As you all know, Halloween is approaching. Recently, viewers were treated to a Halloween themed episode of Chopped. Who could forget judge Amanda Freitag putting a REAL pig snout up against her face? However, what we remembered most from the episode, is the creativity of winner Sean Scotese as he created delicious dishes with the typical unusual ingredients in the basket such as calf liver, pig snout, and Tequila lollipops (worm included). We caught up with Chef Sean (@Sean_Scotese) after his victory to learn more about him and his experience on Chopped.
FP: How did you get your start with cooking? When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
SS: I got my start cooking at a young age, helping my (beautiful) mother & grandmother prepare mass quantities of food for my large, mostly Italian family back in Cleveland. I decided I wanted to be a chef after spending a summer in Wildwood, NJ and getting a job at a local hotel there in the kitchen. The popular pool boy position was filled so I agreed to grill ribs and make burgers for $11/hr. I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to basically be a pirate and fell in love with the work environment immediately.
FP: Speaking on behalf of all the foodies with big appetites like us, we are glad the pool boy position was filled!
What do you enjoy most about cooking?
SS: Recently, the thing I enjoy most about cooking is learning how food is the universal language of humanity. You can share someone’s favorite meal/national dish with them and instantly learn so much about them and at the same time create an instant bonding experience. I have always been a watchful observer of how interwoven food is with daily life and I think there is so much interesting content there to be explored. There are layers of culture buried in the simplest traditions and there is usually some amazing food playing a prominent role in most of these experiences.
FP: We couldn’t agree more about the power of food to bring people together!
Name some chefs that have inspired you.
SS: I have had the great pleasure of working for some amazing chefs and restaurateurs in my culinary life up to this point. There are a few who stood out and each for their own reasons.
Michael Symon is a great role model and master of big flavors in refined preparations. He shows how it is not always about being the loudest, most extreme person in the room and backs up his quiet confidence with killer food.
Anita Lo really showed me how simple ideas, done correctly with a personal logic supporting the dish can be a powerful package. She is so good at building the ‘Why & Where’ aspects into her cuisine instead of just focusing on the ‘What & How’ that most chefs stop at. Food with a message or underlying philosophy will undoubtedly resonate deeper with more people than something done for shock value or out of repetitions sake.
The last person I would like to list as an inspiration would be Drew Nieporent, owner of many critically acclaimed successful restaurants. I worked for Drew for almost three years and he taught me that it takes so much more than just good food to succeed in the dynamic and ever changing competitive marketplace that we exist in. He represents the epitome of being a diverse operator and is one of the most comprehensive students of the restaurant industry that ever was.
FP: Tell us about your experience on Chopped. What was it like to compete with the other chefs? What will you remember most about the experience?
SS: My experience of being on Chopped was one of the most fun things I have ever had the opportunity to partake in. I consider Chopped a form of culinary Jeopardy (one of my other favorite shows) and was looking forward to the chance to test my trivial knowledge of random ingredients.
The actual filming itself takes place over one long, stressful day but it was worth every second of it. It was interesting competing against other chefs with various backgrounds and individual niches in the wide world of food. One of the strongest aspects of Chopped is the great equalizer formula: little to no time + disparate elements = negligible advantage in regards to experience. It really comes down to your personal kitchen instincts and ‘Cooking I.Q.’. How well do you understand and apply universal truths of cooking to the subject at hand regardless of context. No one anywhere knows how to best combine Pigs Snout and Gummy Tarantulas but you must at least make it taste good, in 20 minutes.
The thing I will remember most about being on Chopped is the awesome feeling of going through a standardized, quantifiable evaluation of how well you deal with unforeseen strenuous circumstances and coming out on top. All chefs pride themselves on being the great problem solver, no matter how difficult the scenario and Chopped is like the Olympics of kitchen problems.
FP: Comparing Chopped to Jeopardy is an interesting analogy. You definitely showed your personal instincts and ‘cooking I.Q.’ in the kitchen!
If you go out to eat, name some of your favorite places in NYC or other cities you’ve visited.
