On last night’s episode of Food Network’s Chopped, Erin Smith, former executive chef of Main Kitchen at the JW Marriott and Plonk! Bistro, was the only Houstonian in a group of four competitors. Even when confronted with some extremely unusual ingredients, like rattlesnake and a “shark” carved out of a watermelon, she was the last chef standing by the end of the show. It's another Houston win on Chopped that closely follows the ones by Craft Burger food truck chef Shannen Tune and Justin Turner of Bernie's Burger Bus. (Updated 6/1/2016, 10:08 a.m. to add Turner's win.)
A group of Houston industry fans and friends filled Pappa Charlie’s Barbecue last night to watch the episode together, a sign of the respect Smith has earned over the past several years as one of Houston’s leading female chefs. Among those gathered were Smith’s fiancé, Patrick Feges, the pitmaster of Feges Barbecue and sous chef of Southern Goods, and her mom. The crowd erupted in loud cheers every time Smith avoided being eliminated in each round of the competition.
As a notable chef in his own right, Feges said the show runners tried to get him to compete against his fiancée, an offer that he declined. He joked that he had no doubt who the better chef was. “I’d have been eliminated that very first round,” he laughed.
Smith, a native Houstonian, was also a consultant for the Clumsy Butcher group on its concepts Blacksmith, The Hay Merchant and Anvil Bar & Refuge. She earned her culinary degree at the California Culinary Academy, did her internship at Per Se in New York and worked at Mario Batali's Babbo, also in New York. (Incidentally, that's where she went to celebrate after her win, and she says many of the people she worked with are still there.)
Her competitors were Australian chef and skateboarder Mitch Faber of Café 5 of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Mike Bianco from The Cookery in New York, and chef John Beatty of Catch, also in New York.
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Smith said that by far, the appetizer course, which included the rattlesnake as a required ingredient, was the hardest round of the competition. “It’s the shortest course. It’s the first course, so you’re just getting used to the way the show works, the kitchen setup, and you only have 20 minutes." She’d never worked with rattlesnake before, either. “There are millions of bones. I tried to cut [the meat] off while it was raw, and it was so tough I realized, ‘You’re going to have to cook this first before you remove the bones,’ so I threw it into water for blanching,” she said.
Smith and Feges are currently scoping out potential restaurant locations to showcase both of their skill sets. Smith left her position at JW Marriott last November, not too long after Southern Goods opened and Feges dove into his own, full-time role. If the venture comes to fruition, it will combine her talent for composed dishes and Feges’s smoked meats. “Barbecue is where his heart is,” she said, “but even he misses doing composed dishes.”
Don’t discount the lady’s barbecue skills, though. Having worked alongside Feges, Smith says she can get a wood fire going these days, too.
She said she would appear on another competitive cooking show if asked. “What do you have to lose?” she said. “You do it. You compete. You do your best. If you’re the first person out, so what? Just the fact that you signed up to do it is a little bit of a victory.”