Oct. 29--Lisa Savage is used to working under under pressure in a kitchen. She's the owner and chef at Sage, a popular Ventnor restaurant that she says can put out 300 dinners on a busy summer Saturday.
Still, Savage says she faced a whole different kind of pressure earlier this year when she cooked competitively on "Chopped," the Food Network hit whose setup forces chefs to produce restaurant-quality meals at high speed, with just a few ingredients -- at least one of them usually a truly oddball food item.
The Sage chef's chance at a "Chopped" championship is set to air 10 p.m. today -- and a Food Network spokeswoman says her episode is on the schedule to run again three times next week.
Savage plans to host a party for her staff at the 94-seat Sage tonight to watch her show, and she will finally be able to tell her "Chopped" story -- which she had to keep strictly to herself ever since she taped her episode eight months ago, in February.
She admits her friends and Sage's fans will see her out of her element when she shows up on TV.
"It was definitely high pressure -- to only have 20 minutes to do something, or a half hour, with things you're not used to using, and being in a strange kitchen. I'm a person of habit, I'm used to having my knife here" and all her other tools and ingredients right where they belong, says Savage, who has run restaurants in Ventnor and Linwood since she opened her first, the late Savaradio, in 1992.
But on the show, "You walk in, get to your area of the line -- you're allowed to bring X-number of knives, that's all. They give you a couple of hand towels, and that's it," she adds. "And when you're under that kind of time crunch, as silly as it sounds, it can throw you off."
When she was finally cleared to say she was on the "Chopped" menu, Savage had to agree to reveal almost nothing about what happened on the show. But that hasn't stopped almost everybody she knows from asking her about it, once she put up little signs in Sage and Lisa's, her more casual, pizza-oriented place right next door.
"It's funny how many people pull you aside and say, 'C'mon, can't you tell me? I won't say anything,'" Savage says.
But she continues to keep the secret -- and says she's not even allowed to tell what ingredients she was given to work with once the clock started ticking on her episode. She says the show is so secretive that when producers came to Sage to shoot background footage last winter, they used an unmarked van.
Still, the Food Network's Whitney Bell did reveal that the food basket the chefs were given on Savage's show included pasta dough, veal chops and the surprise ingredient, bottarga -- a salted, dried fish roe. (They can get much weirder: The network's web site says that for its Halloween show, the competitors got an "appetizer basket made up of eels, congealed pig's blood, candy bats" and potato chips.)
The network emphasizes the "high-pressure, high-energy" aspects of "Chopped," which starts each episode with four chefs but eliminates one after three judges taste each course the competitors create.
"They have seconds to plan and 30 minutes to cook an amazing course with the basket of mystery ingredients given to them moments before the clock starts ticking," as the producers put it.
But for all the speed of the show, Savage adds that it took almost two years for her to get on after she was first contacted. She was nominated by a local chef -- who didn't get picked to go on "Chopped" -- and filled out all the applications, but heard nothing back from the show for months.
The producers finally did invite her, though, and she was impressed by how much time they spent -- six-plus hours interviewing her and filming her at Sage. But the pressure kept up during the filming of the actual episode: Even during supposed breaks between courses, the cameras kept rolling as the chefs talked to each other.
Still, "I really did have a good time, and the people I met, the competitors, were great," says Savage, who added that even the judges were nicer than she expected from seeing the show a few times.
And after her episode, Savage adds that she was asked to suggest some possible "Chopped" competitors.
So, she was asked, after surviving all that pressure, did she nominate friends or enemies?
"A little of both," she said, laughing.
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
'Chopped' airs 10 tonight on the Food Network. The episode featuring Lisa Savage is scheduled to run again 9 p.m. Nov. 7, midnight Nov. 8 and noon Nov. 9. For details, see foodnetwork.com.
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