When you visit Brooke Siem’s website, you’ll notice a list of accomplishments including accomplished author to co-founder of Prohibition Bakery in NYC to being named to Zagat’s 30 Under 30. After displaying her talent (as well as personality and emotions) on a recent episode of Chopped, add Chopped Champion to the list! We caught up with Brooke recently to learn about her experience on the show and where she is in the world at the moment.
FP: On your website, we learned that you travel A LOT! Where are you now and what are you up to?
BS: Currently I’m in Barcelona, working with a new, Barcelona based startup called Keychn. They’re basically taking cooking classes into the live stream sphere, and are doing it really beautifully. It’s a bit bizarre to say, “I have to go to Barcelona this weekend to bake some boozy cupcakes,” because the Brooke from a year ago would not have thought that statement was even in the realm of possibility.
FP: Making cupcakes in Barcelona sounds like a win-win to us! Tell us about your experience on Chopped from opening the first basket to the end.
BS: I don’t think there’s a word to describe what it’s like to compete on that show. The day, which began around 5am and ended around 9pm, was the most acutely stressful and emotional day of my entire life. That sounds dramatic, but I’ve never been in a situation where you go from tears to elation to interrogation to camaraderie with such frequency.
We spent most of our time in that stew room, the one they show on the show when the chefs all chat with each other after each round. Nothing in that kitchen works. It’s just a giant set. The first thing they do is take all your stuff, including your knives and phone, so you immediately feel disconnected from your two precious lifelines. You never get to touch the phone during the day, but when you first go out onto set, there are your knives…all lined up. We were all given a jacket (we didn’t get to keep that, womp womp), signed a bunch of papers, and then the four of us were guided into the kitchen. Maybe it was 6:30 or 7am in the morning at this point? It was hard to keep track of time. The staff shows you your station, tells you how to work all the equipment, and lets to check out the pantry items for five minutes or so. Though the pantry is relatively well stocked, it’s not stocked with multiples of everything. There might be one bunch of parsley, one or two yogurts, one loaf of bread. So, if someone else takes something that you want, you’re out of luck.
At this point, I was quite sure I was going to throw up. I’ve never been more nervous. It’s the perfect storm of culinary hell: You don’t know what you’re cooking. You don’t know the skill set of your competitors. You’re in an unfamiliar kitchen. You’re working against a clock. Every word out of your mouth is recorded, and every move you make is caught by 20 cameras. Someone is always watching you, and anytime you’re moving around on set, you’re escorted. You’re going to be judged (by a panel that is far more accomplished and knowledgeable than you could ever hope to be.) Your entire career is going to come down to the next 20 minutes. You’re representing not only yourself, but your business and the chefs to taught you along the way. Oh, and it’s all going to be broadcast on National TV…even more terrifying, there will be reruns. The dumb shit you say could be broadcast for years. It could end up on Netflix.
And I said a lot of dumb shit (for everyone out there, I know that “al dente” potatoes are not a thing.) The first 5 seconds of us cooking are just of me swearing because all of my nightmares were coming true. (My friends got a great kick out of that, but I wasn’t so thrilled to see it in action.) As soon as I saw the crabs, I thought I was done. As soon as I dropped the 4th crab, I knew I was done. Everyone else seemed calm and confident while we were actually cooking, so I was just ready to finish this, go home, and get positively morning drunk. I was stunned when I wasn’t chopped, and the judges made it very clear that it was a narrow, narrow miss.
But, when the entree round came along, I was so much more calm and focused. I knew, in spite of my al dente potato mishap, that it was a strong dish. Once I saw the other two dishes (we never actually got to try anyone else’s food), I was pretty sure I was going to make it through. Arnaud was simply too ambitious, I think. During dessert, I just put my head down and did what I do best, and it paid off. By then, Doug and I were friends. I have so much respect for him as a chef and a person. As much as I wanted to win, as long as I did my best in the dessert round, I would’t have been upset to lose to him. I’d miss the 10K of course. 😉
Because it’s TV, everything except the actual cooking required multiple takes. That starts to mess with you, because you never know how many takes they’re going to do, and when you need to start mentally preparing. Take those shots of us opening the baskets, for example, before we actually see the mystery ingredients, we had to pretend to open the basket anywhere from 2 to 7 times. And then, seemingly randomly, the Executive Producer announces that this time, it’s for real. We all turn our backs, they remove the cover hiding the basket ingredients, and then you turn around and go. We only cooked for 80 minutes, but we filmed for 14 hours. Those little retakes add up and take mental toll.
