In the end, the kale and candy-coated peanuts made the NFL star fumble, the chocolate-covered marshmallows knocked out the mixed marshal arts fighter, and under-cooked beef sank the swimming champion.
That left NASCAR and IndyCar star Danica Patrick — who stayed consistent over all three stints and used an “anti-griddle” as push-to-pass in the final round — standing as champion of Food Network’s “Chopped” cooking competition.
Patrick prevailed over tough competition from 12-time Olympic swimming medalist (three gold, four silver, five bronze) Natalie Coughlin, mixed marshal arts fighter, actor and stuntman Chuck Zito, and retired NFL New York Giants running back Tiki Barber.
How “Chopped” works: Four contestants are given a basket of mystery ingredients and challenged to make a dish or meal out of the ingredients, plus anything else in the well stocked Chopped pantry, within a certain time limit (20 to 30 minutes). Contestants’ dishes are then scrutinized by a panel of three chef/restaurateur judges: Marcus Samuelsson, Alex Guarnaschelli and Chris Santos. The competitor whose dish is judged to be the lowest quality is chopped and remaining contestants move on to the next round. Tuesday night the rounds were entrée, main course, and dessert.
Barber was dropped for a loss in the initial entrée round in which contestants were asked to use salmon, kale, a lemon-lime sports drink and candy-coated peanuts. Barber’s use of vodka in a lemon-lime sports drink slushy seemed inspired. “The goal of my sports drink cocktail was to get you a little sauced so it tastes better,” Barber quipped. But in the end, his raw kale and simply using peanuts as garnish caused Barber to be cut from the lineup.
Barber was playing for the Fresh Air Fund which gives underprivileged kids free vacations out of the city and into the fresh air where they participate in healthy activities.
Main Course Round
In round two, Zito, Coughlin and Patrick were faced with spinach, filet mignon, almonds and wildcard chocolate-covered marshmallows. Coughlin impressed the judges by using the almonds to make almond milk, and then executing a culinary flip-turn by using the almond milk to make creamed spinach.
Patrick went steak-and-potatoes, selecting sweet potatoes, adding in bacon and mashing in the chocolate-covered marshmallows. Zito had a similar idea — microwave baked potatoes with the chocolate-covered marshmallows melted inside — but found the microwave in use by Patrick.
By the time it was Zito’s turn at the ‘wave, he’d run out of time to fully bake the potatoes. Saying he wasn’t going to put an under-cooked potato on the plate, he was forced to simply put the unaltered chocolate-covered marshmallows on the plate, the Chopped equivalent of blowing a right front and hitting the wall.
When host Ted Allen asked Zito if he thought Patrick was blocking with her use of the microwave, Zito laughed and said “No, not at all.”
“Just like racing, you could have punted me,” said Patrick after giving the hulking Zito a side hug.
The unaltered chocolate-covered marshmallows were indeed a fatal flaw and Zito was chopped in round two. Zito was playing for the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in honor of his young niece, Faith, who suffers from brain cancer. Zito left saying Faith would get a lot of joy from watching the show with him.
Even though Zito was KOed in the round, Coughlin also took damage via an under-cooked filet that gained every judge’s notice. Patrick was praised for her perfectly medium-rare beef, but two judges panned her inclusion of bacon and chocolate-covered marshmallow in the mashed sweet potatoes, saying it was “too busy.” Patrick’s spinach salad with crushed almonds won unanimous, ravenous thumbs up from the panel, however.
The Finale: dessert using protein powder, caramel coated popcorn, a tangelo and olive oil cake. Patrick, who said her favorite deserts feature chocolate and peanut butter, settled on a desert olive oil cake sandwich with a peanut butter-yogurt-protein-powder filling. Coughlin was at an immediate disadvantage, since she never cooks deserts and never uses protein powder. Nonetheless she dove into an olive oil cake bread pudding in honor of bread pudding-loving father.
Patrick made her move for the lead by impressing the judges with the use of an “anti-griddle,” a device with a flat top that rapidly cools whatever is placed on it. Patrick said she wanted to cool her chocolate sauce into a hard piece and then break it up for a garnish. Patrick’s final dish was the desert sandwich with coffee digestif. Coughlin refused to go quietly, however, and made it two-wide with an inspired use of candied tangelos and whipped cream to top her bread pudding.
The entire show featured various close-ups of all contestants’ faces and clearly both women brought their game face to the finale. “I just love Danica’s eyes,” said Samuelsson, “She’s focused, like, this is what I’m going to do …”
When host Allen asked Danica how bad she wanted to win, she responded with “I want to kick ass. That’s why I’m here. Seriously, that’s why I’m here. I want to win.”
Two-Wide Coming to the Finish Line
In the final analysis, the judges gave the appetizer round to Coughlin and her perfectly done candy-crusted salmon and the dessert round to Patrick’s creative desert sandwich. The difference was the middle stint — main course — where Natalie was biffed by undercooked medallions compared to Patrick’s perfectly medium-rare steak. Patrick also “kept her plate tighter and more focused on the basket ingredients” in the middle round, Guarnaschelli said.
Coughlin settled for silver. She was playing for Right to Play, organization that uses play and sports as tools to promote education health.
After the show, Danica tweeted: “Lots of fun with @NatalieCoughlin, @TikiBarber and @ChuckZito! Man I love cooking! Thanks @FoodNetwork!”
Coughlin tweeted that “#Chopped was an experience! Forces you to experiment & commit to your decisions with a serious time crunch. Fun challenge! :) @FoodNetwork."