A Los Angeles chef who says he has the best job in the world -- feeding the homeless in Venice and teaching cooking classes for men and women trying to get back on their feet -- credits that work with helping him win $10,000 on "Chopped."
D. Brandon Walker works at the St. Joseph Center, where he runs a culinary training program that helps struggling men and women find a career path in the food industry. He is also the executive chef at the nearby Bread and Roses Cafe, which feeds the homeless five days a week.
The cafe serves multi-course meals. It's an opportunity, Walker said, to provide real-life training to his culinary students and give the homeless the dignity of a luxurious dining experience. Much of the food served at the cafe is donated from area restaurants and food banks, meaning Walker is never sure what ingredients he'll get until the cartons show up.
And that pretty much made him a shoo-in when it came to his recent "Chopped" competition.
"It was like I had been training for that show for the last six-and-a-half years," Walker said. "I never really know what I am going to be cooking at the cafe until the day before, or that week. And then I make the decision based on what I've got. It's really like an episode of 'Chopped' every week."
For the uninitiated, Food Network's "Chopped" is perhaps the purest cooking competition on television.
Four competitors begin the three-round contest that features mystery baskets of mismatched ingredients and a cruel deadline. They are given minutes to transform the often bizarre food components into a meal worthy of the high-profile judges in attendance.
After each round, one person is eliminated until just one remains -- the "Chopped" champion.
"It was absolutely nerve-racking," Walker said of the competition. "I thought they would give you some hint of what you were cooking, but absolutely not."
In his first round, he was given ground pork, jarred barbecue sauce, squash and a can of chicken noodle soup. Walker said he dislikes using "anything processed" but had to make do. He used the soup as the basis for an Asian twist on French country dumplings featuring pork accented with the barbecue sauce.
In the second round, he was given scallops, Chinese broccoli and two ingredients he had never used before: Finger limes and tamarillos. He created a Thai relish that accented seared scallops, served atop the grilled broccoli.
"I have to say, it was colorful; it really was a beautiful plate," he said.
The final round -- dessert -- saw him pitted against a pastry chef.
"One thing I do not know a lot about is baking," Walker said. "I was sweating."
The ingredients in the final round were commercial-grade hamburger buns, vanilla frosting in a canister, aged sharp cheddar cheese and granny smith apples.
Walker said the easy route would have been to make a pain perdu or bread pudding, but with $10,000 on the line, he wasn't taking the easy way out.
"I decided to make a cookie," he said.
For flour, he toasted and then pulverized the hamburger buns. While the cookies were baking off, he made twin dips: A citrus-spiked raspberry sauce and a spiced chocolate ganache. For accent, he deep-fried mint leaves.
The cheddar-and-granny-smith cookies were a hit.
"It was uncontrollable elation," Walker said of the win. "It was such a release."
But he added it was nothing compared to the emotions he felt when he returned to the the men, women and children he feeds every day, and was introduced as their "Chopped" champion.
"It meant so much to me," he said. "I was overjoyed. All these homeless folks were cheering and were so proud of the fact that this chef who has been serving them every day went to New York and kicked butt."
The 40-year-old said the $10,000 went directly into the bank -- seed money, he said, for college for his three young daughters.
Walker's job means that his name is not likely to be included in L.A.'s celebuchef category -- and that's OK with him. He says he has the best job of any chef in L.A., and perhaps the best job of any chef in the world.
"My job is unique in that I am cooking everyday and I'm teaching," he said. "We train people who are coming out of all different types of difficulties in their lives. ... People who are unemployed or underemployed. Coming out of rehab, or transitional housing, coming out of penal system, or being laid off. We give them the opportunity to learn."
And then his executive chef job serving the homeless means "coming in contact with about 150 people every single day who are really going through the toughest time in their lives, whether it's mental illness or drug addiction, or some other problem."
"It always puts things into perspective ... and there's always some victory, no matter how small, when one of our clients has been able to overcome one of their challenges. It motivates me, and it makes me feel great. I always tell my fancy chef friends: 'Sorry, but I've got the best job in the world,'" he said.
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