Chef Lance Nitahara shares the surprising path he took to the Food Network show Chopped.
- Posted on Apr 4, 2013
Ten long years. That’s how long I’d worked to get to this point. Ten years since my wife, Kelli, had enrolled me in a cooking class for my twenty-third birthday. I couldn’t believe I was here, standing backstage after winning the championship cook-off on the popular Food Network program Chopped.
I could hear the judges saying goodbye to the chef I’d beaten—Yoanne Magris, a lovely woman and superb chef who owned a little French restaurant in New York City.
Hearing her gracious exit, though, troubled me. What would happen to her now that she had been denied the $10,000 grand prize I was about to be awarded?
My whole life, it seemed, I’d been searching for something. I flunked out of college because I couldn’t find a subject that interested me. For a while, I worked for my dad in his window-fabricating business, making windows and screens, but I knew I was just marking time.
This isn’t how I want to spend my life, I thought.
The one thing I liked to do was fool around in the kitchen. It began when I was a kid in Hawaii, cooking with my mother. I was more like her tasting chef. She’d offer me a heaping spoonful of her signature bread pudding as I sat, watching her work. “What do you think?” she’d ask.
“It’s great,” I’d say. “How do you do it?” “Cooking is about sharing,” she said, serving me another delicious spoonful. “That’s the secret.”
The secret to what? I wondered. I tried to answer that question all my growing-up years and always fell short. Still, I searched for the answer.
After Kelli and I got married we made dinner together nearly every night. Kelli would say, “I thought we could have spaghetti tonight,” and I’d take over the stove and toy with the sauce, adding spices till I came up with a unique flavor.
Or she’d bring home a fillet of ahi tuna, and I’d slice it three ways and prepare each piece differently.
What a blast!
Then, as a birthday surprise, Kelli enrolled me in that cooking class.
The first day, I learned how to make hollandaise sauce for eggs Benedict. I came home ecstatic.
“This is it! This is what I want to do with my life!” I told Kelli.
I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York.
There’s nothing like cooking and talking food all day with others who share your passion.
Then I landed an externship at the world-famous Greenbrier resort, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. I was on my way. But something kept nagging at me. More questions. Why am I doing this? Who am I really serving?
That’s what led me to accept the head chef’s position at Camp-of-the-Woods, a Christian conference center and resort in central New York State. Maybe I would find some answers there. At that point I still didn’t know what it was that God had in store for me.
One night after work, I was relaxing with Kelli, watching a cooking show called Chopped. Contestants are given a basket full of an odd assortment of ingredients and challenged to make a gourmet dish out of them in just 20 minutes. I always loved to tell Kelli what I would make.
“You should try to get on this show,” Kelli said.
I did it as a lark—and yet I made it all the way through, and now here I was about to go in front of the cameras and accept the grand prize.
And once again those questions nagged at me.
My winning dish was honey cough-drop ice cream (made from a basket containing duck eggs, russet potatoes, farmer’s cheese and honey- herb cough drops), along with a chocolate gnocchi frito. Amazing, right?
Yoanne was my opponent. Everyone knew her story. Her grandmother, who had raised her since childhood, was desperately ill, in France. Yoanne wanted to win the money so she could go visit her grandmother and comfort her before she died.
At one point, during a break, Yoanne and I got into a deep conversation—about life, about the cooking industry, about our faith.
“My grandmother means so much to me,” she said wistfully. “I can’t tell you how much I love her.” Our talk stayed with me throughout the competition.
I heard the host, Ted Allen, calling me out for the grand prize. Kelli and I really needed that money. We had bills to pay.
Then I heard another voice whisper, It’s all about sharing.
I went out onstage and Ted handed me the check.
“What are you going to do with all that, Lance?” he asked.
I smiled. “Could you bring Yoanne back out here?” I asked.
I shared, enough so Yoanne could at last spend time with her grandmother in France and say goodbye.
I’ve moved on from Camp-of-the-Woods. I now teach cooking at Flint Hills Technical College in east-central Kansas. Teaching is a form of gratitude for all I’ve learned in my life. It is the ultimate sharing.
And one thing I learned was this: Honey cough-drop ice cream is one of the best dishes I’ve ever made.
Try Lance's Bread Pudding recipe at home!
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