10 year old New York City girl Nikki Bidun recently competed on Chopped Junior. It was a special tournament that included four episodes. In the first three, the kid chefs that won would receive $10,000, a highly coveted Chopped Junior chef’s coat, the title of Chopped Junior Champion, and a seat at the judges table in the finale where they would get the opportunity to switch roles with the judges. The three Chopped Junior Champions would judge as the usual judges competed. This fifth grader won the first episode of the series, and the finale where she judges will be airing on Wednesday, March 29, 2017, so I’ll be posting my follow up interview about her judging experience once it airs.
“I am going to Public School #9 (PS9),” she told me. “I like to act, dance hip hop, play tennis, play Frisbee and especially eat!”
“The audition process was very rigorous, but definitely worth it in the end. First off, I submitted an online application. They had basic questions like: ‘What cuisine do you cook?’. Later, they got in touch with me and said they would like to organize a Skype interview. The interview focused on my signature dish. They then got in touch again, and I did several phone calls on things based on my background and experience. After some time, I got the call that I would be on the show.”
Nikki also described the experience to me. “It was incredible. It’s nothing like you would think it to be at home. Almost nothing can prepare you for the lights and cameras and mostly, the surprise of the mystery baskets. It was thrilling, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“My favorite part about competing was getting that first adrenaline rush when you open your mystery basket and think ‘What the heck am I going to do with this?’…it gives you this motivation to change it up, and open your mind to things you would never think to work with. It was really fun to put the puzzle together and think of how to put outrageous ingredients into something that you would never think would fit there.”
The cameras didn’t faze her so much. “It wasn’t as bad as you think,” Nikki responded. “It’s kind of like having a really bulky shadow. They didn’t interfere much; you would really only see them out of the corner of your eye. But, one time, when I was getting plates, I almost ran into a camera person. But, honestly, I was too focused on my cooking to really care that much.”
Knowing that people were watching didn’t scare her. “It was quite exhilarating. The pressure was on!” she told me. “Instead of being full on ‘nervous’, I would prefer the term ‘nervited’ because I was nervous and excited at the same time, and I knew it would be interesting to look at myself at the screen. So, I guess I didn’t want to disappoint my future self.”
In the competition, there are three rounds: appetizer, entrée, and dessert. Each round has its own basket of mystery ingredients. Every ingredient must be used in each competitor’s dish in some way. Each round is timed. Dishes are judged on taste, presentation, and creativity. If someone’s dish isn’t good enough to have them move on to the next round, they’ll be “chopped”, or eliminated.
In the appetizer round, Nikki had to work with ground venison, quail eggs, pickle juice pops, and pretzel slider buns, and she made a venison-bacon burger with a strawberry-arugula salad dressed with a pickle juice vinaigrette and a fried quail egg on top.
“I’d worked with lean meats, such as bison, so I knew that something like venison would need some fat, so I added bacon,” she told me.
In the entrée round, the junior chefs were tasked with using ground beef, taleggio cheese, Texas toast, and shallot marmalade in their dishes. Nikki created a taleggio burger with pickled apples, potato chips, a shallot-Worcestershire-hot sauce sauce topped with stained glass basil.
“Instead of using the toast as is, I decided to consider it as breadcrumbs and used it as a binding agent for my burger patty.”
For the dessert round, she had to include chocolate marshmallow cereal treats, sharon fruit, candied bacon, and brioche buns. She created a molten chocolate lava cake with caramelized sharon fruit, a loose whipped cream, and a candied bacon-brioche bun crumble.
“I decided to give the essence of a burger,” replied Nikki. “I knew that I could make something that was worth $10,000 by giving them something you wouldn’t normally think of as a burger.”
“I think that although there were some pretty extraordinary things in the appetizer basket, I found that it was in my wheelhouse. As soon as I saw the pickle pops, I knew I was going to make vinaigrette. I have worked with quail eggs, and the rest of the ingredients lent themselves to the burger theme. The entrée basket was something that I felt that I could explore with. The flavors weren’t clearly defined, so I felt I could experiment more with it, and bring in new flavors. The thing that threw me was the dessert round. The ingredients didn’t exactly fit together unless you had a binder. The candied bacon was hard to work with because it was a premade product, and the rice cereal treats couldn’t find a home, so the lava cake really helped when it came to making a cohesive dish.”
“To be honest, I bonded very much with all my competitors, and unlike most people on Chopped, we were sad to see each other go home. Even now, we are still in touch,” she told me about the friendships she developed on the show when I asked her who she became closest to.
Nikki really couldn’t believe it when she won. “It was as if I had touched the stars,” she responded. “It was extremely cool to win on an episode like this because the stakes were higher, and the opportunity to judge would be worth more than $10,000. But, even though I won, I was still sad my competitors went home, and they didn’t have that opportunity.”
“Well, I haven’t used my money yet because I’m still deciding what to do with my money, but I’m leaning towards visiting Greece because of its architecture and cuisine.”
“I really want to be a chef when I grow up, but I also have many other things that I would like to be. I would like to be a chef, architect, computer developer, actor, professional tennis player, photographer, and president.” That really made me laugh.
“My life took a huge turn after winning. It was hard for me not to be happy all the time. Friends and strangers have asked for autographs, I’ve been asked to do news articles and interviews, and I’m planning to visit a local children’s hospital to give back to the community. Chopped Junior has definitely given me opportunities to change the world.”
“I first got into cooking when I was 2-3 years old. I started helping my parents, and then, I realized my culinary dream. Then, after experimenting and trying so many things when cooking, I kicked my parents out of the kitchen and started making new creations,” said Nikki, reminiscing and grinning.
“My favorite part about cooking is when serving a meal to someone, and them saying to you ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ is so satisfactory, and it makes you feel appreciated.”
“I would say that I like cooking ‘New York Style’ because I cook everything from Belarusian to Japanese. And, New York City has so many options to cook and eat from, so I can’t say exactly what my style is.”
“I love Belarusian food – it’s in my roots. The flavors are bold and smoky, but also, I got spoiled by NYC and love eating and cooking everything.”
“I love hearty American food a lot, like burgers, BBQ, and chili, but I also love pickled food because it puts a new perspective on food. But, I gotta say, I loved baked sweets and treats. Who doesn’t?” I totally agree.
“The best thing I can make is probably my signature dish: pork medallions with a mushroom-masala sauce, sautéed peppers, and roasted potatoes.”
“I love making everything I eat: cookies, donuts, Pad Thai, Greek food, dumplings, Russian soup, and especially burgers.” Me too, Nikki. Me too.
“My biggest inspirations are my parents and some of my celebrity idols. My parents have given me pretty much all my cooking knowledge, and I wouldn’t be as successful as I am now. I also got inspired by Anne Burrell. She is my favorite chef because she kicks butt, and by watching her shows, she has given me advice like brown is flavor when it comes to cooking meat and not to cut with your finger off on the blade of your knife.”
Nikki, thank you so much for cooperating with me!!!!! I really enjoyed working with you, and you should really be proud of what you’ve accomplished so far; it’s far more than I have and probably even more than some other kid chefs. Your cooking on the show really impressed me, and, you know, I don’t live too far away, so maybe I could come meet you one day. Until then, I want you to promise me that you’ll keep striving to achieve your goals; it’ll take you farther in life than you ever thought you’d go before!!!!!
Everyone, keep watch because a week from tomorrow night, I’ll be posting part 2 of this, where I’ll share Nikki’s answers from our second interview, and you’ll get to know her thoughts on what it was like being a Chopped Junior Judge for a day.