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Orange County chef Paul Cao wins on ‘Chopped’

Chef and restaurant owner Paul Cao recently won the reality cooking show "Chopped."
Chef and restaurant owner Paul Cao recently won the reality cooking show “Chopped.” Cao owns and operates Burnt Crumbs in Huntington Beach and Irvine, but like many restaurant owners, he admits it‘s a challenge to stay afloat during the pandemic.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Paul Cao prefers his privacy.

Cao is the chef and owner of Burnt Crumbs, which has locations at Pacific City in Huntington Beach and Irvine, as well as the Burntzilla restaurant in Irvine.

He said he only went on the Food Network reality cooking show “Chopped” in the summer of 2019 at the urging of his publicist, Kat Nguyen. The move more than paid off.

Cao won the “Soup and Sandwich Savvy” episode, which aired Sept. 22, and the $10,000 prize that came with it.

“My thing was just make sure you get everything on the plate,” said Cao, 41, an Irvine resident. “I’ve seen so many people mess up because they forgot an item or forgot an ingredient, and they get chopped.”

Cao made it to the third round of the show and avoided being chopped at the end. He created a funnel cake ice cream sandwich with an assist from his friend and fellow chef John Park, who runs Toast Kitchen + Bakery in Costa Mesa.

“I’m not a dessert or pastry guy, but I was able to memorize a couple of recipes with the help of my buddy John,” Cao said. “I was like, ‘I need to know how to make a dessert in 10 minutes.’ He said, ‘The only thing you can make that fast is either a funnel cake or a churro.’”

Cao’s specialty at his restaurants is the spaghetti grilled cheese sandwich, two things which might not seem to go together. Fame might not always be on Cao’s plate, though he said he’s appreciated the hundreds of text messages he’s received since the show aired last week.

Paul Cao's Burnt Crumbs is a casual eatery in Irvine.
Paul Cao’s Burnt Crumbs is a casual eatery in Irvine.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

He flew out to New York City to tape the episode along with a couple of longtime friends. One of them was Minh Pham, one of his business partners along with Phi Nguyen.

“The second day we were there, he went to go shoot the show,” Pham said. “The later in the day that it got, the more confident we got that, OK, maybe he had a good shot at winning. He left at 5 a.m. and he didn’t come back until 9 p.m. We saw him walking in with a big smile on his face, and we knew right away. Knowing Paul, if he lost, he was going to be pissed.”

Cao won the prize money. He said he planned to use it go on a family vacation this spring, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic took away that trip.

Orange County officials initially hoped that the county would be able to move into the next tier on Tuesday, but the average daily rate for new COVID-19 cases changed.

Cao, who has a degree in business economics from UCLA and started out as an accountant post-college before switching his career path, has tried to stay afloat. After running a food truck called The Burnt Truck for a few years, he and his partners opened the three restaurants in 2015 and 2016.

This year, COVID-19 forced their closure for about a six-week period from late March until Mother’s Day weekend in mid-May.

Due to continued slow business, Cao said the Pacific City Burnt Crumbs restaurant is now only open from Thursday to Sunday each week.

“COVID came, and the $10,000 got burned real quick,” Cao said. “It’s been tough, man. The ups and downs, the highs and lows have been crazy … I don’t think anyone in the restaurant business right now is actually making money. Everyone is just trying to stay alive. Everyone I know is just trying to doggy paddle and survive this thing.”

Cao hopes for better times ahead, but watching the episode when it aired last week brought back some good memories. He hadn’t seen the final product before it was on television, he said.

He has previously appeared on shows like “Eat St.” and “Junk Food Flip.”

“I don’t let [the attention] affect me or change me,” he said. “It’s cool, it’s great attention for the business. If I can bring any attention to the chefs in Orange County, that’s even more important. There’s a lot of really good food out here. L.A. gets a lot of credit, and deservedly so, but there’s great food down here.”

Chef Paul Cao's Southern fried chicken at Burnt Crumbs in Irvine.
Chef Paul Cao’s Southern fried chicken at Burnt Crumbs in Irvine.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

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