Hot sauce maker and chef John McLaughlin of Heartbreak Dawns made an appearance recently on the popular cooking show, “Chopped”. John is a popular member of the massive chilehead community and was kind enough to share his experience with Chili Pepper Madness.
What made you want to take your shot at “Chopped”?
Prior to the application I never really thought about it. I love competitive cooking, despite having a pretty easy going attitude about the “competition” part. I had a blast with Feast Your Eyes, Grillmaster’s, Peppers at the Beach, even the local Mac and Cheese contest. It’s just fun to see how my interpretations and visions compare to others. Once I got the call, “Chopped” was a perfect fit. Still, the main goal is having fun telling people about HBD.
How did you apply? Did you have to do any sort of “try out” or go through a vetting process?
I didn’t apply! Like many other things that we get involved with Nicole applied for me, without me knowing about it. I expect calls from people or events I have no idea about so was prepared for that call too. The application info and I suppose having the dynamic of a hot sauce producer in the mix with classically trained chefs was intriguing enough to the casting team to reach out to me. After the first call they set up a second phone interview, then the next round is an in person taped interview, then the bio segment and finally the filming.
We’ve all seen “Chopped” a hundred times from our couches. Was your experience there pretty much what we see on television?
Yes, My experience was mostly what you see on the episode, in between is mainly a lot of waiting.
Obviously much more goes on in the process, but the production team is excellent at keeping it fast paced, interesting, suspenseful and essentially giving the viewer the gist of it. I think that’s with any show, so much goes into it and in in the end the viewer only needs the “cliff notes” and then on to the next one. I’ve seen the show about 5 times and 2 of those were my episode. I don’t really watch a lot of TV but more so, when I got the first call I decided I’m not going to watch it at all. That way in my head, in the heat of the moment I’m not thinking about what someone else did or didn’t do. I wanted it to be so very new.
How were the judges? Did you get to speak with them before or after the taping?
I thought all the judges were super cool, I didn’t have a chance to speak with any of them outside of the filming and didn’t really know who they were. Most of what I know about them has come from other people asking me who the judges were. During the taping they all seemed to be alright guys with a great attitude and a sense of humor. As much as I love cooking and all of the amazing frontiers people are taking on, I’m not in the loop about a lot of it. I guess that’s good because to me the Judges were just everyday people who had achieved something noteworthy in the industry. I didn’t try to research, I was just cooking for some people.
How about the contestants? Did you get to speak with them much? Do you still keep in contact with them?
They were all super cool too. I spent a good hour in the morning waiting with Elise for the shuttle. And we spent most of all day sitting around together. Everyone was alright. The other guy who made it to the final round was really cool, down to earth, easy going.
Before each round, did you have any idea what might come out of the baskets?
No idea whatsoever, I mean, of the ingredients we got, and there were a couple that I was initially unfamiliar with, I think they were pretty tame baskets. With all the unique dishes we’ve done down at Peppers the past couple years I was hoping to make some crazy good Jerked Koala or something along those lines. That would have been killer!
Do the producers prepare you in any way for the rounds? Or is it really like we see on television where the chefs are just tossed into the fire?
Totally tossed in the fire, here’s a walk through the pantry, here’s your station, Ok go wait until we call you in. That’s it! The first round was the hard one because you need that 20 minutes to assimilate and get in the groove. I know that me saying it was “the learning curve round” made it to the final cut. I guess that’s not true if I got Chopped, but mentally that was it. I wanted to get my bearings in round one and then let the fun start in the entree. If I did that then the final round would have just been a bonus.
Do you have to prepare four separate plates each round? And how do you come up with the names of your dishes?
You do make 4 plates, one for each judge and one for the photo. My names were a little unconventional, I guess most chef’s on the show are asked what the dish is called and then just describe what they did. That’s just not me, Guanciale Blue popped into my head and had a nice ring, Guanciale, Blueberries, ok that works….and then Chicken Bienville is named after a stretch of road in New Orleans that has a few interesting blocks to it. I figured transforming a creole base into something unconventional allowed that to work. I like creations to have a name in the end. I always think it’s lame when a picture is called “Girl Sitting on Dock in Sunset,” and then it’s actually a picture of a girl sitting on the dock at sunset. Names like that suck. They want to know what it’s called, not what it is!
How would you rate your performance?
I’m super thrilled with it, Of course I can’t help but think about some of the things I would have done differently, but that’s just human nature. I did exactly what I set out to do and I’m pleased that the final cut gave a nice portrayal of who I am. My background is in art and literature, I’m not a classically trained chef. I’m a self taught chef with a background of unique mediums and strange interest. To even make it on the show is an achievement, to get as far as I did, with the strong feedback as well. I’m grateful for that.
The judges said they chopped you for “technical errors”. Did they elaborate? Watching the show, did we only see a snippet of their critiques? Was there much more feedback that we didn’t see?
For me I had to make a decision between resting the meat, or ensuring that it was cooked properly. I opted to make sure it was cooked properly. From resting while on the plate and the oils of the spinach dish, there was quite a bit of liquid at the bottom of the plate…..I knew it was cooked nicely and should not have second guessed it. If I let it rest and laid it down it would have been dead on. Also I should have broken down the cashews a bit. Other than that it was a tasty and creative dish. Everyone’s dish was tasty and the flaws were minor. In the end someone needs to get Chopped and that’s when the errors need to be measured.
How much behind the scenes do we not see from our couches?
Not too much actually, That cooking segment is dead on, You open the basket and it is on! The time consuming part is the backtracking and doing the voiceover descriptions and solo shot’s of what’s going through your head. In a way the viewer gets even more because they are overlaying those thoughts as you are cooking. It’s a great concept and keeps it upbeat and fast paced.
Have you seen an upswing in hot sauce sales for Heartbreaking Dawns since your appearance?
Absolutely! Our site has hit record visitation and we are getting some nice orders. What’s really amazing is I can clearly see we are reaching a new audience. The people who know about us within the fiery foods community are coming to the site for what new and what’s got a buzz. This past year that’s the Specialty Superhots and Cauterizer. The new people coming to our site are checking out the dry rubs, the grilling sauces….even the pure spices which I’ve been working on getting out there for awhile now. The new visitors see the site as a culinary destination because of the shows content, so they are ordering what they personally might be interested in. We are a hot sauce company first, but we have so many other products that want to get out there as well.
Any other parting thoughts?
Just a big Thank You to everyone out there, especially all of our friends in the Chilehead World. All of your friendship and support has been the best part of this whole journey!
Learn more about John, and more importantly, purchase some of his Heartbreaking Dawns artisan sauces and seasonings here: http://www.heartbreakingdawns.com/ – you have our personal recommendation. Excellent sauces.