What do you do with a basket full of leftovers that includes a pile of Lo Mein noodles, kale salad, a brown avocado, and half an order of baked chicken parmesan? If you’re Evan Hennessey, and participating on a top cooking competition show, you create pasta with chicken ragu, topped with crunchy kale crumbles, in 20 minutes, a dish good enough to make it to the next round.
Hennessey, chef-owner of Stages in Dover, N.H., was the first (and currently only) New Hampshire chef to compete on Food Network’s popular “Chopped” TV program. He and three other competitors were asked to use foods that might normally be tossed in the compost bin. The episode, themed “Leftover Takeover,” aired on May 1. Hennessey won the three-round, fast-paced food battle against three Arizona-based chefs, Michael Compean of Scapegoat gastro pub, Ashley Goddard of North Italia, and Rich Hinojosa of CRUjiente Tacos.
According to Hennessey, the real, behind-the-scenes competition was as fast and wild as it appears on TV. “It’s kind of crazy,” he says. “I just zoned out and stayed very focused. I had no idea what the other chefs were doing.”
The top-rated food show asks chefs to make an appetizer in 20 minutes during round one, an entrée in 30 minutes in round two, and a dessert in 30 minutes in the final round three. One chef is cut after each round by three judges, who base their decision on presentation, taste, and creativity. The big catch: the chefs must use mystery basket ingredients for each dish, which are usually pretty wacky and weird. If you’ve watched the show, you know what we mean. Every time they open those baskets, we think: No way! What can you possibly make with gummy bears, lemon juice, squid, and Cheetos?
“That’s the hardest part,” Hennessey says. “It’s not like they give you carrots and beets. It’s like a lot of crap that doesn’t go together, so you really have to be very creative and fast.”
The chefs have no idea what the theme of the show will be until they arrive at the Food Network studios in New York City. And, of course, they have no idea what’s in the mystery baskets. “One of the hardest parts for me was reacting to the mystery ingredients,” Hennessey says. “They wanted us to really show some ‘Oh, no!’ reaction on our faces when we looked into the basket. They filmed it a few times. Normally I don’t react. I just start thinking.”
We asked Hennessey how he prepared for the show. He didn’t.
“I knew if I tried to think too far in one direction, it would backfire when I got on the set,” he says. “Because there’s no way you can predict what’s going to be in that basket.”
But Hennessey’s work at Stages, one of the more unique dining experiences in New England, is the perfect preparation for “Chopped,” and likely gave him the one-up in the competition. The tiny restaurant on the third floor of a renovated mill building in downtown Dover has only an eight-seat chef’s counter, where he prepares a 10- to 12-course tasting menu, created-on-the-spot based on ingredients that were foraged, or available that day from local farmers and fishermen and women.
“My menu at Stages is dictated by what people hand me every day,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m getting until the farmers send me a list of what’s available, and I have to create something out of that. It really falls hand in hand with the methodology of how ‘Chopped’ works.”
At Stages, judgment comes from diners; on “Chopped,” Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Marcus Samuelsson did the evaluating. “They only include a handful of seconds on the show, but the critique lasts 20 to 25 minutes. It goes on forever,” Hennessey says. “I was standing there thinking, ‘They’re right, I should have done that.’ But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, ‘Geez, I had like 20 minutes to do this. It tastes fine and I got it on the plate!’ ”
It was a long, 14-plus-hour day, with stiff competition and uncertainty. “I wasn’t watching what anyone else was doing,” says Hennessey. “When I finished and saw what the other chefs had made, I thought, ‘Crap, that’s good.’ Never once did I think, ‘I got this round’ — never once!”
But Hennessey did think if he made it to the dessert round, he’d have a good chance of winning the competition. He makes all his own desserts at Stages.
The third, dessert round mystery basket contained leftover coffee, ice cream, lemon pie, and Concord grapes. Hennessey made a winning coffee sponge cake with cherry and lemon curd and took home $10,000 and serious bragging rights.
Would he do it again? “Absolutely. I loved it!” he says.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.