Judging takes so much longer, as well. Each of us got at least 20 minutes of commentary, per plate, each round. The hardest part about judging is that we already know where we screwed up, and then the judges spend 20 minutes telling you how badly you screwed up. You just want to say, “I know. I fucked up this and this and this, and that’s a little off too. Can we move on now?” I knew that the potatoes were undercooked before I even tried to puree them. I definitely should’t have put them on the plate, but there was two minutes left and you kind of can’t deviate from the plan once you have one, because readjusting will cost you more time than it’s worth. There’s no thinking ahead. You’re constantly just trying to react. So, I knew the whole time that my puree was a disaster. I also knew that the rest of my dish was delicious, and I hoped that would make up for it. It did, in the end, but of course they didn’t show that part on TV.
The same thing happened with my dessert. In the show it seems like the judges hated my dessert, but I got positive feedback. I suppose that’s just not good TV.
On the whole, the biggest challenge is getting the ingredients to do what you want them to do within the limited period of time. Your intentions quickly gets derailed, because something burns or freezes faster than you can fix it. We all look like we’re bumbling idiots, and when you’re watching it you think to yourself “why would you do that?” I can promise that we all had a plan that made total sense in our head, and then it just quickly goes awry. You also have to account for things like the time it takes to run to and from the pantry, remembering to get plates, and the cameras that randomly pop up out of the stove. You probably lose about 5 minutes just trying to figure out where everything is each round. Meanwhile, you forget about your custard on the anti-griddle and now the consistency is all wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it because it has a basket ingredient in it and you don’t have any of that ingredient left. So, on the plate it goes.
It’s all just so ridiculous, and everyone knows it. All you can do is laugh at the absurdity and try to have a bit of fun in between waves of terrified nausea. The judges are total professionals, and there’s not any time to chat outside of when you’re on the chopping block. Ted is such a nice guy, and I just want to go eat food at his house and shoot the shit for a few hours. The crew is unbelievable. Everyone has their own job, and not a second is wasted. When someone gets chopped, they are immediately whisked away to the interview room and when the remaining chefs go back to the stew room, all of the chopped chef’s stuff is gone and you never see them again. Doug and I had to reach out to each other on Facebook in order to connect, because they separated us right away.
I could go on and on. It was a wonderful, weird, confidence building, confidence shattering, humbling, and an uplifting day. Also, they edited out all of my tears. Win!
FP: We’ve heard about the ups and downs of being on the Chopped set. Despite it all, you were named Chopped Champion…congrats again!
In all your travels, name some of your favorite places to eat.
BS: I love the hyper local places. I’ve eaten enough fussed over plates of food at this point, that I love when I get to eat something that’s perfect because it’s been prepared that way for years. In Malaysia, I ended up in a fishing village, and the owner of the little hostel I was staying in (I was the only guest) took me to a fisherman who cooks up his daily catch while puffing on a cigarette and grunting with a beer. We ate piles of shrimp on the dock as the sun set.
But, if we’re talking specific restaurants, U Flika in Prague has the best beer I’ve ever had, ever. It’s the only beer they sell, and they brew it in house. It’s a dark beer, sort of stout-y but not totally. It’s not bitter, but not at all sweet. Chocolatey, but not overly so. Creamy, but not heavy. There’s a little cafe in Kuala Lumpur called Lepaq Lepaq that has serves its coffee with cotton candy clouds. It’s a total mess, but it’s full of whimsy and you can’t stop smiling while you’re drinking it.
FP: Half of FP has Czech roots so we’ll have to check out the spot in Prague! In your experience, where’s the one place we should visit just for its food?
BS: Japan, due to the care that’s used to craft food. Everything morsel purpose and a tradition.
FP: What can’t you travel without?
FP: What are some of your guilty pleasures? We call them foodie pleasures, hence the name of our blog.
BS: Unnecessary carbs and naps. Preferably in that order.
FP: You’re the Co-Owner of Prohibition Bakery, you’re an author, you’re hardcore about CrossFit…what’s next on your to-do list?
BS: I’m in a definite phase of refocus and redirection. For the first time in my life, I don’t know where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing in the next week…month…six months. I’m trying not to melt down about that too often, and working on following the good things. I think I’m going to head to Cambodia for a bit and follow a few threads down there, and then…who knows!
FP: We wish you continued success in your future endeavors. Hope to see you at Prohibition Bakery at some point in the future!