'Chopped All-Stars' returns with L.A.'s Penny Davidi, Aarti Sequeira
There's just one way to describe Penny Davidi's triumphant return to Food Network TV, landing a coveted spot on the second season of "Chopped All-Stars" airing Sunday night: ME-OW!
Food Network devotees either remember her as the Middle Eastern Mama who brought a fresh new perspective to the channel -- or the woman viewers hated with a vengence because of her no-holds-barred attempts to win Season 7 of "Food Network Star."
So how did the newly married Davidi end up on this special edition of the network's hit-rated show? The way Davidi tells it, Bob Tuschman, the senior vice president for programming, personally handpicked her. "Bob Tuschman said 'Get her...I want her to bring those flavors and that personality.'"
That's our Penny!
"Chopped" is one of the network's most popular shows, and arguably the purest cooking competition show out there. Hosted by Ted Allen, "Chopped" plucks four relatively obscure chefs from across the country and pits them against each other using the off-the-wall ingredients found in their "mystery baskets." A panel of high-profile judges chops a player after each of three rounds. And the last one standing gets $10,000.
"Chopped All-Stars" follows the same format, but culls competitors from Food Network's coterie of judges, celebrity hosts and fan favorities in ways that would otherwise be impossible.
On Sunday, Iron Chefs Cat Cora, Marc Forgione, Jose Garces and Michael Symon will face off for bragging rights. The following week features a "day time vs. prime time" challenge as hosts Aarti Sequeira ("Aarti Party") and Jeffrey Saad ("United Tastes of America") -- who are both from Los Angeles -- go toe to toe with Keegan Gerhard ("Food Network Challenge") and Marcela Valladolid ("Mexican Made Easy").
On April 29, "Chopped" judges Alex Guarnaschelli, Marc Murphy, Marcus Samuelsson and Chris Santos get to feel what it's like on the other side of the judging table.
It all culminates in a May 6 grand finale where the four finalists duke it out for "Chopped" bragging rights -- and a $50,000 grand prize for the winner's favorite charity.
It was the prospect of winning that money for charity that convinced Aarti, the L.A. food blogger who had a Cinderella-esque run to win Season 6 of the "Food Network Star" search.
"It was really intimidating,” Sequeira said. "As someone who is not a trained chef, I was worried that I would not measure up."
In the end, though, she said, "We’re playing for charity, it’s not about me winning a show, or anything about me, it’s about winning for a charity." Sequeira competed on behalf of Harvest Home in Venice, which helps women who are pregnant and homeless.
Davidi was competing on behalf of Gramercy Housing Group in Los Angeles, which also aids women with children, helping them to get back on their feet. Davidi, like Sequeira, is also not a trained chef, and Davidi said she believes that helped her in the "Chopped All-Stars" competiton.
"If you're culinary school, you're thinking inside the box," she said, adding that she could practically predict what the trained folks were going to do with their mystery ingredients: "They are going to go with what they've been schooled in."
But the show is all about creativity, she said. "I am a home chef, a mom, and that gave me a leg up," she said, adding that mothers nationwide face their own version of a "mystery basket" each night when they come home and try to get dinner on the table.
"It was a lot harder of a competition than 'Food Network Star,'" she said.
Unprompted, Davidi said that the "Chopped" format suited her sensibilities, because it allowed her to just get down to the cooking and leave the personality stuff behind. She said she believes she would have sailed to victory over her Season 7 competitors had they been given a "Chopped" format.
"There is just no way" any of her fellow Season 7 competitors could have withstood the rigors of such an intense format she said, adding, "Certainly not any of the [other] women." And certainly not Mary Beth. But then she paused and said that maybe Susie Jimenez would have posed a threat.
That's our Penny!
Photo: Penny Davidi on the "Chopped All-Stars" set. Credit: Food Network