From working at his mother’s fish and chips restaurant in Seekonk, Massachusetts, to starting his own restaurant in Warren, Chef Eli Dunn of Eli’s Kitchen took another giant leap in his cooking career last May when he competed on Food Network’s Chopped. He brought his own flair to the Chopped kitchen, creating dishes that represented his state, his restaurant, and himself, which crowned him the champion.
What first drew you to cooking?
I think it was in my DNA. I mean, I grew up with an appreciation for real food and was consciously in love with food. But in my early twenties, I began traveling, and a friend of mine went to California. My first real food hero was Alice Waters, who sort of is credited with starting the farm-to-table movement, and I ate at her restaurant and it was a revelation because her food was so much like my mother’s in that is was unpretentious and simple and just fresh, but incredibly flavorful and perfectly cooked. That experience opened my eyes and was just a turning point for me. It was the first time I heard “farm-to-table” and so I started to cook that way. And it’s just hard not to fall in love with something when you realize you’re really good at it and it makes people happy.
What drove you to being on Chopped?
It’s funny because I never really watched Chopped to be honest with you. But then last year I got a casting call for [the show], and I’m not sure how they recruit for the show, so I don’t know how they found me, but they did. My staff talked me into it and so I applied and went down to New York in May and I won. It was crazy. But after I won and they were like, “We’ll tell you when your episode will air, it can be anywhere from six months to a year.” So, talk about anticlimactic. I had this amazing experience, I won, and I called my wife and we were celebrating, and then I had to forget about it and move on. Until I got the email that said the episode would air on November 27 and then I could tell people I was on it.
How did you prepare for the show?
The truth is, that’s how we cook here. That creative process is familiar to me, so I felt as though the mystery basket concept was right in my wheelhouse. I also did some research and read some blogs from people who had competed and won and sort of their pro-tips. I researched the judges a bit and some different strategies to use, but overall, I didn’t want to overthink it and psych myself out.
What did it feel like when you won?
It was a huge roller coaster of emotions. The first round, I was confident I was going through because I know our chowder is just so good. But in the second round, I overcooked the fish and my sauce congealed so they didn’t love the dish. And in my mind at the time I was like “I’m going home” and I started going through this spirituality thing where I was thinking this was an amazing experience, that I won’t be too attached to the results, and I was trying to accept I was going home. So when they chopped someone else and I made it to the dessert round, I was shocked. I went from being resigned to going home to being super excited and confident again. It was incredible, and it felt great to win. But I really couldn’t celebrate until a couple weeks ago when it aired. We had a viewing party and watching it with everyone that came out to support me, that was my moment.