36 Degrees North Member Remmi Smith is a junior at Bishop Kelley high school. She’s also a chef and entrepreneur, known for her show Cook Time with Remmi. She started cooking when she was 7-years-old, and recently took her experience to the next level by appearing as a competitor on the Food Network’s Chopped: Teen Challenge.
We sat down with Remmi to hear about her experience and get an insider’s look at one of America’s favorite cooking shows.
Transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
How did this all start? Why did you want to go on the show?
I was actually contacted by the Food Network casting agency to be on Chopped Junior. Once we started the process, they realized I was too old for that show (the cutoff is 13, and I was 14 at the time). So then, about a year later, they called us again to say they were doing a teen tournament, and of course, it was something I couldn’t pass up!
Where is the Chopped studio?
It’s in New York City. They film the show right above Chelsea Market. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but Chelsea Market is beautiful. It’s incredible. They have all these different food shops and boutiques, and it’s a super place to explore. So after we filmed, that’s what my mom and I did. One of my traditions is, whenever I go out of town, I always get something for each of my siblings, so that was a perfect place to do that.
What did you have to bring with you and what did they provide?
They gave us the opportunity to bring our own knife set, but I don’t have one of my own, so they provided one for me. They also had every ingredient you could ever want stocked in the kitchen. The night before the taping, they took us on a tour of the pantry, so we’d be prepared. You absolutely cannot bring your own ingredients.
Walk us through the beginning of your day, before the competition began.
We met up at a hotel at about 7:30am and had breakfast there. You could tell everyone’s nerves were going. The room was pretty silent. Then the producers took us to the studio, and we put on our jackets and waited for the crew to get in place. While we were waiting, we got to talk to Ted Allen for a bit. That was SO cool. Then we did the introduction part a couple times (it's so fun hearing Ted read your bio), and they got a few shots of us opening empty baskets so they could get a close-up of our hands. Then we were sent out of the room while they put the actual ingredients in the baskets.
Is Ted as cool as he seem?
Absolutely. He’s a really chill guy, and he’s willing to help you if you need it.
Did you know the mystery ingredients ahead of time?
No, you don’t know what the ingredients are until Ted is announcing them. When that happened, my mind just really started to whirl.
So for those who didn’t watch the episode, what were your mystery ingredients in each round?
Korean Short Ribs
Apple Green Tea Coolers
Gorgonzola Dulce (really fancy cheese)
Skate Wing (similar to a stingray; the meat is like a white fish)
Giardiniera (pickled, italian veggie medley- very bitter)
Pate A Choux (light pastry dough used for cream puffs)
What was your strategy?
To make something I already knew. I didn’t want to go out of the box and get too crazy. The Chopped Kitchen is not the place to experiment with new techniques, so I went the safe route.
Were you nervous during the competition?
Actually, I think I was way more nervous beforehand. But once I actually started cooking, everything just came to me naturally as if I were at home. I mean, that clock was awful! But other than that, everything felt pretty normal.
How long do you have to wait between each round?
You get judged right after the round is over, and then you sit in that back room for about 30 minutes while they clean up and decide who’s going to be chopped.
When you're watching on TV, and they’re about to chop a contestant, there’s suspenseful music and a long pause. Did you actually stand there in awkward silence for that long before Ted announced who was chopped?
Yeah. And he actually does a few takes saying “And the person on the chopping block is…” without finishing his sentence. It builds a lot of anticipation!
For those who don’t already know, how far did you make it in the competition?
I made it to the dessert round, so I got second place.
Where does that exit hallway lead to?
It leads you to a door at the back of the studio. I actually had to do my exit a couple times so they could get the shot just right. One time, I almost walked into that sliding glass door because I wasn’t paying attention. *laughs* But it was fine.
How long did it take to shoot the episode?
About 14 hours. I started at 7:30am and ended at about 9:00pm. Then the next day, I had to go in and shoot all those interview segments that you see during the cooking part.
Oh, so you taped all of that after the fact? Not between the rounds?
Yeah, there’s a producer who watches the competition and writes down every little thing that happens. Then she jogs your memory the next day. At first, it was a little bit weird because they want you to speak in the present tense. But once I got going, I really got into it, and it only took a couple hours.
Do all the competitors get some sort of prize?
Nope. For the teens, even the person who wins that episode doesn’t win anything. Only the overall tournament winner gets a prize.
What were the judges like?
I was actually super scared of Maneet [Chauhan] before the competition because, from what I’ve seen in the past, she’s really focused on transforming the ingredients. I was scared that I wouldn’t change them enough for her… but evidently I did! Aarón [Sánchez] was super chill. He’s a really nice guy. And Scott [Conant] is one of the most wise judges. They don’t show you a lot of the stuff that they say to us- because obviously there isn’t time. But he gave us such good advice.
Did anything about the experience surprise you? I’m sure you did a ton of research ahead of time, so was there anything that threw you off?
The timing really caught me off guard. I thought 30 minutes would be plenty of time to do something, but when you’re in the kitchen and the pressure is on, it goes by so quickly.
What was your favorite part?
I loved talking with the judges. They are culinary experts, so getting their feedback on my food was crazy. It’s honestly unbelievable. I also liked getting to meet other chefs my age who can cook at a gourmet level. It was really inspirational, and it challenged me to get better.
What was your least favorite part?
Getting Chopped. *laughs* I really had the best experience. Oh, but… I did have a mini freak out in the dessert round. Thankfully they didn’t show it on TV. I was trying to find this pie tin, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I kept asking the crew if they could show me where it was, but they wouldn’t answer. It made me really frustrated. That was really the only negative part.
What’s next for you as a chef, as an entrepreneur, and as a student?
As a chef, my hope is to start a food blog. I think it’s a really neat idea to share my recipes on a wider platform. Plus I think it’d be really fun because I like talking to people about food, and that could be an easy way to do that. As an entrepreneur, I’m working on an advertising push for the Chef Club Box, to really get the product out there. And as a student, standardized testing is my next big battle. *laughs*
What would you tell other kids who want to be chefs and maybe end up on Chopped some day?
I think the best thing to do is go with your gut. If you really have a passion for something, you should go for it. A lot of times, other people will say you’re too young or too inexperienced. What you need to do is prove them wrong. Go out and get experience. Go out and research and learn and then, ultimately, prove them wrong whenever you’re on Chopped :)
Editor’s Note: Do you want to meet Remmi in person? She’ll be appearing on a special panel for Tulsa’s Global Entrepreneurship Week on Tuesday, November 15 called “I’m a Student Entrepreneur.” Click here for more details.