Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Grossmont College Culinary Arts instructor wins TV's 'Chopped'

 Kris Saradpon/Saradpon Photography
Chef James Foran, a veteran pastry instructor at Grossmont College and head of the Culinary Arts program, has gotten a taste of celebrity, thanks to winning the March 24 season premiere of “Chopped,” the popular TV cooking competition on the Food Network.

“Chef James provides further evidence that Grossmont College faculty stand among the best academically and professionally. We are proud of our colleague,” said Grossmont College President Nabil Abu-Ghazaleh. “He sets high standards for his students and inspires them to rise to the challenge as he has demonstrated on the national scene."

Asked on the show why he was competing in “Chopped,” Foran said he wanted to represent fellow teachers. Foran, who previously worked as a pastry chef at leading restaurants before coming to Grossmont College, credits his students for keeping him passionate about his work as a chef. 
“Your students will be really proud to be saying they are taught by a ‘Chopped’ champion,” one judge told Foran. 

A beaming Chef James, who earned $10,000 and bragging rights as a winner of TV’s toughest cooking competition, acknowledged his Grossmont College students.

“They pushed me to get here and I proved I could win,” he said. He shared airtime with a few of them when the ‘Chopped” camera crew came to the college in the winter of 2018 to tape the segment of the show featuring chefs in their home turf. “I’m a ‘Chopped’ champion and it feels really great.”

The show is notorious for presenting chefs with mystery baskets, typically filled with incongruous combinations of lesser-known ingredients. Foran said “Chopped” was the most pressure-filled experience he has ever had, facing each half-hour round with no idea what he had to work with.

The competition pitted four pastry chefs -- two with shops of their own and the third a pastry chef at a well-known restaurant in New York City – in three rounds of competition creating decadent chocolate desserts. Each round ended with one chef dropped from the competition, which consisted of three categories of chocolate dishes – crunchy, gooey and fruity. 

Round one’s basket revealed tamarillos, fermented honey, chocolate covered shrimp chips and chocolate milk. Foran created chocolate and honey ice cream with shrimp chip crumble. 
Round two’s basket yielded kumquats, miso, chocolate ganache tart and spicy chocolate chicken wings with which Foran created brown sugar brownies with miso caramel.

The last round presented the two remaining chefs with white chocolate banana pudding, freeze dried raspberries, sweet beef jerky and ruby chocolate candy bars. Foran concocted a white chocolate raspberry frozen yogurt with chocolate beef jerky beignets. 

Foran’s beignets were nearly his downfall as the judges commented on how overcooked they were, but his ice cream from the earlier round was such a big hit that the judges were willing to give him a pass on his beignet boo-boo.

“Really, the show is intentionally designed to make chefs fail with an impossibly short period of time to cook,” Foran said. “It’s about thinking on your feet and not cracking under pressure.”

The show, taped in New York last June, brought Foran back to his hometown, where he first started working in restaurants as a high schooler.

He earned a degree in Pastry Arts from Johnson and Wales University, a private university in Providence, Rhode Island, with a top culinary school. He started his career at the Drake Hotel in New York City, training under legendary chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Foran went on to work in San Francisco as executive pastry chef at such highly acclaimed establishments as Vertigo Restaurant, One Market and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. A stint followed as executive pastry chef at Bellagio Hotel's Picasso restaurant in Las Vegas. 

Drawn by access to locally farmed produce, he came to San Diego, where he was hired as the pastry chef at Arterra Restaurant, now known as Market Restaurant, where he continues a collaboration with chef Carl Schroeder.

Teaching, he said, seemed like a natural progression, and he credits his students during his 14 years at Grossmont College for keeping him inspired as a chef.

“Teaching makes me a better pastry chef and a better person," Foran said.

He said it is tragic how the coronavirus outbreak has decimated the culinary industry, noting that the profit margin for restaurants is razor thin under the best of circumstances. The college’s culinary arts program has also had to modify its offerings by moving its lecture courses online. 

Like everyone, he is spending his time these days at home, reworking curriculum and cooking in his Tierrasanta kitchen, which he remodeled with his winnings from “Chopped.”

“Grossmont College is a special place and the program is resilient,” he said.

The champion chef knows a thing or two about survival.

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