It was Saturday, April 10th at 1:07 pm when I received an email from my former pastry instructor and now good friend Maria. There was only a forwarded message that announced a casting call for a new ice cream-making competition. I didn't think much of it at first, after having a surge of flashbacks of the last time I applied for a reality cooking show back in 2015. I went through three rounds of interviews, two of which were over Skype, made an "about me" video, and whipped up a few desserts of mine so that I could take pictures and send them along with my application, only to not be selected. So, I sat on the application for a day. Then, a pal of mine here in New Orleans, Brady, who owns https://www.facebook.com/chiassonsconfectionery brought the very same casting call to my attention and said I would be perfect for it. I then decided I would finally apply, mostly as a joke, because I didn't think I would actually be selected. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of talented people in the country, and a lot of people who are a lot better than me, so it felt silly to assume that I would receive a follow-up to my application.
But it happened. The whole interview process happened all over again. Phone calls, skype interviews, picture submissions, the whole deal. A little time went by, and I didn't hear anything, all the while checking my email every hour to see if I had gotten a response from the producers. On May 13th, I opened an email with the subject line "Food Network Series" that read, "Hello chef! Welcome aboard the Ben & Jerry’s wagon and congratulations! " And that's how it happened. Everything happened rather quickly after that.
When I finally arrived in Vermont and hopped aboard the van to take me to the hotel, a familiar face showed up right behind me. Jess from Black Dog Gelato in Chicago. I knew Jess from being in the industry for many years in Chicago and loved her product. I immediately thought to myself, "I'm so screwed..." We said hello and then caught up for a minute. We had only met once before back in my early days of pastry making when I applied to work in her kitchen but I just couldn't fit it into my schedule at my other job.
So, what is it actually like being on a reality cooking show? Well. It's very strange. Whenever you go for a trial day as a chef or a cook in a kitchen, it's always a little disorienting. You have no idea where anything is, how the equipment is going to react, how the rhythm of the kitchen works or what you will have or not have access to. When you add a huge film crew, six cameras in your face, and given a time limit to cook, you certainly have a little bit of adrenaline. Surprisingly enough, I got used to it pretty quickly and actually enjoyed it way more than I thought I would! I had a good start, a very rough second challenge, a winning third, and eventually made it all the way to the finale.
So let's talk about that! One thing that's fascinating about being on a show is that you fully realize is how long the hours are, how hard the crew works and how much work goes into making any sort of production. Equally important, you realize what actually ends up on the cutting room floor. When you cook for three hours straight for each episode and then sit for six straight hours doing your interviews for the cutscenes between the episodes, there's going to be a lot of unused content.
When the final challenge was presented to us, I was beaming with excitement because there were no more rules. Well, not really. We had to be ourselves, show them our values, and let our personality, style and approach to ice cream come through in whatever it was that we made. I'm kind of anti-authority when it comes to how I want to do things, I don't like being told what I can and can't do. It's an Aries thing. I'm a little bit of a control freak, and I like things a certain way. So a challenge that had no restrictions was what I was waiting for. And for those of you who have seen the show already, you know my battle with the "chunks." So I didn't have to include a chunk, unless I wanted to.
I like to think that I have a very unique approach to ice cream. I don't just make flavors that taste good, I like the ice cream to connect with people, make them feel something. Sure, I can make a chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, but it doesn't really showcase my bailiwick.
