Reporting Sara Pelissero
Four chefs, three courses – but this time, there’s a lot more on the line.
The challenge? Create an unforgettable meal with the mystery ingredients hidden inside a wooden basket before time runs out.
But this isn’t your usual episode of “Chopped” – this is “Chopped: All-Stars,” which means the stakes and the talent are even higher.
Four celebrity chefs walked into the “Chopped” kitchen ready to compete on an episode that would later be known as “Mega Chefs” – among them was a star chef with Minnesota roots.
Chef Gavin Kaysen admits, when he initially got the call to be on the show, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to compete. He didn’t have a charity that he really felt compelled to fight for – that is, until he met John and Emily.
John Golden and Emily Eaton were your typical Minnesotan family. They had two boys, including a healthy and happy 4-year-old named Julian. In 2011, after Eaton said she noticed some random bruising on Julian’s body, they took him to the doctor. Before they could process what was happening, Julian was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. He started chemotherapy the next day.
“The chemo did its job. It killed off the leukemia blasts in his blood cells but it also killed off his white blood cells,” Eaton said.
Without his white blood cells and other parts of the blood, Julian’s body couldn’t fight off infections.
“Just 13 days after he was diagnosed, he died of infection that his body couldn’t fight,” she said. “It obviously turned our world upside down.”
Emily and John said though they were hurting, they were determined to move forward with a positive outlook, and find a way to share their story in a way that could help others.
After struggling to find a coping method that worked for her, Eaton started a blog called “Creating New Normal,” as a way to share her story through words she couldn’t always say out loud. Golden devoted himself to helping the Children’s Cancer Research Fund – helping improve their website through his company and creating a run in his son’s honor (Joggers for Julian) that beat out the competition in both fundraising and participation.
“So we’ve been trying to do things to help support any mission that would help other parents not go through or at least diminish the experience like we had with Julian,” Golden said.
A Chance Meeting
Through a series of fateful connections, Eaton’s father – who knew Chef Gavin’s father through business – walked into Kaysen’s restaurant in New York City one day, hoping for a favor.
Knowing everything that his family, and especially John and Emily, had gone through after Julian’s passing, he wanted to do something special for them. Golden loves to cook and both he and Eaton have a passion for food. And he knew Kaysen had Minnesota roots. So he asked him if he’d ever be interested in visiting with John and Emily the next time he was in town.
After hearing Julian’s story, Kaysen was immediately touched. He donated money to Julian’s memorial fund and flew back to Minneapolis, where he went to John and Emily’s home and spent the day cooking a big meal with John for all of their family and friends.
About six months later, Kaysen got a call to be on the next season of “Chopped: All Stars.” He called John and Emily and asked if he could tell Julian’s story.
“We were just thrilled,” Golden said.
The Battle Begins
Chef Gavin Kaysen was no stranger to food competitions. The 2008’s recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Award and chef of Café Boulud competed on Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef” and appeared as a guest judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” But this time it was different – it wasn’t about the pride of winning, it was about Julian.
Kaysen was raised in Bloomington, Minn. until he was 19 in the home where his parents still live today. He worked at the local Subway – yes, as a sandwich artist – before he got connected in the restaurant world and started his path to culinary greatness.
“My first actual real, true job was actually wrapping ham at HoneyBaked Ham for the holidays. From there, I worked at a TCBY Yogurt and from there I went to Subway,” he said.
Like many chefs, Kaysen said he grew up enjoying cooking, especially baking with his grandmother.
“She passed away a couple of years ago but I still have her rolling pin that we used. I still have her recipes on the little note cards, too,” he said.
Kaysen said he enjoyed food and was always around it, but nothing too fancy – “going to Red Lobster was a special occasion” – but it wasn’t until he got to California, and discovered where food came from that he really found his passion.
It’s that same passion and dedication that Kaysen brought to the “Chopped” kitchen.
It was almost a year ago now that he spent 14 hours filming what would be “Chopped: All-Stars, Mega Chefs.” Kaysen said before going into the competition, he knew who he was up against – esteemed pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner, “Top Chef All-Stars” winner and molecular gastronomy expert Richard Blais and star of “Chuck’s Day Off,” French-Canadian chef Chuck Hughes.
