Native to appear on Food Network tonight

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 1, 2011

NATCHEZ — Natchez native and Atlanta sous-chef Jeffrey Gardner will take his culinary talents all the way to the Food Network show “Chopped,” which will air at 9 tonight.

“Chopped” is a television show structured to challenge four up-and-coming chefs to turn a selection of everyday ingredients into an extraordinary three-course meal. After each course, a contestant gets “chopped” until the last man or woman left standing claims victory.

Each week, a rotating panel of culinary elite judges will decide whose dishes stand out, and the winner is awarded $10,000.

Email newsletter signup

Gardner would not disclose if he was the last to be “chopped” and win the grand prize, but he said the judges gave him very high marks.

“It was really intense, you can kind of get a feel for it when you watch it, but there’s nothing like cooking in complete silence,” Gardner said. “Also, there was no air conditioning or range hood going, and it was extremely hot, which made the tension more palpable. The kitchen is very unfamiliar; they take great pains to take you out of your comfort zone. You get no feel for the kitchen ahead of time, and you couldn’t move things around, which is hard because all chefs crave control.”

Gardener described “Chopped” as a mystery competition.

“We didn’t know the ingredients ahead of time,” Gardner said. “They intentionally make them not go well together, and then throw in one whammy out of left field.”

Each round is timed. Gardner said the chefs were allowed 20 minutes to prepare an appetizer, and 30 minutes for the entrée and dessert. The dishes must not only taste good, but also have an attractive presence on the plate.

“And you have to use everything they give you,” Gardner said.

A 2002 graduate of Cathedral High School, Gardner lucked out with one ingredient that is familiar to the area — catfish.

“I was very familiar with catfish, being from Natchez,” Gardner said. “I remember how good all those fried seafood houses are that we all love, such fond and memorable foods.”

Gardner said he’s always loved working in the kitchen.

“My mom and grandma were fantastic cooks, and the results were always so delicious that I was drawn into cooking.”

Though “Chopped” is written and produced to be a tense, reality-style program, Gardner said having mental organization to think clearly under duress and put out a well-composed plate worked in his favor.

“Hearing the well-known chefs give high marks to some of my dishes was great,” Gardner said.

Gardner said he applied to be a contestant on the show when he found out about it through his company, South City Kitchen in Midtown in Atlanta, which has five restaurants in the group. Gardner answered essay questions and submitted an audition video.

“A week later I had a video in the can,” Gardner said. “They want a chef that can be camera-friendly with a good TV personality in mid-career growth.”

Gardner said Natchez has some fantastic restaurants, which is a great starting-point for amateur chefs, and you don’t have to be high society to get delectable food in the area. Gardner noted the Pig Out Inn among others as his favorites.

“If I could choose my last meal, one component would be the biscuits from the Carriage House,” Gardner said.