CLAREMONT — Claremont’s first “Chopped” grilling competition, a fundraiser hosted this past weekend by the Claremont Opera House and Claremont Soup Kitchen, seems to have the makings of a champion annual event in the city, according to organizers and participants.
A live head-to-head grilling competition on Saturday modeled after the popular television series “Chopped” drew rave reviews from participants and attending guests, including several residents with ties to the local foods industry.
Between 120 and 130 people attended the inaugural fundraiser at Arrowhead Recreation Area, where two local officials — City Manager Ed Morris and Alex Herzog, director of the Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center — demonstrated their culinary skills and creativity in two rounds of head-to-head challenges.
The contest, like the long-running Food Network cooking show “Chopped,” challenges its contestants to prepare a meal featuring items contained within a mystery box. The contestants may use other food items and ingredients, stored in a common area, but the dishes must incorporate each mystery ingredient.
The combination of mystery ingredients pose the true challenge, as the items can often seem like odd or difficult pairings.
In the first round, Morris and Herzog had to make an appetizer dish in 25 minutes using hotdogs, peaches, avocados, and pecan halves.
“That’s a rough one,” said Claremont restaurateur Rocky Beliveau, one of the three judges. “For an appetizer course I would rather the dish be a light one.”
Morris, perhaps sharing a similar thought, chose to make a salad: smoked hotdogs on a bed of romaine, with an avocado-peach dressing and topped with roasted, candied pecans.
Herzog, the scout leader of local Boy Scout Troop #38, presented the judges “The Scout Special,” which was composed of a hotdog on a grilled bread roll with a homemade guacamole and nutmeg-peach chutney.
“It reminded me of a campsite,” said Sweetfire BBQ chef “Momo,” a judge. “I really liked the nutmeg in the peaches.”
Michael Hammond, owner of Epic Food Truck, served as the third judge.
Herzog would ultimately win the competition, edging Morris in a split-decision. Two judges scored in favor of Herzog and one scored in favor of Morris. The judge’s emphasized the closeness between the competitors by the score cards, where each tally was only a difference of one point.
The judges agreed that this contest was more fun with non-restaurateurs as the contestants, as professional chefs have a tendency to become intensely competitive.
While Morris and Herzog impressed the judges with their dishes, the arguable star of the event was Chiara Tosi-Nelson, who served as emcee.
Tosi-Nelson, a co-owner of Claremont Spice and Dry Goods on Tremont Street, said she was thrilled when learning of this fundraiser idea.
“Being Italian, eating and talking about food is my jam,” Tosi-Nelson told The Eagle Times.
Tosi-Nelson said during the COVID shutdown of 2020 she “binge-watched six seasons of Chopped” along with other cooking programs.
Felicia Brych Dalke, chair of the Claremont Opera House board, praised Tosi-Nelson’s performance on Saturday.
“I already told her this will be her new annual job,” Dalke told The Eagle Times on Monday.
The event, officially titled “Grilling For Good”, aimed to raise funds for the Claremont Opera House, a non-profit performance venue and the Claremont Soup Kitchen’s Summer Lunch Feeding Group program, which provides free lunches to students in grades K-12 during the summer when the school cafeteria services are not in operation.
“Our goal was to raise $2,000 for their program,” Dalke said.
The fundraiser did not generate much in funds for the Claremont Opera House, as the opera house’s revenue came primarily from ticket sales, according to Dalke.
But the event was more intended as a public-relations kickoff for the Claremont Opera House ahead of its upcoming summer concert series, which will include a number of outdoor live performances at Arrowhead beginning in June.
“Having a seasonal opening to kick off our live events was more important than the money,” Dalke said.
The Claremont Opera House is still accepting donations from the community for its Grilling for Good fundraiser. Donations will be split between the Claremont Opera House and the Claremont Soup Kitchen.
People who wish to donate may find a link under the “Grilling for Good” event page on the Claremont Opera House website at claremontoperahouse.info or clicking directly on the link Grilling for Good donations.
The Claremont Opera House plans to announce its Summer Concert Series in more detail this week.The first concert will be on June 5. Ticket prices for summer concerts will be $15 for adults and $8 for students in K-12. Children ages four or under are free.