Tsssss. A hot pan screeched with sizzling oil.
Chop. Chop. Chop. A knife sliced through the vegetable, hitting the cutting board.
These were the sounds in Kathleen Cluchey’s kitchen as the sun set shortly after 5 p.m. on a recent Thursday as she prepared dinner for her family. On the menu: Build-your-own rice bowls, with taco slaw, roasted sweet potatoes, beans and more.
Cooking and baking are how Cluchey, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Young Women’s Leadership Academy, decompresses after a long day at work. The act of whipping up dinner or precisely measuring out the ingredients for a pie gives Cluchey a sense of calmness and happiness in a world that is often neither of those two things.
These skills, refined over the entirety of Cluchey’s life, always bring her joy, but now they’ve brought her something else — the title of “Chopped” champion. Cluchey, 37, is part of a club of cooks who came on top of the popular Food Network competition show “Chopped.” And it’s all because of a skill that anchors her life.
“I love cooking because it’s concrete,” Cluchey told the Fort Worth Report. “I know I can look at it and produce something. I can make something delicious and beautiful and that is necessary every day for the people I love.”
‘Neither confirm nor deny’
Millions of people watched Cluchey pour her love into cooking on “Chopped.” The episode aired Nov. 15. But the process to get on the show and the actual recording of the episode took place more than a year ago.
Cluchey saw a casting call asking for teachers who cook. She answered it and went through three rounds of casting interviews before clinching one of four spots on a teacher-focused episode of “Chopped,” which was filmed in February.
Family: Married, with three children, who are 6, 8 and 10.
Occupation: Seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Young Women’s Leadership Academy
Education: Bachelor’s degree in religious studies and Spanish literature from Austin College
Then came the worst part: not being able to tell anyone about her victory. She kept it a secret for nine months.
“It was terrible,” Cluchey said, with a laugh.
Her students were so excited after they learned she would be on national television. That excitement reached new heights after she returned from filming.
Cluchey’s students tried every way possible to get her to give a hint to how the show went. One question a student asked to break her silence still sticks out.
“What did you make in the dessert round?” a student asked.
Cluchey was quick to admit that was a clever question. But she kept repeating one line to her students: “I can neither confirm nor deny anything. I can tell you I was on the show, and I either got first, second, third or fourth.”
Another student questioned why Cluchey was still in the classroom. The middle school student’s logic was that if their teacher had won, she would no longer teach.
“They decided I had lost because if I had won then I would have just retired with $10,000,” Cluchey said, with a chuckle.
‘This is amazing’
“Chopped” is divided into three rounds: appetizer, entree and dessert.
At the start of each round, a basket sits on top of a stainless steel counter in front of the four contestants. The basket contains several ingredients that must be used to create a dish for a trio of judges who will decide who can move forward and who will get chopped.
In the first round, she transformed the basket ingredients — ground turkey, purple potatoes, a pumpkin cheese ball and a turducken — into chili and biscuits.
The judges were floored and argued Cluchey did better than the hundreds of professional chefs featured in previous “Chopped” episodes.
“We’ve had professional chefs cook here in the kitchen and to give something as hearty and homey. This is amazing, and that’s what Thanksgiving is all about,” judge Maneet Chauhan told Cluchey.
Cluchey spent time toying around with recipes leading up to her time in the limelight. She knew chili could be easily made regardless of the ingredients the show threw at her.
She also thought about how to approach the secret ingredients. She watched old episodes to better understand food. She ultimately realized food is like an equation.
“If you get something weird, you can put it in the category of salty, savory, crunchy, dairy. Is it creamy?” Cluchey said. “Then you can start to understand what substitution can happen.”
The toughest ingredient was in the dessert round. The basket contained an orange-and-white drink called candy corn punch. The drink was simply candy corn-sprinkled whipped cream floating above orange soda. At first glance, Cluchey thought it was Jell-O.
A beat passed. She realized all she was looking at was dairy and sugar, the two things that form basically every dessert.
“Once I connected that, I was like, ‘Oh, I can work with this,” Cluchey said.
Cluchey scooped the fluffy whipped cream with a few pieces of candy corn from the punch bowl. She quickly threw the cream with a couple of candy corns into a pan filled with simmering pomegranate juice and bourbon to create a sauce for her dessert dish, a brown butter pecan shortbread cookie served with apple bourbon ice cream.
All Cluchey wanted to do leading up to her “Chopped” appearance was make it to the dessert round.
Desserts are her favorite and her specialty. Growing up in Plano, her family didn’t have much, but they made do with what they had. The rule at home was that if you wanted sweets, you had to make them yourself. So she learned. She baked cakes and pies and other sugar-filled desserts, and her love for baking blossomed.
The refinement of her skills over the years gave Cluchey the confidence to know she could win “Chopped” if she made it to the final round.
Cluchey watched the judges dig into the dessert she made. They savored it, and then gave Cluchey notes. The judges agreed the shortbread had too much butter, making it too crumbly and stopped them from dipping the pastry into the ice cream. The frozen dessert proved to be the showstopper.
“This is one of the best ice creams that I have ever had,” Chauhan, a judge, said, calling herself an ice cream aficionado.
After winning “Chopped,” Cluchey has set her eyes on another challenge: Raising funds to secure a grant to buy classroom LEGO sets and other instruction materials to teach forensics.
It’s a risk, but it’s one Cluchey wants to take. After all, that was the lesson she hoped her students would learn from her experience on reality television.
“Chopped” was a way for Cluchey to show her students that, yes, it is OK to take risks. She didn’t know what would happen or what odd ingredient would come her way.
What mattered was doing her best and taking that risk.
“Chopped” champion Kathleen Cluchey provided two recipes that she made while competing on the show. Here they are:
Mascarpone Sweet Potatoes
- 4 large sweet potatoes
- 4 oz. mascarpone cheese (or cream cheese for a tangier flavor)
- 2 tbsp. maple syrup or brown sugar
- Salt to taste
- Peel, dice and boil the sweet potatoes until cooked through.
- Press sweet potatoes through a potato ricer.
- Mix in mascarpone, maple syrup and salt until just combined. Do not over mix!
- Alternatively: you can roast the sweet potatoes in the oven and mix the ingredients together with a potato masher. Or a fork! Combine them in whatever way you see fit.
Brussels Sprouts Slaw
I have a hard time even calling this a recipe — it’s more like a fall salad that you mix the vinaigrette right on top of. You essentially slice the Brussels sprouts by hand or use a mandolin (be careful not to cut yourself). Then you can play with whatever flavors you wish or what happens to be stocked in your pantry at the moment. My favorite fall flavor combination is apple cider vinegar with a smidge of honey.
- 1 lb. Brussels sprouts, very thinly sliced
- 1-2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp kosher salt or 1/2 tsp table salt
- Vinegar of your choice
- Honey or maple syrup
- 2 tbsp. parsley or herbs of your choice, chopped
- Combine the Brussels sprouts with a tablespoon of oil and salt then aggressively massage it all together. This is an excellent moment to take out any seething frustration and use it to tenderize and season the sprouts.
- Pour yourself a drink and let it sit for 15-20 minutes.
- Add a small dollop of honey or maple syrup along with a healthy splash (approximately 1-2 tbsp) of vinegar. Don’t be shy with the vinegar if you are serving this with Thanksgiving. The food tends to be heavy and fatty so a little extra zing on the plate will lift the whole meal up.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.