From the moment the chef and owner of Crave BBQ and Grammie’s Down-Home Chicken & Seafood stepped in front of the cameras on Food Network’s “Chopped,” he had a mission. Rashad Armstead wanted his story to inspire young people back in his Oakland community.
“The environment I grew up in was really, really rough,” Armstead said in his introduction. “It was easier to go and find drugs than it was to find a job.” The 31-year-old chef used his interest in cooking to stay out of jail and away from trouble. He arrived at the “Chopped” competition with the confidence of a champion. “Winning ‘Chopped’ is my destiny. I’m ready to show the world what I’m made of.”
Armstead demonstrated skill, creativity and heart with his preparation of mystery basket ingredients. He told the judges why beating his three competitors would mean so much to him. “Me winning ‘Chopped’ is going to show all the girls and boys that are coming from the neighborhoods where I’m coming from that you can make it,” Armstead said.
From Struggle to Victory
Relatives, friends and Oakland residents who watched “Take the Cake” on July 23 saw the chef’s emotional victory. With his head bowed and tears falling from his eyes as his third-round competitor Juan Rodriguez was chopped, Armstead realized his $10,000 prize validated his long struggle to be a successful chef. “This win is going to show my community that you can be a little boy coming from nothing and you can turn your life into something,” he said.
The judges put a big smile on Armstead’s face when they praised his cooking. Although they found a few faults with his dishes, he impressed them with his flavors and originality. Chef and restaurateur Geoffry Zakarian tasted the banana ketchup Armstead made to go with a fried soft shell crab and said, “This sauce is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. It’s that good. I indeed learned something.”
Executive chef Alex Guarnaschelli called the entrée dish brilliant. The “Chopped” judges joined other food critics who began to take notice of Armstead after he launched Crave BBQ pop-up dinners in the Oakland area. He used the inspiration and culinary skills learned from his mother and other talented family cooks with Southern roots to open Grammie’s in June. The quick-service takeout eatery at 3817 Market Street in Oakland is named after his great-grandmother Sarah Rawls, an accomplished Bay area restaurateur and TV chef in the 1970s through the 1990s.
Armstead’s great-grandmother would be proud of his performance on “Chopped “and the dessert that wowed the judges. His fried rice pudding with strawberry-raspberry sauce and whipped cream sealed his victory. “I don’t think I’ve ever had deep-fried rice pudding,” said chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson. “I love how you folded in the Swedish Princess cake into it. This is delicious.” Judge Zakarian agreed. “It’s mesmerizing. I keep eating it.” Even the runner up that judges called an amazing chef was impressed. “It was a good fight. He deserved to win,” said Juan Rodriguez, chef and owner of Magdalena’s Catering Events in Fort Worth, Texas.
Armstead started his culinary journey working as a dishwasher in a hospital cafeteria at age 16. He completed a six-month culinary program a few years later. Now the restaurateur wants to gain more opportunities to provide jobs and uplift young people, as he stated in a June interview with BerkeleySide.com. “I want to complete this mission, it’s that much more important to me. I’m standing on the backs of my ancestors, my aunts and uncles, my friends who are dead or in jail, those who are addicted to drugs, the kids in foster care, my grandmother. I’m fighting for them,” he said. “I’m not holding back anymore.”