Chefs around the country would love an opportunity to compete against Food Network titan Bobby Flay, but it’s a reality for three-time “Chopped” veteran Demetrio Zavala. After the Washington, D.C., chef won Part 1 of “Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay,” he has the chance to compete against one of the world’s most famous chefs.
“Not too many people get picked to be on ‘Chopped,’” Zavala said during a phone interview with International Business Times Wednesday. “It’s obviously an opportunity that I’m thankful for.”
His success didn’t come overnight. Zavala started cooking at the age of 15, working as a prep cook at an Italian restaurant in Boca Raton, Florida. He then mastered classic French cooking at Gazebo Café and went on to La Vieille Maison and Mezzaluna with Chef Pierre Viau. After 10 years at Max’s Grille in Mizner Park in Florida, he flew through the culinary ranks, running eight successful Asian fusion restaurants. Currently, aside from being a “Chopped” heavyweight, he is the executive chef at Teddy & The Bully Bar and Lincoln in Washington.
Being on “Chopped” might have seemed like the next natural step for a seasoned chef like Zavala, but it’s a “nerve-wracking” experience. “There’s no script and it’s more difficult than you think you,” Zavala, 41, explained.
Part of the problem Zavala had on the show is being unfamiliar with the kitchen and food storage. “I was looking at the pantry the whole time to see what I needed,” he said about the fresh ingredients. “They only give you one tour [of the kitchen] it and that’s it.”
One of the hardest parts of the completion was choosing what dish to make with the four basket ingredients. Typically, chefs are given four mystery products to include in their dish. The same format is followed for the appetize, entrée and dessert round. In the first round, they only have 20 minutes to execute a dish. They are allotted 30 minutes in the second and third rounds.
Zavala competed on “Chopped” twice. First as a regular chef and then to become “Chopped Champion.” Once he earned that title, he vied for a chance to battle Flay in the blended competition, “Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay.” In that show, the contender who makes it to the final round gets to choose the dish that Flay will have to cook, just like on “Beat Bobby Flay.” The difference in “Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay,” is that they must incorporate the four mystery basket ingredients into their dish. In order to make it this far into the game, Zavala cooked up dishes like five spiced and isomalt crusted grilled cheese toast with a salt-and-pepper ice cream, which Flay called a “touchdown.”
Chefs are only allowed to bring “five or seven” knives with them into the arena. Once there, they meet their competitors and immediately start the competition.
For future chefs who compete on “Chopped,” Zavala advised taking two big bowls and grabbing as many ingredients from the pantry as possible. “The key to being successful on ‘Chopped’ is knowing your dish and grabbing all your ingredients at once,” he said. “Monitor your time... You have to be organized.”
But Zavala, an undefeated “Chopped” champion, is over competing against ordinary chefs. He has his heart set on beating Flay, a culinary king.
“It’s exciting,” he said about the chance to challenge the celebrity chef. “I watched Bobby as kid growing up with my grandmother… so the opportunity to meet the guy you watched on TV was great.”
The adoration isn’t one-sided. Flay was one of the judges on Part 1 of “Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay,” and the chef was impressed with Zavala. “He gave me compliments,” the D.C. chef noted. “He said, ‘You blew me away with some your dishes.’”
Behind-the-scenes, Flay was cordial and conversational with Zavala. “He’s busy, but he’s really polite,” Zavala said. “Really nice and really pleasant.”
Flay was always checking his watch and worried about the time, but Zavala didn’t frame it as a negative thing-- Flay has a lot of endeavors he needs to attend to, Zavala said. He said he is confident he can beat Flay, especially since he’s familiar with the “Chopped” arena.
“I know the footprint of the kitchen,” Zavala said. “[I’m] used to it. [I] know the burners. I know that ice cream makes in five minutes.”
He added, “Being in there a little bit already it gives you an idea on timing.”
Like Flay, Zavala has an amazing grasp on flavor. He knows how to play with texture, spice and acid. But it doesn’t mean beating Flay will be easy. The New York chef never does the “same, basic” thing, Zavala said.
“He has creativity,” Zavala said. “He knows how to mix flavors.”
After three stints on “Chopped,” Zavala wants to continue on TV and become a “chef-lebrity” like Flay. If possible, he would like to compete on “Top Chef” like the renowned D.C.-based Voltaggio brothers, Michael and Bryan.
“I love competing on TV. I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a feeling you can’t ever replace.”
He’d also like to return to “Chopped,” but maybe as a judge next time.
Find out if Zavala gets chance to beat Flay and win a prize of $40,000 when the “Chopped: Beat Bobby Flay” tournament airs Nov.10 at 9 p.m. EDT on Food Network.
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