(A horror story about The Food Network.)
I’m chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s personal espresso maker and latte-foam artist. Yes, that’s a real job. With benefits, in fact. Great health and dental.
One of the perks of my occupation, aside from hanging out with GZ and getting to eat many of my weekly meals at his outstanding restaurant, The Lamb’s Club, is the access I enjoy at The Food Network’s studios and associated properties.
GZ is a pretty big deal over there, which I’m sure you know if you’ve watched the network for more than a few hours. Aside from Chopped!, which is his best-known show, he’s building a new audience with the Saturday morning feature, The Kitchen. His personality fits so well with whatever he’s in, though, and it’s just great to be a part of it.
I’m totally fanboying right now. Sorry. I hope that doesn’t sound disrespectful in the face of what happened.
GZ was shooting a few episodes of Chopped! with Aarón Sanchez, Marc Murphy, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Amanda Freitag. Ted Allen had just gotten there a bit late but immediately started poking fun at Aarón for a new tattoo on his hand that looked a little like a dick. (It totally did.)
I was in the backstage prep kitchen setting up Geoffrey’s personal Elektra Belle Epoque espresso machine. I’d shown him the preliminary designs for the three lattes I’d be making over the course of the day’s film schedule. Out of the 28, he chose Spring, by Pierre-Auguste Cot, Seated Woman with a Red Kerchief, by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, and my favorite, La Vérité sortant du puits armée de son martinet pour châtier l’humanité, by Jean-Léon Gérôme. I’d save that one for last.
The first episode of the day went well. A Nigerian-born British chef led the way throughout, and it was no surprise that he won. After it was over and they were setting up for the next show, GZ brought me a piece of the truly-outstanding bread pudding dessert that’d clinched the win. Laphroaig scotch-soaked brioche sounds wrong, but in that chef’s capable hands, it was transcendental.
The four chefs waiting in the wings for the next episode were called onstage. Ted gave the rules in his inimitable style, and GZ, Amanda, and Alex sat at the judging table, trying not to laugh. If only the TV viewers knew how hard it was to maintain the air of seriousness the show tries to project.
Anyway, the appetizer round went pretty well. It was obvious the lady from Westport was going to get chopped, since she left out two basket ingredients while trying to make some weird fritters out of mussels and kale. Sure enough, when Ted lifted the cloche, her appetizer was under it. She didn’t even thank the judges for the opportunity to compete.
The entree round came next, after the crew cleaned the chefs’ stations. I was hard at work on Spring, but I kept glancing up at the monitors in the prep kitchen to see what was going on.
Right as Ted announced there were only five minutes left, I heard Ted and the judges gasp. Apparently one of the the chefs had cut himself.
Now, anyone who’s watched Chopped! knows that chefs cut themselves all the time. It adds an extra element of suspense to the show as they have to wait for the EMT to bandage the wound and secure a glove, then they have to work through the pain and make sure not to get any blood on the food.
This cut was really bad. The problem was, the chef wouldn’t stop. Something was very, very wrong. GZ’s second latte was forgotten as I stared at the live feed from the studio monitors. All the other chefs stopped what they were doing as the EMT crew tried to attend to the chef. His name was Evan.
Evan was clearly disturbed. He shouted, “homemade sausage wins the round 87.2% of the time! Round one was close but this one will be a cut above!” He laughed hysterically and waved the knife at any approaching EMT. One of the producers came into the prep kitchen and dialed 911.
My eyes were glued to the monitor. GZ was calling to Evan and trying to talk some sense into him. He said he was a great chef and that he’d been to his restaurant before and really loved the Homard en Croûte. Evan didn’t acknowledge, so Aarón tried. He said something about being really proud of the work he’s done and it reminded him of himself when he was younger. No response, just frenzied cooking and prepping of the meat grinder.
A pan Evan had been heating was smoking hot. To everyone’s dismay, he yelled “reduce by 25%,” then carved between his index and middle fingers all the way down to his wrist. Everyone except Evan screamed. Blood poured into the pan and steam erupted from the hot surface. The odor of boiling blood filled the studio. One of the prep chefs next to me puked into the sink.
Another EMT tried to grab Evan while he was busy cutting, but Evan reacted quickly and slashed the man’s shoulder. Not deep, but enough to make sure the EMT didn’t try anything again.
