If we didn’t know that this Wednesday’s episode of Chopped features exclusively Houston-area chefs, we’d be a little bitter. For the fourth time this year, one of our local chefs landed in the runner-up spot on a Food Network cooking competition show. This time, it was Cutthroat Kitchen, and it was chef Mary Eisenhour Bass (a culinary instructor at Alvin Community College who recently worked at BLVD Seafood in Galveston) who made it to the final round.
As usual, host Alton Brown had $100,000 of cash to dole out to the competing chefs — $25,000 each — and a set of evil sabotages for them to bid on. When a chef was eliminated from the competition, all the remaining money had to be returned.
The challenge for the first round was to make breakfast enchiladas. While that doesn’t sound too hard, it is if a competitor gets nailed with a doozy of a sabotage. That's what happened to Bass. She had to prepare the enchiladas dressed like one. The full-length enchilada costume soon had her red-faced and sweating.
As if that weren’t enough, Bass also had to use tortilla chips instead of tortillas. As a workaround, she attempted to process them into crepes but ended up with more of a pancake.
She still survived the round. A competitor, Ben Stephens of Acquerello in San Francisco, was sabotaged with having to use blue cheese, and judge Jet Tila decided his was the most unbalanced of all the enchiladas.
For round two, Bass had to cook bibimbap in the “caveman kitchen,” which is essentially a rocky firepit outfitted with only a few niceties. There were two flat pieces of slate that could be used for searing ingredients, and a mortar and pestle. Bass forgot to grab gochujang (a spicy sauce traditional in Korean cuisine) or ingredients to make an original sauce. Still, at least Bass didn’t get stuck having to crush rice cakes to substitute for regular rice, which is what got fellow competitor chef Chris Yang from Hogs & Rocks in Los Angeles eliminated.
At that point, the battle was between Bass and chef Patrick Cassata of Bakersfield in Westmont, Illinois. The challenge was to make a “concrete,” a type of ice cream shake so thick that it won’t drip even when turned upside down. (A Blizzard at Dairy Queen is the most well-known concrete.)
What wasn’t shown on the show is that by this point, Bass had significantly burned her thumb — even though wearing a protective glove — on one of the searing-hot stone bowls she used for cooking the bibimbap. She says that during the final round, a blister welled up and she had to keep going off-camera for repeated applications of ointment. “I was gently stirring everything during the dessert round because my thumb and my adrenaline were going insane,” she explained.
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The distraction may be why Bass only grabbed honey as a sweetener for her ice cream. When it came time for judging, Tila deemed Bass’s dessert not sweet enough and her competitor’s too sweet. However, Cassata won the game.
Cassata is a longtime chef who also appeared on season 10 of Hell’s Kitchen. Bass says he did not reveal to his fellow competitors anything of note about his background. “He told us he worked at a grocery store,” she said. It wasn’t until after Cassata won that he made sure his fellow chefs knew the highlights of his career. “He was like, ‘Look at what I’ve won and all that I’ve done!’ afterward,” said Bass. “I was like, ‘Okay. You almost got your ass kicked by a little girl from Galveston. Tell me more. Would you be saying all of this if you hadn’t won?’”
Bass believes her dessert was sweet enough and that her error had to do with the serving vessel she selected, a wine glass. “I picked the wrong dish to where he didn't get a full bite. I was so bummed,” she said. “I don’t think he got the brûléed marshmallow, the ice cream — everything all in one bite.” So, future competitors, take note: Bass says that because of the Cutthroat Kitchen’s time constraints, judges will likely take only one bite — maybe two if they really like it — so that bite really needs to count.
On a brighter note, we can guarantee a chef from Houston will win on the Thursday
night’s March 17 episode of Chopped. Tune in at 9 p.m. to watch the battle among Justin Turner of Bernie’s Burger Bus, Sean Carroll of Melange Creperie, Angela Rowley of Blackbird Foods and Alberto Palmer of the Stick It food truck.