Back to School with Chef Ernest

The summer is almost over and soon students will be going back to school. We caught up with last week’s Chopped Grill Master’s winner Chef Ernest Servantes after his exciting victory. Here’s what he had to say about his experience the show, his family, making his own grills and cooking for a campus full of college students.

Chef Ernest Servantes

FP: How did you get your start with cooking? What do you enjoy most about cooking?

ES: How I got my start was really as a kid in my grandma’s restaurant, I’ve enjoyed it since then. It’s in my blood, if my family had been in another trade I might have been doing something else.  Cooking is how I was born and raised so it comes natural. What I enjoy most about it is making people smile, putting my passion in, and seeing the happiness that people feel as a result.

FP: Name some of your favorite chefs (if any) and why.

ES: Well, my grandma wasn’t a chef but she’s one of the best cookers. More than specific chefs, I like the American Southwest style of cooking. Robert McGrath is awesome. Jeff Blank at Hudson’s on the Bend does great stuff.  Of course, there’s Bobby Flay. These guys all have the type of cuisine that I like: bold Texas flavor.

FP: Your grandma is probably the best of the best!

Tell us about your experience on Chopped Grill Masters from casting to filming. What was it like to compete with the other chefs?

ES: I’ve always enjoyed and loved the show but my passion is BBQ.  Just like other chefs prefer one part of cooking like Italian or molecular gastronomy, I love BBQ. I like the whole cooking process from the coals to the intrigue of the cowboy style.  When a friend talked to me about Chopped thing, I was apprehensive ‘til I heard it was open coals. I loved that added challenge, not just the basket, but the coals, the Dutch oven, the cast iron. When you do Chopped in a closed kitchen, you have everything at  your disposal: electricity, a full pantry, tools. Outside, you have to deal with the elements, a limited kitchen, wind, high and low temperatures, and you cannot leave station or your food will burn. It isn’t so forgiving! Add to that 16 of the top grillmasters and it’s something else!

To be honest, I was starstruck because I had read about a lot about the other great chefs I was competing against. I’ve read their books and blogs and bought their seasonings. I’m one of the few who is young, new at it. I was competing against everyone who inspires me so it was intimidating.  I really respect everyone who’s been on Chopped, it’s a lot harder than it looks.

FP: Well, you sure didn’t appear intimidated to us! When you are home, what are some of your favorite meals to cook (If any)? If you go out to eat, name some of your favorite places in cities you’ve visited.

ES: As a bachelor, I did a lot of different things. Now that I’m a father, I try to inspire my kids to cook. Now, I’m more of a dad than a chef at home. We go to farm markets, the butcher, other places to get fresh ingredients. We make stone pizzas, our own breads, of course we BBQ. They’re 7 and 14 so we do all sorts of things to make a fun family atmosphere. Growing up in a small town, I wasn’t really educated about different kinds of foods but I want my kids to be foodies.

I rarely go out to eat and I don’t go to changes. I like to get together with other chefs and do backyard get-togethers  on Sundays. We do theme nights and make our own fun because it’s better to eat non-processed food.

We have great things in Texas, though. Whether you’re in Austin, Houston or San Antonio, there’s always something to try.  People in Texas take a lot of pride in what we do, from cooking to everything else.

FP: What are some of your guilty pleasures (if any)? We like to call them foodie pleasures, hence the name 🙂

ES: Man, so many. One of the things I like is a nice home brew and cigar but it doesn’t happen too often. I like to go to microbreweries and try different things. One of my friends is a brewmaster so that’s cool.

FP: What is it like to cook for a dining hall of college students?

ES: I’ve worked all over, in high end places and different spots like that but this is a great spot especially now that I’m a dad. What makes it different and challenging is getting the students to eat right. We try not to be so industrial by making more of a food court atmosphere to keep them intrigued. We’ve all been in college where you think, “Great, it’s Tuesday, must be Mexican.” We’re not like that, we do  Peruvian, Thai. I try to enhance their education on food so when they graduate and go to meetings they are informed about what they are having.  The students come back and tell me that they’ve used what they learned in the dining hall.  I like that my work makes an impact on kids who are the future of the country.

FP: That’s fantastic.  It’s true that college is about so much more than just the books. 

We read that you’re a “hoarder” of grills.  How many do you own and do you prefer gas or charcoal?

ES: I’m like the ASPCA of grills. Everyone knows to give their grills to Ernest. I take them apart and make Frankenstein grills. I like to make and use different styles like Argentinean, Chilean, and of course American. I use the grills that I have salvaged to make creations like rotisseries. I guess you could call it sustainable recycling.

I really like to do Texas-style, but I also love the styles of Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico and other South American countries. There’s always a different reason for a different style of grill and cuisine.  I’m a purist and I like to be as authentic as possible.  If I’m doing a Jamaican jerk, then I will grill it the right way.

I can make anything into a grill, I’ve even used the “discos” from tractors.Has used parts of tracots, make anything out of a grill.  When I heard about Chopped, I was like “I can even grill on a shovel.” It’s a hobby that I like to do, what I’m intrigued by.

FP: Name three individuals you would want to invite over for dinner and what you would prepare for them.

ES: It could be whoever, it doesn’t really matter who, I just enjoy cooking.  I’d make an uncut short rib BBQ with chimichurri style sauce and grilled veggies a la parilla. We might even go into the Gulf, about 30 miles out and get red snapper to cook on the beach.  Add some salsa and corn tortillas and make the best fish tacos you’ve ever had.

I would like to cook for the chopped crew again, they were great. Also, Bobby Flay and Steve Raichlen to show them how it’s done.

FP: We LOVE fish tacos and chimichirri; we’d love to join you!

In three words, how would your friends and family describe you?

ES: Crazy, funny, and witty with a big heart. My friends and family respect me for that.

FP: If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you be doing?

ES: Probably a veterinarian, I’ve always been a huge animal lover. I learned that putting things on fires was more fun and cheaper to go through college, though!

FP: Do you have any non-cooking hobbies other than making Frankenstein grills?

ES: I don’t have much time, but I like to golf and hang out with my kids. I’ve kind of turned into a soccer mom. It’s probably funny to see a big guy with tattoos out on the field. After working in the restaurant industry with late nights and other craziness, I didn’t think it would happen; I’ve gone from the parties to picking up dirty clothes and football cleats. I’m also on the BBQ circuit a lot.

FP: Your kids are really lucky to have a dad who’s super dedicated to them and to teaching them about how to make good food choices.  We can’t wait to see you on the finale of Chopped Grill Masters and to follow your career!  Thanks for your time, Chef.


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