“Chopped”: Cleveland Edition
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The Moishe House Blog
By Ben Sattin
So there I was, uncomfortably staring down a plate of cheez-it dusted tostadas with a garlic spinach remoulade and spicy mustard emulsion. Grandma’s brisket and matzah ball soup this was not.
In fact, what it was was one of the many clever submissions served up at Chopped Cleveland, an event planned and hosted by the Urbanites.
Only in existence since August 2014, the Urbanites sprouted from the minds of a few young, downtown Jews who felt the current programming available for young Jewish professionals underserved their downtown demographic. Also, they were tired of always schlepping to the East Side for events, when fun could be had around the corner. The Urbanites hit the ground running, planning and hosting successful event after successful event, drawing on both the fertile opportunities available downtown as well as the plentiful pool of people eager to create a downtown Jewish community. The Urbanites also stress a community-wide approach to their programming, often partnering with multiple Jewish organizations across Cleveland, thus sharing the wonders of downtown Cleveland with as many of their brethren as possible.
Chopped Cleveland began as a half-baked idea slow cooking in the mind of my friend Emily, who is both a passionate cooking enthusiast and one of the leaders of the Urbanites. I can only imagine that Emily persuaded her fellow Urbanites with some delicious bribes, because the planning committee agreed to put on her version of the popular titular TV cooking competition show. Once the event was agreed upon, the Urbanites reached out to Moishe House Cleveland to co-sponsor and cross-promote this event. Moishe House Cleveland agreed and voila, just like that, Emily’s half-baked idea became a reality.
The premise for Chopped Cleveland was simple: four volunteer teams of two cooks each make one appetizer dish and one dessert dish, getting only 30 minutes to prepare and plate each dish. Then we the attendees, after consuming said dishes, vote and crown a victor, for in truth, food simply tastes better with a healthy dash of competition mixed in.
Naturally, there was one catch: the teams had to incorporate mystery ingredients into both dishes.
And so, on Sunday, April 26, thirty young Jews descended upon the Cleveland Culinary Launch and Kitchen on Euclid Avenue, unsure of what to expect and hopeful that it was at least edible.
The venue itself was pretty spectacular. Affordably available to rent for any occasion—from dinner to cooking classes to competitions—the event took place in a very spacious room, with three rows of long tables set up with chairs facing the front, the main stage, the kitchen. The kitchen itself was gorgeously large, with three stovetops, multiple ovens, endless marble counter space, and top-grade kitchenware. Quickly, as the competition got underway, it would become an utter disaster zone, but I’d like to believe that the bigger the mess the better the food.
In short order, after everyone arrived and had a chance to schmooze a bit, we were asked to take a seat as our cooking teams introduced themselves. The field was interestingly male-dominated, with just a single woman, my friend Emily, in the competition. With all that testosterone roiling in such heated quarters, there was a fifty-fifty chance the afternoon would end in a food fight. I’m not unsure that I would not have whole-heartedly approved of such an outcome.
After introductions, the rules were explained and then Bam!—the teams were off. The mystery ingredients for the appetizer round were corn tortillas, frozen spinach, yellow mustard, and cheez-it crackers. Everyone groaned as the ingredients were revealed—we the attendees because we knew we’d have to eat something that included all of these items and the cooks because they had to figure out how to fit cheez-its into their creations.
To their credit, the cooks jumped to it quite quickly, for in truth, they had little time to spare. Sweat streamed down foreheads as they focused intently on mixing, chopping, and sautéing with aplomb. For my part, I enjoyed myself immensely, wandering among each workstation, peering with curiosity at whatever odd task the cooks were performing, trying to stir up tension between the teams—cooking up some trouble, to use appropriate parlance.
Sooner than anyone expected, the 10-minute warning was announced and the cooking reached a new, feverish pitch. Cheez-its were blended in Cuisinarts. Tortillas were sizzled in oil. Sauces were furiously stirred. It was controlled culinary chaos.
We all counted down the final 10 seconds together with a great amount of enthusiasm, perhaps because we sensed there was a chance we’d be hard pressed to express any sincere output of enthusiasm once we actually tasted the cooks’ concoctions.
Thankfully, our brief flirt with doubt was misplaced, for all of the submissions were not awful. To be fair, most were in fact above-average! In addition to the aforementioned tostadas, we were also treated to spinach dip with homemade tortilla chips, open-faced tacos filled with avocados, spinach, and fried cheez-it balls, and spinach and mushroom stuffed tacos topped with a red pepper coulis. And this was just round one!
After we all had a chance to get seconds and thirds, because truthfully our cooks were shockingly competent and both creative and talented, we once again returned to our seats as the second set of mystery ingredients were revealed for the dessert round: ricotta cheese, ramen noodles, cinnamon toast crunch cereal, and ground coffee. Getting a better feel for the process, our brave cooks barely hesitated before diving back into the fire.
And fiery this round was, both literally and figuratively. Emotions ran high as each team could taste victory within reach. Temperatures also ran high, so high that one team accidentally set their entire tray of tortilla-cinnamon toast crunch chips on fire, just minutes before the end of the competition. As we put out the flames, I explained to them that smoke-and-mirror tactics wouldn’t exactly work for this type of competition.
In the flash of a pan, the second round was over. Our teams were serenaded with well-deserved applause as they presented their desserts: ramen noodle kugel; cinnamon toast crunch pancakes; crushed coffee and cinnamon toast crunch topped with chocolate mousse and a strawberry coulis; and a non-bake coffee and cinnamon toast crunch torte topped with a ricotta-sweet wine-lemon zest.
As promised, a winner was announced and good-natured barbs were exchanged amongst the competitors. But in truth, we were all winners. Not just in that gooey, feel-good way that we all had fun, and that the people who worked hard to make this event happen did a stupendous job. But also in the sense that everything was actually edible. Because let’s be honest: making cheez-its and yellow mustard or ramen noodles and coffee into legitimately eatable foodstuff is a pretty impressive a feat, one almost as impressive as being trusting enough to eat such a thing.
Note: Urbanites is just one of many Jewish organizations for young adults in Cleveland. Learn more about what’s going on for 21-45 year olds through the Young Leadership Division (YLD) at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. YLD can direct you to any one of these groups to help connect you to the things you care about.
A few moments captured
Before basketball players made it cool, Ben Sattin returned home to Cleveland after a five-year hiatus to attend Case Western Reserve University School of Law, from which he graduated in 2013. Before law school, Ben earned a bachelor's degree in economics from Washington University in St. Louis and spent nine months as a volunteer in the Berlin, Germany Jewish community. Today, Ben splits his time between his actual job as an attorney with a litigation law firm and his volunteer work, serving as a volunteer-resident in Moishe House Cleveland and on various committees for the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, Anti-Defamation League, and Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.