Last night’s fresh crop of Chopped contestants included none other than Emme Ribeiro Collins, the chef who grew up in her parents’ University District restaurant, Tempero do Brasil, then acquired an impressive culinary career of her own, including her former restaurant the Alcove Room. (She told The Seattle Times the show reached out to her on Instagram).
The Food Network show presents Collins as a private chef, though Seattle also knows her as the executive chef for Seattle Public Schools, the woman helping to make culturally relevant foods like injera and banh mi and chicken tinga as prevalent as pizza and corn dogs. Oh, the irony—the theme of this episode is “shakes and fries,” precisely the sort of Americana junk food she works to balance in her day job.
The episode leads with Collins’s three competitors fronting, drinking shakes with attitude, and swiping their hair in menacing ways as they make swaggering proclamations like “I’m a Cali boy at heart…and I know anything can be french fried.”
Our hometown chef is more understated, noting her passion for soulful Brazilian flavors and that, as the mom of three kids, she has a deeply personal relationship to tonight’s theme: “Shakes and fries are like dinner at my house.”
For folks who don't watch regularly, Chopped basically commands contestants to pull three courses' worth of cohesive dishes out of wicker baskets full of disparate ingredients, all in service of an episode's central theme. Host Ted Allen adjusts his natty tie, introduces guest judge Darnell Ferguson, and we’re off to the races.
First Course: Appetizer
The chefs open their baskets to find a (swiftly melting) milkshake topped with what appears to be an entire slice of cheesecake…maybe some pie? Next to it, a bag of frozen french fries, some Thai basil, and a batch of beef-and-pork meatloaf mix.
Collins’s brain goes straight to a kibbe frito with “spicy milkshake crema.” She grew up eating this beef croquette, and she plans to bring the flavor. “I love spice” she tells the camera, as her competitors fuss with nitrogen canisters and gnocchi that become hush puppies on the fly.
The judges dig how Collins used the fries to give texture to that ground meat. Though Collins does harvest some strawberries off the milkshake for that crema, Maneet Chauhan dings her for the “no-no” of using raw chilies to mask the sweetness.
Chef Nico, from Saint Louis, gets the first chop.
Second Course: Entree
This time the milkshakes-and-fries theme manifests itself as some whole russet potatoes and a container of corn ice cream. It comes in the usual oversize picnic basket alongside some boneless chicken thighs and…a plate of Cincinnati’s chili. Ooh, a controversial choice considering how many people find that regional delicacy kinda questionable.
Collins ponders the whole cavalcade of sensations inherent to shakes and fries (sweet, crunchy, salty, smooth, hot, cold). She uses the chicken for a version of Peruvian lomo saltado, a stir fry of meat, vegetables, and whole french fries.
Since the judges hinted that the potatoes should be a no-brainer in a french fry challenge (what, no points for creativity?) this approach seems genius. Collins decides to make chips rather than fries, then gets busy adding lime to turn that chili into salsa, and fashioning a corn and coconut milk shake.
She looks nervous as the judges parse a few rounds of fried chicken and scorn some thin grits. Do I detect a look of relief on her face when one judge calls out another dish for lacking spice? No problem for our girl over here.
This time around, the Chopped guillotine comes for chef Alex, the Cali boy.
Third Course: Dessert
And then there were two! Collins is up against a chef with 10 years of pastry experience. She, on the other hand, can summon “maybe five good dessert recipes I have in the bag.” But Ted Allen notes that chefs who slay the dessert round tend to be parents of young children.
This time around, baskets contain milkshake-flavored toaster pastries (aka Pop-Tarts for those of us who don’t have to contend with sponsorship economics). Plus frozen cherries, cocoa nibs, and…frozen sweet potato waffle fries. Yikes, dessert curveball.
But Collins has a plan; it involves doughnuts. She wants to continue repping Latin American flavors, so she fries up those cacao nibs and some chilies, then tosses them with cinnamon and sugar. She calls this creation mole sugar. Mole sugar!!!
Her dough appears to be bangin’ but fellow contestant Jackie is spending quality time with both baskets in the deep fryer. “I can feel this slipping away,” Collins stresses. Pressed for time, she fries her doughnuts in a pan of oil at her station—way less consistent, way more risky; at this point, her only option.
Faced with two strong desserts, the judges nitpick Collins’s overwhipped cream, and the “wet moisture” those waffle fries inserted into Jackie’s ice cream.
The Winner: Chef Emme!
“I’m so excited to tell my kids!” Collins enthuses as they announce her win. She earned some cool mom points, for sure. More importantly, she combined some fearsome creativity with her Brazilian heritage.
She’d be a fantastic presence on Top Chef. Just sayin’.