Houston Chefs Fight to the End on “Chopped” (UPDATED)

Chef Jason Kerr holds up a freshly caught Gulf fish as he makes his delivery rounds as part of Treadsack's supply company, CHOAM.
Chef Jason Kerr holds up a freshly caught Gulf fish as he makes his delivery rounds as part of Treadsack's supply company, CHOAM.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

(Spoiler alert: This episode of Chopped will air again on Thursday, January 14 at 7 p.m. and — for you night owls — Friday, January 15 at 2 a.m. If you plan to watch it and don't want a recap, stop reading now.)

Judges for Food Network’s cooking competition show, Chopped, all had nice things to say about three competitors from Houston, who appeared in last night’s episode, called “Knife Strife.” Unfortunately, they weren’t impressed quite enough and the win went to the sole competitor not from Houston, Italian chef Raffaele Ronca of Ristorante Ronca in New York. 

The three Houston cooks were Dawn Burrell, a line cook from Uchi; Gary Ly, sous chef at Underbelly; and Jason Kerr, who described himself as a “sourcer” for Treadsack group, which runs Down House and Hunky Dory, among other places.

It’s a small, small world. Kerr regularly delivers beautiful Gulf fish for CHOAM, Treadsack’s fish supply company, to both Underbelly and Uchi, where his Houston competitors work.

(Let’s make that world even smaller. Between 2005 and 2011, Kerr wrote several articles for the Houston Press, even serving as restaurant critic for a time.) Afterward, he ran the well-regarded Zilla Street Eats truck and before joining the Treadsack group, he was a chef at Lowbrow.

An intense Dawn Burrell faces the camera in front of Uchi in Houston for an episode of Food Network's "Chopped"
An intense Dawn Burrell faces the camera in front of Uchi in Houston for an episode of Food Network's "Chopped"
Screen capture by Cathi Walsh

Ly was the first to be “chopped” during the first round, which featured blood sausage, as judges Alex Guarnaschelli, Chris Santos and Christian Petroni felt the garlic in Ly’s Vietnamese blood sausage crostini with mirin sour cream seemed a separate part of the dish and weren’t impressed with his suggestion to mix it in with the other bites. “You didn’t bring this boat to shore,” scolded Guarnaschelli.

Burrell’s blood sausage risotto, though, was described as an “amazing” plate, and judges complimented Kerr’s inclusion of apples to cut the richness of the blood sausage and another required ingredient, the cheese-stuffed risotto balls called arancini.

The required ingredients for the entrée round were porchetta (rolled pork roast), “popcorn on the cob,” (the dried kernels aren’t removed from the cob and generally the whole thing can be placed in a paper bag and microwaved), okra and crema catalana, an orange-flavored Spanish take on crème brûlée. This time, Burrell forgot to top her blended popcorn-sauce linguine with chili spiced porchetta and okra dish with the actual popped kernels of corn. The judges felt they weren’t picking up enough of the popcorn flavor from the sauce alone, and she was eliminated.

That left Kerr to battle it out with Ronca, and the secret ingredients of tartufo (Italian ice cream), pizza dough, lardo and smoked maple syrup seemed very much to give Ronca the advantage. Kerr’s dish of golden-brown tartufo-stuffed beignets and smoked maple syrup-covered strawberries was frankly a much more attractive dish, but judges felt Ronca’s smoked maple syrup panna cotta was “amazing,” and he took the win.

Regardless, all three Houston chefs were good representatives of Houston and came up with some amazing, creative dishes. They additionally all came across as very likable on TV, so perhaps this isn’t their last time in the limelight.

Gary Ly, sous chef at Underbelly, was one of three Houston chefs who competed on Food Network's "Chopped."
Gary Ly, sous chef at Underbelly, was one of three Houston chefs who competed on Food Network's "Chopped."
Photo by Stewart Martin

Updated, 1/6/2015, 11:35 a.m.

We spoke with chefs Jason Kerr and Gary Ly about their experiences on “Chopped.” (We haven’t yet been able to speak with Dawn Burrell.) Kerr says, “You never know how you’re going to come out looking with those things. Apparently, I didn’t come out looking too bad.”

Both chefs say it was one of the hardest things they’ve ever done. The show is shot in one very long, grueling day.

Ly said that taping started at 6 a.m. Because he was the first chef “chopped,” though, it meant that he was released at noon and had some time to simply enjoy New York City. "It was a huge honor just to be chosen, get to go to New York and be in the Food Network test kitchens. It was eye-opening," he said. Despite his competition loss, he's still proud of the dish he made and says despite Guarnaschelli's on-camera sternness, off-camera she says she really enjoyed it. "She definitely had critiques and told me thinks I could do to make it better," he said. 

As the last chef “chopped,” Kerr had a much longer workday and was at the studio along with fellow finalist Ronca, host Ted Allen, the judges and the crew until 10 p.m.

Ly and Kerr both obsessed over their performances afterward for days, wondering what they could have done differently. “For the first couple of days, all you can think about is what you would have done differently,” says Kerr. “It’s haunting. It’s horrible. There’s a ton of things I would have done differently, but you can’t go back and do that.”

Kerr wonders if part of the reason he was cut was that he didn’t seem serious enough to the judges. “I may have been too laid-back. I think they chose the guy who tried the hardest. Really, I was surprised to see my dish under the lid at the end of the dessert round.”

Both Ly and Kerr said that, if asked, they’d do it all over again. “That deal is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’ve been a chef for 25 years and I have seen some shit,” said Kerr. “Mentally, it was really, really difficult.”

But then he exclaimed, “I would jump at the chance to do it again! It was traumatic in a good way.” Ly agreed. "I'm a glutton for punishment. If they called me again, I probably would say yes." He also said that the most meaningful part of the experience for him was the tremendous support he received from his Houston employers, co-workers and food fans. 

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