Soon, Houstonians will be able to eat gourmet food truck burgers from a Food Network winner. Chef Shannen Tune, former executive chef of Revolve restaurant at Hotel Derek and co-owner of the forthcoming Craft Burger food truck, won on last night’s episode of Chopped. (Tune co-owns the truck along with former Hotel Derek co-worker Kamal Delchad.)
Houston chefs have appeared on Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen five times over the past few months. Consistently, a Houston chef has landed in the runner-up spot — until Tune won last night.
He had planned to host a watch party at Karbach Brewing last night, but tornado and flood warnings throughout the day caused him to cancel. He said the grand opening of Craft Burger food truck will happen within two weeks and diners should keep an eye on the Twitter feed and Facebook page for the date and location.
While, according to judges Aaron Sanchez, Maneet Chauhan and Chris Santos, Tune’s performance wasn’t flawless, he still seemed to sail through the competition. His competitors were Ryan Lory of Charlie Palmer Steak in New York, Jase Grimm (previously a private chef on Fire Pines Island and now a cook at Norah in Los Angeles) and Haley Sausner of Firefly in San Francisco. (Interestingly, Grimm was previously a stand-in for host Ted Allen.)
The camaraderie among the group was obvious. "We all had to meet at a Starbucks before we went to Food Network," explained Tune. "We got to sit, talk and get to know each other, and we all really got along. It was a really awkward thing going into [the competition] because no one wanted anyone else to go home. It was a situation where we wish we all could have won, but we knew we couldn't. Even now, we all keep in touch."
The episode was titled “Beg, Borrow and Eel,” and indeed eel was among the surprise ingredients, along with real bacon bits, Comté cheese and uova da raviolo, or egg-filled ravioli.
The long, slimy critter had to be skinned and broken down. It was a rather thin eel, too, which made skinning it much harder. Tune had dealt with thicker eels before, but said the small ones are especially challenging. “Of our 20 minutes cooking time, we each had to spend ten just to filet the eel,” said Tune.
Tune kept his cool, though, even when Lory ran through the kitchen and knocked one of his pans off the stove, which thankfully had only oil and garlic in it.
Judges were pleased with Tune’s eel dish overall but were not fans of the inconsistent cooking of the raviolo, which ranged from overcooked to just right. There was a behind-the-scenes issue with the mishap. Tune says that the raviolos were brought out to competitors on sheet pans and, when removed, stuck to the pans and tore. That’s why his fellow competitors chopped the pasta part or used only the egg instead of trying to cook it whole. Sausner was eliminated in this round for her overcooked dish and tiny portion sizes.
In the second round, Tune wowed the judges with what was deemed the best dish of the night — chicken-fried Cornish hen. Actually, according to Tune, all the chefs did a great job and, off-camera, were told by the judges that it was the best entrée round ever on Chopped.
During the round, Grimm needed the fryer, which Tune was already using. The chefs managed to share, but that wasn’t quite enough help for Grimm. His plating was deemed least attractive, and one required ingredient, olive salad, wasn’t used to the judges’ satisfaction. He was "chopped."
That said, even though Tune wowed judges with his fried chicken, they were appalled that he didn’t incorporate one of the required ingredients, crispbread, into his fried chicken batter. This was another behind-the-scenes issue. Tune says he actually did intend to use crispbread crumbs in the batter and forgot. In order not to be penalized for failing to use the ingredient, he decided at the last minute to scatter it on his finished dish like croutons.
It was Lory versus Tune for the dessert round, and the required ingredients were satay peanut sauce, “chocolate snack pies” (moon pies), plantains and black vinegar. That last ingredient, a fermented and aged Chinese vinegar, would prove tricky as Tune tried — repeatedly — to make a caramel from it. Only one failed attempt was shown on-camera, but Tune says there was another batch that didn't work out. With only ten minutes remaining in the round, he made a third batch that ended up being sufficient.
Lory made a plantain ice cream, and Tune brûléed his with a small torch. As Sanchez noted, plantains are not like bananas and are more like a root vegetable. Lory’s ice cream didn’t set, and the raw plantain flavor wasn’t a hit. Tune’s searing didn’t cook his all the way through, either.
Ultimately, though, Tune won the judges over with more good old Southern comfort food and a dish that would have been a hit at a state fair. His battered and deep-fried chocolate pies were a hit — even if the accompanying plantains were undercooked and his black vinegar caramel underneath tasted ever-so-slightly burned.
On Chopped, Tune told the judges that he left the life of a restaurant chef behind and started a food truck because he wasn’t getting enough time to see his kids or spend time with his family. Tune won $10,000 on the show, which he says he has already invested in a second food truck.
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