SS: We are in the process of raising money to open a Chinese Hot Pot restaurant, Ghost Street, so I love to go out and check on the competition every once in a while. I think Mission Chinese caught the proverbial ‘lightning in a bottle’ and has proven to be a great idea all around. They do so many things right and have become the 2012 iconoclast NYC import to be reckoned with.
Hot Kitchen on 2nd Ave and 6th St. is putting out a prime example of delicious, affordable authentic Sichuan food to crowds of people on a nightly basis and I really enjoy it every time we go.
Recently, my favorite quick meal has been the Okonomiyaki/Takoyaki combo from Otafuku on East 9th & 2nd Ave. No better way to spend $9 in my opinion!
Back in Cleveland, I have to give it up to Jonathon Sawyer, Jonathan Seeholzer and Brian Goodman of Greenhouse Tavern. These guys are running an amazing and inspiring restaurant in downtown Cleveland that would be an added bonus anywhere in the world.
FP: We love the idea of opening a Chinese Hot Pot restaurant and can’t wait to stop by Ghost Street!
What are some of your guilty pleasures? We like to call them foodie pleasures, hence the name 🙂
SS: I’ve been known to eat the occasional $1 diaper dogs from the corner vendors when the time is right but I’d rather not talk about that. Occasionally I find great comfort in the Mom & Pop Americanized Chinese delivery food that is so readily available around where I live. It may not be very authentic or healthy but sometimes a heavy $5 styrofoam container of bright candy red roast pork over neon yellow rice is just what the doctor ordered.
FP: We know EXACTLY what you mean about take out Chinese food for sure!
Name some individuals you would want to invite over for dinner and what you would prepare for them.
SS: #1 would be Steven Seagal as Casey Ryback from Under Siege. Per the wikipedia page: ‘Played by Hollywood action star Steven Seagal, Ryback is a Chief Petty Officer and former Navy SEAL operator turned chef with top training in martial arts, explosives, special-weapons and tactics. He is a master of unarmed combat, highly skilled with firearms, knives and other forms of combat which enables him to defeat mercenaries/terrorists with ease.’ For Casey’s meal I would probably make a paleo themed dinner consisting of whole animals meant to be eaten unarmed, with only your hands and large format beers paired to each corpse course. After the 7 course primal event we would talk shop about defeating mercenaries.
#2 is Guy Fieri. I would prepare normal, healthy tasty food for him and watch as he melts into a pool of donkey sauce.
#3 would be my ancestors. To qualify as an individual they would have to be represented as a single master entity that encompasses all of my past relatives in one body. That is a lot of Italian and Irish pride for one body to contain so we would make a light traditional feast of potato meatballs and Guinness pizza.
#4 is my unborn future son. I would prepare him a milk shake and burger like in the movie Back to the Future 2.
#5 would be the next/last investor(s) for Ghost Street. I would make them the delicious, interesting, fun & healthy food we are going to serve at the restaurant. They would love it and we would open up sooner so you guys can try it also.
FP: In three words, how would your friends and family describe you.
SS: Zardoz, MacGyver, Rambo.
FP: All those three in one? That’s intense!
If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you be doing? Any non-cooking hobbies?
SS: I come from a long line of entertainers. My father and brother are both very talented musicians in their own right and my grandpa was a professional magician. My siblings and I were lucky to have been raised in a very creative home environment and we were always encouraged to make noise and paint on things. If I wasn’t cooking I’d like to think I would be involved with making music/art. I have been a DJ longer than I’ve been chef but it was never my main source of income so it has always remained a hobby.
Another fun little hobby worth mentioning is my friends and I pass time with leisurely knife throwing competitions. All you need is a homemade, plywood, life-sized zombie target, a set of 6 throwing blades of your choosing and a Brooklyn rooftop with no neighbors. First one to 50 wins. It’s kind of like big darts and ninja training combined, everyone should try it once.
FP: We saw on the episode how good of an aim you are with those knives! Maybe one day we’ll try it…MAYBE 🙂
Chef Sean, we love both your cooking and your zest for life. Good luck with Ghost Street and keep us posted. We’ll be amongst the first in line to try your food!