Where I think I failed, is explaining why I chose what I chose. I immediately knew what I was going to do and I knew why, but I don't think I explained and elucidated the true reasons behind what my story was. I am really passionate about art and music, I think it's fascinating. It can stir your emotions, connect with you, and communicate an idea, feeling, or thought. How many times have you heard a song that immediately made you want to cry, or reminded you of falling in love, or feeling heartbroken, or overjoyed, or nostalgic? I know that happens to me. I remember a time working in a kitchen once and Adele's "Someone Like You" came on and I immediately had to go into the walk-in to cry about my recent breakup. Drama, I know. But music is powerful. It moves you, it evokes emotion. It's art...and art is important. Growing up in the midwest, in high school we could bring in a ticket stub to the hockey game and our absence would be excused. I remember thinking, "are you fucking kidding me?" I always felt that art was something that society didn't focus on, or deemed to be unnecessary. Something that was discouraged and impractical to indulge in or pursue. Art is expression, and we are emotive and expressive beings. Art enriches our lives and makes things more interesting, deeper, more complex, it opens up the chambers of the heart and makes a life worth living full of color. Art is beautiful and important and challenges us to think differently, and allows others to see that we are different, and yet...the same in many ways. Art allows us a vessel to show our creativity and has a level of depth that a football could never replicate for me.
Anyway, back to the show. I wanted to make an ice cream inspired by one of my favorite musical artists of all time...Björk. However, some of the ingredients I needed and wanted to use, were not available or able to be used on the show, so I had to try something else. If I had the choice, I would have made the most stunning flavor that I have ever created: Black Lake. When I went to see Björk's installation at the MOMA in New York, it changed my life. I had never been so immersed in a form of art. The song, which painfully describes a failed relationship, hit home for me. I was going through a breakup and that song, along with the images in her video truly expressed what I was feeling on the inside. For those of you who don't know, Björk is Icelandic, so when I made that ice cream, I knew I had to think about Iceland during the conception.
During my time there, I found out that 90% of the candy there has black licorice in it for reasons I could never find out. I made a black licorice ice cream, which I softened the blow of the harsh licorice flavor with a little bit of black cocoa, and colored it with activated charcoal, which also echoed the video, where she is walking through caverns of volcanic rock. Blue lava begins to burst from the earth as her pain swells in the video until eventually, she sheds off layers of gold that float away into the sky. I translated that to a cream cheese lava swirl that I colored with blue spirulina, added some Icelandic black lava salt, and garnished it with gold leaf.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to use charcoal, so my mind flipped to Tori Amos, another brilliant musician who is outstandingly creative in a sort of otherworldly kind of way. I picked her song Hey Jupiter as a foundation for the recipe and paired it with another song of hers called Raspberry Swirl. I made a smoked blueberry and roasted cinnamon ice cream, swirled with a raspberry balsamic sorbet, a lemon cream, chunks of brown sugar cookie dough and topped with a graham cracker crumble. I do think that if you mention something specific in the title of your dish, you should be able to taste it. Which, looking back now, I wish I hadn't mentioned it, because it was more of a method to create a unique flavor. By that I mean, smoking the blueberries and roasting the cinnamon were the subtle layers of flavor that went into creating "blueberry" ice cream. That's where I should have left it. I wanted to make lemon curd for a stronger, more textural component, but working against a clock is hard. Had I had more time, I wouldn't have made a cookie dough chunk at all, but I would have made cake chunks and soaked them with a little bit of blueberry compote. But, like I said I didn't have time for cake.
(Why there is white chocolate in the picture to the left when I didn't use it, I have no idea). I knew that I wanted to do something different. I didn't want to make something that I had already made on the show, I didn't want to make anything that could already be found somewhere in Ben & Jerry's products, and I most certainly didn't want to play it safe and make something that I knew would be easily liked because it was familiar. I could've made something that was easier to replicate and reproduce, and more familiar to the general public, but I didn't want to do that. Where's the fun in that? I mean, United Artists and Universal both passed on Star Wars because it was too risky to back a seemingly not-so-great sci-fi flick from a newbie. And Pulp Fiction was rejected for various reasons before it found a home and became the cult powerhouse that it is today.
I make things from scratch and the challenge was to showcase myself and my style. I didn't want to show everyone that I could whip up simple, crowd-pleasing favorites. I wanted people to see something that they hadn't seen before, to taste something they hadn't had before, give them something that made them think when it hit their tongue. In the end, I didn't take the prize, however, the chance to be entirely myself and confidently stand by something I made from my own perspective was worth more than any prize. Would I do it all over again and make the same choice? Absolutely.