2005 to 16 in 2013. Tasha Oren, an associate professor of English and Media Studies and director of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, conducted the 2013 study.
Programs on the Food Network, Bravo, Fox and TV channels that pit celebrity chefs, home cooks and restaurant staff against each other produce high drama, suspense and creativity for fans to consume. They also demonstrate what it takes to prepare stand out dishes in a high-pressure atmosphere. Some winners of these cooking battles gain additional recognition and new opportunities from the publicity or cash prizes.
Winners of popular TV cooking competitions often include Blacks in various culinary professions. One of the most recent winners defeated celebrity chef Bobby Flay on his Food Network show. The victory has made a difference for chef Stephen Jones of Phoenix, Ariz. “It has helped in a very positive way,” says Jones. “I think it has brought a little more respect for me in the valley.”
Here is more information about Jones and four other black chefs who triumphed over competitors on the Food Network this year.
Chef Stephen Jones
Last December Jones took home $30,000 after winning the finale of “Guy’s Grocery Games: Impossible.” He battled against two other chefs for the opportunity to face off against celebrity chef Robert Irvine. Jones plans to use some of his winnings to open a new version of The Larder + The Delta, the much-praised counter restaurant he operated at DeSoto.
He closed the restaurant in July to work on moving the concept to a stand-alone place. “The new location is coming along,” says Jones. “It’s bigger, which means we can do more and complete our vision.” Food critics recognized The Larder + The Delta as Best New Restaurant, Best Southern Restaurant and Best Farm to Table Restaurant in Arizona when it opened in 2015.
Two other eateries Jones oversaw at the downtown market are still open. Jones’ sous chef Jeremy Armstrong is now running the kitchens at Walrus & The Pearl and DCM Burger Joint.
Chef de Cuisine Joe Johnson
When Battle 2 of “Chopped Grill Masters: Season 2 got underway on Aug. 8, Joe Johnson had to work with something stuffed and something smoked for the appetizer round. By the time he was tasked to use beans in the dessert round, Johnson had already defeated two of the four competitors in live-fire cooking. His victory in Battle 2 qualified Johnson to move on to show’s final on Aug. 29.
Johnson’s skills on the grill helped him create winning dishes from a rack of boar and other unusual ingredients to eliminate the three other grill master champions. The $50,000 prize and Napa Valley vacation he won represent a sweet victory for the chef de cuisine at Charcoal Venice, a neighborhood restaurant in Southern California inspired by the backyard barbecues of chef/owner Josiah Citrin.
The restaurant celebrated Johnson’s win on its website. The live-fire dishes he crafts at Charcoal Venice reflect his exacting standards. This quote from the restaurant’s About Us page explains the chef de cuisine’s culinary philosophy: “I like to let the quality of the raw ingredients speak for themselves without too much manipulation. Although I may add complementary flavors to enhance the ingredient, I want guests to taste the purity of these fresh farmers’ market items.”
Johnson learned cooking basics from his grandmother, who employed classic French techniques in her kitchen. He landed his first job washing dishes at a hotel restaurant at age 16, and by 19 Johnson held the title of executive chef. A few years later, he left the hotel and his hometown of Petersburg, Virginia. The young chef moved to the Los Angeles area and graduated from the Le Cordon Bleu-affiliated California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena in 2012.
Johnson joined Citrin’s two Michelin-star restaurant Mélisse and rapidly moved up the ranks there before becoming the chef de cuisine at Charcoal Venice. He is also co-founder of Cork District, a handcrafted apron line he created with friend Gary Nguyen.
Pastry Chef Crystal Smith
Her bourbon bread pudding became the most requested dessert at the BayviewYacht Club in Detroit when Crystal Smith joined the restaurant staff in June 2016. In fact, the pastry chef created all of the desserts on the menu, inspired by the cobblers, cakes and pies her grandmother and great-grandmother taught her to make when she was a child.
Those cooking lessons from age 12 and beyond guided Smith when she took on three competitors in the July 11 “Flour Power” episode of “Chopped” on the Food Network. The mother of three won $10,000 with her creative preparations of mystery basket ingredients.
The “Chopped” competition is one of the most grueling on television. Competitors create an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. They usually get 20 to 30 minutes to cook in each of the three rounds. Smith came out on top by creating a fajita flatbread, roasted chicken in mushroom cream sauce and a mixed berry shortcake.
Smith left the yacht club in September to devote time to her company, You Had Me at Cake 313 LLC. She plans to open a storefront where people can get her unique desserts and much more. The pastry chef says she wants to provide support and opportunities to others as a fixture of her community. “For me, that’ll give me a sense of fulfillment,” says Smith. “For me, that’s what being rich is about. It’s not about money; it’s about being happy.”
Follow Smith on Instagram and Facebook to see what she is mixing up next.
Chef Charly Pierre
As an American-born chef with deep roots in his Haitian culture, Charly Pierre moved to New Orleans in 2015 with his soul mate Minerva (Eva) Chereches and a vision. They brought the flavor and soul of Haitian cooking to the city when they opened Fritai at St. Roch Market less than a year later.
By the next summer, Pierre had achieved another culinary accomplishment. He won the Food Network’s Chopped competition on June 27 of this year. The “Snap Pea to It” episode pitted Pierre against three other chefs applying their skills to mystery baskets and a tight deadline. The Boston native mastered such ingredients as lamb kebobs, avocado toast, cornish hens, black rice, olive oil cake and kiwi to take home the $10,000 prize.
Today, Pierre and Chereches are enjoying the popularity of their restaurant, Fritai (a Haitian fried pork dish). The couple makes it a point to hire locals and focus on showing respect for employees, customers and the city. The menu offers dishes inspired by the cooking Pierre learned growing up in his mother’s kitchen. The restaurants signature pork sandwich made with fried plantains is a twist on a traditional Haitian dish suggested by Chereches. They eventually hope to move Fritai to a larger space with a more extensive menu and a cool bar. They describe their future restaurant as “a hole in the wall” where people will dine on delicious Haitian-inspired dishes offered at reasonable prices.
Chef Lazarus Lynch
The story Lazarus Lynch tells about his journey as a chef makes it clear that he is immensely proud of his heritage, especially his late father Johnny “Ray” Lynch. After all, he followed in his dad’s footsteps, building a career by branding himself as the son of a Southern chef.
Lynch accomplished a culinary achievement that most certainly would have thrilled his father. The chef claimed a $50,000 prize by becoming the Grand Champion of a Chopped tournament on Food Network. The year, the chef won his round of “Star Power: Web Stars!” on March 28. He then defeated three more tournament champions during the “Star Power: Grand Finale” on April 25. He showed off his culinary training and creativity with mystery baskets that included lobster tails, cinnamon toaster pastries, bitter melon, swineapple, soursop and drinkable yogurt.
The New York City native is gaining new fans as the host of “Comfort Nation,” a Food Network original digital series. The show takes viewers on a journey of NYC’s comfort food from around the world. Lynch is fulfilling his dream of paying it forward by keeping alive the recipes of his father, grandmother and great-grandmother and sharing them with a new generation of food lovers.
Check out Food Network’s exclusive interview with Lynch. You can also find out what he is up to on the Son of a Southern Chef website and Facebook page. Be sure to follow him on Instagram and Twitter.