A pastor, a monk, a nun and a rabbi walk into a kitchen. It’s not the start of a joke – it’s exactly what happened on a recent episode of the hit US cooking show Chopped.
The holy group took part in a special religion-themed episode of the popular Food Network show in the US that pits four cooks against each other. The chefs battle it out behind the stove through three courses until the final cook standing is named the Chopped champion.
Rabbi Hanoch Hecht, a Chabad rabbi who serves in Rhinebeck, New York, brought his A game – despite his culinary limitations.
In each round, the contestants are presented with a “mystery” box of ingredients, and they must use every item in the box in their dish. One by one, the contestants are “chopped” until just two remain for the dessert round.
Hecht noted on the show that, since the kitchen itself wasn’t kosher, he was unable to taste any of the food he prepared. He did, however, rely on the kindness of his fellow contestants, who tasted his food on more than one occasion throughout the competition – advising him on what to tweak. The show’s producers also stocked the kitchen specially for Hecht with nondairy ingredients he could use when cooking with meat, including margarine and soy milk. It was not clear if they provided him with kosher meat.
In addition to leading a Chabad House in upstate New York, Hecht teaches lectures on kashrut at the nearby Culinary Institute of America.
During the show, he told producers that his experiences learning in yeshivot in Israel, Europe and Brazil exposed him to different culinary traditions and flavors – giving him an edge in the competition.
Chopped, which has been running for more than seven years, has presented many themed episodes in the past, and brought all the kitsch out for this religious occasion.
Each basket contained at least one “religious” ingredient: the appetizer had to use Ezekiel bread, made of sprouted beans, barley and millet; the main course included kosher wine and the dessert round basket contained hamantaschen.
Of all the contestants, Hecht was the most colorful and animated – from his bright-red kippa to his “oy veys”; he even spontaneously broke out in a rendition of “Hava Nagila” while cooking.
He also stayed true to his culinary heritage throughout the night, offering a “traditional Shabbat” fish stew in the first course alongside garlic bread, a grilled lamb shoulder with rice and olives in the main course and a rugelach with candied tsimmes in the dessert round.
That’s right, the rabbi who couldn’t taste his food made it to the final round of the competition.
After knocking out both Father Justin Matro, a Benedictine monk from Crabtree, Pennsylvania, and Sara Marks, a nun-in-training in Philadelphia, Hecht faced Pastor Areli Biggers – from Hopkinton, Massachusetts – in the final round.
Despite the fact that he wasn’t eating any of the food, Hecht made sure to make a parve dessert for the judges, as it was part of a meat meal. His parve rugelach with a fig-macadamia filling and carrot tsimmes faced off against Biggers’s Mexican banuela with mascarpone citrus cream.
And in the end? The panel of three judges handed the win – and the $10,000 prize – to Biggers.
Hecht was not fazed at all by missing out on the top prize.
“I did win, the fact that I got to compete, the fact that I represented kosher I think in a dignified manner,” he said on the show. “I hope I made a true kiddush hashem.”