Photo by David Michael Howarth • Shot on location at The Pop Shop
We already knew South Jersey was full of super talented kids – now all the viewers of The Food Network know it, too. It seems like every episode of “Chopped Junior” or the “Chopped Teen Tournament” includes a competitor from South Jersey.
Many of these talented chefs have conquered The Food Network’s cooking competitions, where young chefs use a “mystery box” of ingredients to create gourmet dishes. They’ve proven they can stand the heat, and they definitely belong in the kitchen.
Dylan Marcus, 14, Cherry Hill
Dylan Marcus says he’s always been surrounded by food.
“I’ve always been in an environment where cooking is just something everybody does,” the Cherry Hill teen says. “I have a memory from when I was like 2 of using a double boiler to melt chocolate.”
Marcus, who appeared on Chopped Junior in December 2015, says he actually set out to be on a different show, hosted by celebrity chefs Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri.
“I originally tried out to be on ‘Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off,’” Marcus says. “I didn’t get picked for that, but we were still on the email list, and they sent out a casting call for Chopped Junior. We did a Skype call with them and sent a video, and things took off from there.”
To practice for his Chopped appearance, Marcus worked alongside the chef of a local pizzeria. When he faced off against three other kid chefs, he says his goal was just to make it through the first round.
“My whole mindset was just, ‘Don’t get chopped in the first round,’” Marcus says. “It would have been nice to win, but honestly I didn’t go in expecting to win.”
Marcus made it through the appetizer round, but was chopped in the second round. The judges, he says, thought his entrée was too spicy.
“I really love spicy food,” he laughs. “I thought it was delicious, and if that’s the only reason they chopped me, I can totally live with that.”
Alexandria Brooks, 18, Voorhees
When her father insisted she watch something educational on TV, Alexandria Brooks turned to The Food Network.
“I was like 5 or 6, and the chefs looked like rock stars to me,” the Voorhees resident says. “I was hooked immediately. After a few months I started asking my mom, ‘Can I help you cook? What can I make?’ The first dish I made by myself was mac and cheese. I used heavy cream, Parmesan, diced ham; it was delicious.”
For several years, Brooks says she focused on building a food-centered platform for herself, starting a blog and a YouTube channel. Two years ago, she saw a casting call for Chopped, and six months later she was competing on the first episode of the show’s Teen Tournament. Her episode aired in July 2014.
The chefs are required to use every ingredient in their mystery boxes, which nearly always include at least one out-there ingredient. The weirdest thing Brooks had to deal with, she says, were Kool-Aid-soaked pickles.
“That was the OMG-ingredient for me,” she says. “I made a slaw with them, and it added a salty element to my dish, which was a seared lamb topped with fresh gremolata [a sauce made of herbs and lemon zest].”
Though she was chopped after the appetizer round, the Eastern High School graduate still plans to pursue her dreams in the culinary world.
“I’m actually not going to culinary school,” she says. “I’m going to Rowan for communications. I want to be a food writer. My dream is to be the editor-in-chief of ‘Bon Appetit’ magazine.”
Lily Nichols, 13, Cinnaminson
In September 2014, audiences watched Lily Nichols, then 11, become the youngest Chopped Champion in the show’s history. She took home a $10,000 grand prize, but Nichols says it wasn’t about the money at all.
Her dad, Jeffrey, suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2013 after a fall. Nichols says she was just focused on making him proud.
“I went into it super confident,” she says. “The other kids seemed pretty talented and I was a little nervous at first, but I kept thinking about doing it for my dad and that really helped me through it. It was just all about proving I could do this for my dad.”
Sadly, Nichols’ triumph was followed closely by tragedy. Her father succumbed to his injuries just three days after the show taped in April 2014. Nichols and her family continue to raise awareness about traumatic brain injuries, and Nichols says that while she still cooks, it’s more of a stress reliever than a career path.
“I don’t really want to do it professionally,” she says. “It was really something I did for my dad. I don’t think I want to be a chef, but I do want to get into working with people, maybe as a special-needs teacher or something like that.”
Nichols says her advice to any kids preparing to compete on television is simple: Just be yourself.
“Just take it easy and be who you are,” she says. “Trust your instincts and follow your gut.”
Brandon Medley, 17, Washington Township
Aside from a few years when he considered politics, Brandon Medley has always wanted to cook for a living. The rising senior in Gloucester County Institute of Technology’s Culinary Arts program was only 15 when he competed on the Chopped Teen Tournament.
“Being at GCIT gave me opportunities I never would’ve gotten anywhere else,” Medley says. “Being on Chopped was one of those.”
Medley, whose episode aired in the summer of 2014, was the youngest of 16 chefs in the tournament. Medley was chopped after the first round, which he attributes to his youth and inexperience. It was still, he says, a fun experience.
“After the show I came up with a million different things I could’ve done with that mystery box,” Medley says. “Now, I’d make a pizza. No doubt about it. I was only a freshman at the time, and my skills weren’t what they are now. I still had that middle school vibe to me. Now, I think I’d handle the pressure a lot better.”
Medley doesn’t dwell on the Chopped loss, though; his thoughts have shifted to the future and his dream school.
“The only thing I study is food,” he says. “I try to absorb everything I can. I visited the Culinary Institute of America, and they have this food science program,” he says. “I realized I don’t want to be in a restaurant 12 hours a day, but I do want to be around food and around chefs. I’d like to develop flavors for a company, like people do for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, or work for a company making school lunches better. Almost no kids are buying lunch in their cafeterias, and there is so much more we can do to make food better.”
Emily and Lyla Allen, 12, Lawrence
Emily and Lyla Allen spend a lot of time together – cooking, blogging, coming up with new business ideas and building their brand, The Kitchen Twins.
Late last year, audiences watched Emily and Lyla face off against each other and two other competitors in the Chopped Junior kitchen. Neither of them went home with the $10,000 prize, but in hindsight, Lyla says, that may have been for the best.
“We think it’s better one of us didn’t win, because it would’ve caused more sibling rivalry,” she says. “It was a great experience though, and we made some good friends.”
Besides, it’s not as though they need the money. The sisters are the entrepreneurs behind the “Make Your Own Kale Chips” kit, which started as a project for a Lawrence High School competition similar to television’s “Shark Tank.” Their product is now available in more than 300 ShopRite, Acme and Whole Foods stores across the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest.
The girls have gotten lots of local news coverage in addition to appearances on “The Rachael Ray Show” and “The Today Show.” Emily says despite the attention, she and her sister are still just normal middle-schoolers.
“I don’t really notice it. It’s just a part of our life now,” Emily says. “I’ve gotten used to it, and so have our friends. I guess we do stand out, because we have a product on the market and a successful blog, and most 12-year-olds don’t have that. But everyone has hobbies, and this is ours. Food is our passion, and we just happen to be very successful at it.”
Emily says she plans to become a doctor, and she hopes to combine a career in medicine with her love of food.
“I want to get my MBA and pursue a career as a chef,” Lyla says. “I want to go to culinary school and open my own restaurant and be a businesswoman in the world of food. I think we’ve planned out our futures pretty well.”