“Oh no,” I heard Aarón moan. Alex shrieked. The blood steam had fogged the monitor’s camera, so I couldn’t see anything. I stepped out from backstage and saw why they were so distraught. Evan’s hand was gradually disappearing into the meat grinder.
GZ and I locked eyes and he just shook his head. I nodded. I felt bad for the guy. Horrified, but still sympathetic.
More and more of the man’s hand disappeared into the grinder. This would’ve never worked with the terrible meat grinders they had throughout the majority of the show’s history. Those things wouldn’t grind a sheet of paper. These were new, though, and they were powerful. As we watched, Evan’s arm disappeared up to the elbow as bloody confetti poured out and filled the bowl on the table.
The fire alarm sounded. Apparently some panicking intern had pulled it thinking it’d get the authorities there faster.
“Form into patties and braise in blood sauce with thyme, carrots, diced shallots, and fennel pollen,” Evan called out over the din of the alarm. “Add chocolate and poblanos to create a pseudo-mole sauce to ingratiate Sanchez and Freitag if they are judging. Add butter for Guarnaschelli. Add veal demi-glace for Zakarian.”
Evan’s arm had disappeared up to his shoulder. He wrenched the stump out. Pulped flesh dangled while blood spurted. His complexion was beige.
“Follow the braising with a quick sear. Plate with potatoes if Murphy is judging.” Marc was busy throwing up into a trashcan.
The studio door burst open and four police officers entered the studio. Evan had dropped the knife and was busy making patties out of the meat that’d once been his hand and arm. “Bone fragments may be overlooked if the flavor profile is strong enough,” he yelled, and began to drop the patties into the pan of reduced blood. He then added the aromatics he’d cut up before going nuts.
A scent filled the air. I was overwhelmed by the most disturbing sensation I’d ever experienced; the smell was intoxicating and luscious. Everyone stopped shouting and crying and puking as their nostrils filled with the rich odor. A cop shot Evan with a taser, and Evan collapsed on the bloody floor. He convulsed for a moment, then stopped. The EMTs ran to him.
One of the producers turned off the burners and ordered all nonessential personnel to leave immediately. I looked at GZ and he pointed at his watch. I was six minutes late with his latte. Of course he’d be thinking about his latte at a time like this.
I went in back and began the laborious process again. Spring was a no-go. I wasn’t about to try to do it over, so I prepared La Vérité sortant du puits armée de son martinet pour châtier l’humanité. I hoped it would put GZ in a happier mood, if that was at all possible.
The $20,000 espresso machine hummed and I deftly painted the milk foam and espresso into the objet d’art we both loved. I listened as the EMTs took Evan out and the police questioned the chefs. It didn’t take long. They left right when I was about to finish.
I came out onto the set with the latte and stopped dead in my tracks. My hands trembled and part of me knew my artwork was being destroyed, but that was the least of my concerns at that moment.
Geoffrey, Aarón, Marc, Ted, Alex, and Amanda stood around Evan’s station. They huddled in front of the pan, each holding a fork. Each of them was cutting off small portions of the terrible sausage Evan had made and eating it. Overcome with nausea, I dropped the latte. Everyone looked at me.
“Jesus Christ man,” GZ complained. “Was that the Gérôme one?”
His expression softened. “Sorry, I didn’t ask if you were okay. You good?”
I nodded again as he took another morsel of the sausage.
“Look, I know this looks strange and we all admit we’ll probably feel pretty bad about it tomorrow, but when else are we going to have a chance like this?”
Aarón chimed in, “C’mon buddy, give it a try.”
The other judges joined Aarón and GZ and encouraged me over. It still smelled spectacular. GZ cut me a tiny piece and I put it in my mouth. It was the best thing I’d ever tasted.
“Hey, is that camera still on,?” Alex asked around a mouthful of carrot and sausage.
“Hmm, yeah,” said Amanda, staring at the green light.
“Guess it’s one for the blooper reel,” GZ laughed. “For Chopped! After Hours.”
They all laughed and I backed away, not sure how to feel.
“Hey,” GZ interrupted, “anyone want a latte?”
Ted belched. “Fuck yeah.”
I went backstage and started to make their lattes. As I was turning the corner, Alex quipped, “yeah, that guy totally would’ve won the round. If he lives, maybe we should send him a card.”
They all thought that was a superb idea.