By Nicole Ruiz Hudson
Former contestants of Chopped can rest assured that they were granted a little karmic revenge when the Food Network’s Executive Chef, Robert Bleifer, was put to the test at an ICC demo last week. The tables were turned on Chef Bleifer, who is one of the people responsible for putting together the dreaded combinations for the show’s mystery baskets, when he was forced to confront three mystery baskets of his own. On Chopped, the mystery baskets hold a selection of ingredients from which contestants must create a dish. Essentially, they hold the contestants' fate in the competition.
These were not easy baskets either. Basket number one had a Japanese theme with Japanese eggplants, peppitas, yakult yogurt drink, and shiso leaves. Basket number two included octopus, cocoa nibs, piquillo peppers, and seaweed wrapped rice puffs. Finally, for dessert Chef Bleifer was given mango, dried chilies, sweet rice flour, and Pocky sticks. He had a total of 90 minutes to create three dishes and could also draw basic ingredients from a pantry of selected items. I think we can all agree that no punches were pulled just because the Chef is an alumnus.
While Chef Bleifer mulled over what the heck he was going to do with the ingredients, he revealed secrets from behind the scenes of the Food Network kitchens. He certainly has access to all the dirt as he oversees the kitchens of fifteen shows at the channel including Iron Chef, Next Iron Chef, Food Network Challenge, Throwdown with Bobby Flay, and of course, Chopped, among many others. Here’s a little dish from the Iron Chef kitchens: Despite the fact that the chefs are given a $500 allotment they can use to request items for their pantry, certain chefs have occasionally tried to sneak in gourmet ingredients that have exceed their budget. (Sorry, not going to tell you who.) Another fun fact is that the day before an Iron Chef season begins, the test kitchen staff has a test run in Kitchen Stadium. The ingredients the teams are given are pretty goofy, but the competition is deadly serious, and it’s always everyone’s favorite day at work.
As far as coming up with the mystery baskets, it’s not as easy as you might think. A lot of factors go into the process and creating new combinations gets more difficult with every season because the ingredients can’t be repeated. They also don’t want the combinations to be too impossibly difficult, so particular care is taken to make sure that there are at least two ‘outs’ or possibilities for each basket. At the same time, things would get boring if every contestant were to come back with the same dish, so they try to include a variety of colors and textures in each basket. Ideas initially come from the entire kitchen staff, but slowly they get whittled down by smaller and smaller committees, until ultimately the final decisions are made by Chef Bleifer and his partner. Of course the producers and the ad department occasionally get a say as well.
In his role at Executive Chef, Chef Bleifer oversees food production for fifteen shows, as well as Food Network events. He is also involved in coordinating production teams, photographers, and food stylists. His background made him uniquely qualified to seize the opportunities that eventually led him to his current position. Prior to attending FCI, he had experience as a photographer. Afterward, he spent time working at Park Avenue Cafe. Eventually an opportunity presented itself to freelance at the then fledgling Food Network. He took the work never thinking or intending that it would lead to a long-term career; however that is exactly what happened. And it would appear that he learned a thing or two from the hosts and chefs on his shows about stage presence, because Chef Bleifer kept smiling and chatting even when it seemed that he’d be stumped by the mystery baskets he had to work with.
So what did he do with all of those crazy ingredients? For his first dish, he borrowed a technique picked up from Chef Michael Psilakis to prepare the octopus. He first seared the octopus on the grill, then put the whole thing in a Dutch oven at 325° F for 55 min to cook in its own juices. After he pulled it out of the oven, he seared the octopus on the grill again to bring char back. He served the octopus with a sauce inspired by romesco and mole, made with pequillo peppers, cocoa nibs, a bit of the ancho chilies from the dessert basket, and seaweed wrapped rice puffs, all processed together in a vita prep.
Figuring out what to create for the second course wasn’t so easy. For this one he cooked down the Japanese eggplant, combined with a yakult yogurt drink reduction with some onions, sake, and the dried shitake mushrooms which he pulverized into a powder. It did not look appetizing at this point. He processed this through the vita prep as well to create a pureed soup, which he garnished with the peppitas and shiso leaves. I think the whole audience and Chef Bleifer doubted this one would come together, but he pulled it together in the end.
For dessert, Chef Bleifer used the sticky rice powder to create basic mochi casings that he stuffed with two different fillings. The first had a combination of mango, sake, and chilli. The second had chocolate, pulverized Pocky sticks, and cream.
But how did the food taste? Any competition needs judges and sitting on this panel were—Melissa Salt, Chef/Owner of Saltbar; Ed McFarland, Chef/Owner of Ed's Lobster Bar and Caravelli's; and Chef André Soltner, Dean of Classic Studies at FCI. (By the way, both Chef Salt and Chef McFarland are FCI grads.) Unfortunately, the panel was not so keen on the dessert course. Chef Soltner offered humble apologies, but said the mochi was not so good as the panel found the mochi to be a little bit gummy. However, the first two courses got rounds of shocked praise. Chef Soltner said the octopus was “Surprisingly Good!” I got the chance to try the octopus and it was indeed very tasty. Given what Chef Bleifer was given to work with, I think we can count this as a culinary triumph.
After 9 years working in the entertainment industry, thoughts of food and cooking got the better of Nicole Ruiz Hudson's imagination. She is now enrolled in the Classic Culinary Program at FCI and hopes to marry her new skills, love of entertainment, and her passion for food in a career in food media. When she is not cooking and eating, she is recording her culinary adventures on her blog, nibblinggypsy.com.