He’d have to win through three courses in order to have a chance to battle for the $50,000 grand prize — $50,000 that would go straight to Children’s Cancer Research Fund for Julian.
“I’ll tell you, it was an extremely intense two episodes to film – nothing to do with food, but everything to do with emotion. It was pretty incredible,” he said. “I mean, watching a guy film you and interview you and you’re talking about (Julian’s) story and you see a tear come down the guy’s eye, and he’s still filming you, it’s pretty gripping.”
Beyond packing any kitchen tools and essentials, Kaysen took a special book with him to film the “Chopped: All-Stars” finale. It was one of Julian’s that he received from the family when he went to their home to cook that great big meal. In the corner of the inside cover, there’s a message that reads, “Happy 3rd Birthday Julian!”
“I just wanted to have (the book) there,” Kaysen said. “That’s what’s always inspired me about (John and Emily) – how they’ve been able to take that loss and turn it into such an incredible gain.”
The show itself was hard – emotions aside, this wasn’t going to be an easy competition.
“It’s hard because it’s all real. When they give you 20 minutes for an appetizer, that’s all they give you. And you have no idea what’s inside those baskets. They actually cover the basket with a black towel when you walk on the set,” he said. “You have no idea until you open it.”
In the first basket, Kaysen said he was thrown for a loop when it came to the bright pink cream soda beverage.
“I’ve never seen pink cream soda and it was extremely sweet,” he said. “It was like drinking cotton candy. It was disgusting.”
Kaysen kept things simple but elevated, bringing his French influences and 4-star flavor to the table. Eventually, he found himself facing Chef Richard Blais in the final round … where he had to deal with sponge cakes, or “Twinkies.”
“They’re so disgusting,” he said. “I took out the frosting and I put it in the oven for 15 minutes … and it didn’t even turn brown. You put a piece of bread in the oven for that long and it’d be black. But this didn’t even turn brown. I was like, ‘Uh, ok.’”
He said he tried four different ideas before he found one that worked. With tomatoes as another “non-dessert” ingredient, there was plenty of pressure to create a cohesive dish.
Blais’ final course was up first. A few judges commented that they wished it was more of a simple, clean dessert. That’s when Kaysen couldn’t help but smile.
“I was like, ‘Thank God you said that because it’s coming next,’” he said with a laugh. “Don’t worry, I’m bringing it.”
After an exhausting and emotionally draining battle, Kaysen won and became that much closer to $50,000 for Julian.
The Next Chapter
The final showdown takes place this Sunday, when Kaysen will face Food Network’s Sunny Anderson, “Chopped” judge Scott Conant and celebrity contestant (and boxing champ) Laila Ali.
Although he knows the outcome, the only thing he’d say is, “it’s intense.”
“Laila Ali is one intense figure,” he said. “I mean, listen, I know Sunny and I know Scott. … But Laila, I’d never met before. I went into the make-up room in the morning and she was getting done up next to me and we introduced each other. And she said, ‘so what do you do?’ And I explained myself. And I asked her what she did and she explained herself … and my jaw dropped and I was like, ‘Oh my God, Ali’s daughter.’ Talk about the worst person to play a mind game with, Muhammad Ali’s daughter.”
John Golden and Emily Eaton will watch the finale this Sunday at Kaysen’s parents’ home in Bloomington. And while they don’t know who the winner will be, in a way, it doesn’t matter.
“We’re just thrilled that Gavin is talking about Children’s Cancer Research Fund on a national level,” Eaton said. “It’s so exciting to be generating this kind of buzz to this organization.”
In the end, that’s been Kaysen’s goal all along – to tell Julian’s story and bring more awareness to those that are fighting every single day.
“I was telling the judges during the show … as chefs, we always try to think about what we can do to create a legacy – because, quite frankly, we’re a little egotistical (laughs) – so we always think of how we’ll be remembered as a chef,” Kaysen said. “What blows me away is that there’s this little boy who was only 4 years old, and to me, he’ll have a bigger legacy than all of us will, put together. Because his lasts forever and it has a meaning that is so pure, so defined and so real that you can’t create that.”
The “Chopped: All-Stars” finale airs at 8 p.m. Sunday, May 5 on the Food Network. For more information about Chef Gavin Kaysen, click here. To learn more about Julian’s story – and how you can help and donate to the Children’s Cancer Research Fund, click here.