While producers at the Food Network touted Tuesday night’s episode of Chopped as groundbreaking because of its pint sized chefs, the September 30th installment of the cable television cooking show also featured what might have been another landmark moment, with possibly the first ever yarmulka-clad chef making an appearance on the show.
While Chopped has featured teen tournaments in the past, all four of the mini-gourmands featured on Tusday’s episode were between ten and eleven years old when the show was filmed last spring
12 year old Eitan Bernath of Teaneck was one of four youngsters selected from thousands of applicants to appear on the popular reality show, an elimination style program which pits a quartet of chefs against each other preparing gourmet food with mystery ingredients, which range from the conventional to the bizarre.
Eitan, currently a seventh grader at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, professed a lifelong love of cooking, an interest that he began cultivating seriously at the age of nine and a half.
Eitan’s Chopped odyssey began last December when his father, Jason, received an email about a casting call for the cooking show. Eitan and his mother, Sabrina, filled out the application on a whim and after an interview process that took several months, the Bernaths received word in March that Eitan had been selected to appear on the show.
While the episode was filmed last April, the Bernaths were contractually obligated to remain silent about any and all details of the show until after it aired publicly.
“At first it was a little hard to keep it secret, but over time I just got used to it,” said Eitan
Eitan consulted with Yavneh principal Rabbi Jonathan Knapp to find out how to deal with any potentially problematic halachic situations that might arise while cooking.
“Basically he told me I just couldn’t cook milk and meat together,” said Eitan. “The people at Chopped were extremely nice and we told them that it would be a problem so they made sure it didn’t happen.”
The episode, titled “Short Order Cooks”, began with the diminutive chefs charged to create an appetizer using the four mystery ingredients: ground beef, slider buns, tomatoes and cotton candy.
“At first when I opened the basket there was a shadow and I thought I saw a squash,” said Eitan. “But then I realized it was cotton candy. All I could think of was ‘What am I going to do with that?’”
In fact, the cotton candy turned out to be trickier than anticipated as Eitan tried to transform the wispy treat into a sauce. The first batch of cotton candy burned when heated into what Eitan described on air as “black, gooey disgustingness.” In Eitan’s second attempt, the cotton candy refused to melt. It was the third try that finally proved to be successful, with Eitan dissolving the cotton candy in simmering orange juice.
While the ground beef sliders, seasons with chili powder and Dijon mustard cooked up problem free, Eitan’s panko-coated deep fried tomato slices were inadvertently left in the fryer, minimizing the “wow-factor” of Eitan’s cuisine.
Eitan did not find his inability to taste his creations to be a setback.
“It wasn’t hard cooking food I couldn’t eat,” said Eitan. “I kept imagining what it would taste like.”
While many Chopped contestants have complained about the time limitations imposed on each course, Eitan found the 30 minutes allotted to the appetizer round to be sufficient.
“I wasn’t rushing, rushing, rushing,” recalled Eitan. “People say it feels like time is flying but to me it just felt like a regular half hour.”
Celebrity chefs Geoffrey Zakarian, Alex Gournaschelli and Scott Conant offered both praise and constructive criticism to Eitan for his dish, which featured mini burgers on slider buns topped with cut up tomato and ketchup, accented with a drizzle of cotton candy sauce.
Eitan, the first chef to be eliminated in the episode, was disappointed but poised as he thanked the judges for what he called “an amazing experience,” shaking hands with the judges and Chopped host Ted Allen. The winning chef, 11 year old Lily Nichols of Cinnaminson, New Jersey, took home a $10,000 prize, while each of the other three contestants received $500 gift certificates to the Food Network’s online store.
Both Eitan and his mother described Chopped as a wonderful opportunity, with the judges and the crew going out of their way to accommodate the contestants. Mrs. Bernath noted that at one point the contestants were eating lunch and host Ted Allen noticed that Eitan wasn’t eating. Realizing that Eitan would only eat kosher food, Allen sent someone out to pick up lunch for Eitan.
“He told Eitan that they wanted to make sure he had something to eat also and the two of them sat on the couch eating together,” said Mrs. Bernath. “Eitan thought it was really cool.”
While one of the highlights of Chopped for Eitan was seeing celebrity judges savoring his cooking, for Mrs. Bernath it was seeing Eitan’s behavior throughout the experience, particularly after he was eliminated from the competition.
“Eitan decided that for the rest of the day he was going to be the emcee,” said Mrs. Bernath. “As each one of the contestants was chopped, Eitan was there offering them food and water and consoling the parents. He was the one cheering everyone on and he made a tremendous impression on everyone there.”
Although Eitan didn’t take home the grand prize on Chopped, he has found himself to be in demand in recent weeks. Over 100 people attended a food demonstration at Grand & Essex in Bergenfield this past Monday night, where Eitan cooked up beef sliders and skirt steak burritos.
His future plans, in addition to his schoolwork and preparing for his Bar Mitzvah in May, include a Chanukah cooking demonstration at Grand & Essex and possible collaborations with the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts, a Teaneck restaurant, an appearance on the Chabad Telethon and another cooking demonstration for a well known men’s clothing store.
According to his English principal, Barbara Rubin, Eitan’s fame has not gone to his head.
“Eitan is a young man who really embodies middos as an individual and truly is someone who will become an asset to klal yisroel,” said Mrs. Rubin. “His studies are important. His development as a ben Torah is important. He is a young man with kavod, who treats everyone with dignity and is very well rounded and grounded at such a young age. This is one unique young man.”
Eitan, whose favorite subject is math, says that he hopes to continue pursuing his passion for cooking, and he plans to follow in the footsteps of Guy Fieri, another Food Network personality.
“I can’t eat most of the food he makes, but I want to be how he is,” said Eitan. “He is always happy and when he is in the room, everyone is smiling.”