How does one possibly prepare for the Hunger Games of food shows where organizers can change the rules on a whim? “Trust your knowledge, trust your skillset, and keep things simple.” Photo courtesy of Food Network.
By Nathaniel Clarkson (James Madison)
If you’ve never watched Cutthroat Kitchen until now the Food Network’s hit show is perhaps best summarized by one former contestant: “Cutthroat Kitchen is so much harder than you think it is. Take what you know about cooking, then take away some limbs, take away your cooking tools – it’s not easy. It’s about how resourceful you are, how clever you are.”
The episode begins when host and Food Network megastar Alton Brown introduces the contestants.
Chef Stef from Brooklyn.
Chef Ben from Indianapolis.
Chef Jackie from New Jersey.
And Sigma Nu’s own Chef Dwayne Ingraham, representing Oxford, Miss. “I’m here on Cutthroat Kitchen to show everyone a small-town southern boy can make it in the big leagues.”
Before each round contestants have 60 seconds to shop for everything they’ll need. What Alton calls “shop” is better characterized as a stampede to a fully-loaded pantry where contestants jockey for position to grab as many items as they can carry. When the free-for-all ends Alton shuts the doors and the contestants return to their station and attempt to formulate a recipe from the ingredients they grabbed from the pantry.
Next comes the auctions. Each of the four competing chefs receive an equal share of $100,000 in cash that’s stored on set in a silver suitcase. The contestants use this money to bid on auction items that will sabotage other contestants. The catch is that they only leave the show with the money they have remaining – and that’s only if they win.
Host Alton Brown can’t hide his delight in the various ways the contestants are about to be tormented. “In a game where sabotage is not only encouraged, it’s also for sale.”
Round 1 begins. Each chef must make a molten lava cake with whatever ingredients they happened to grab from the pantry.
No sooner than the chefs get started with their game plan for Round 1, Alton tosses the first curve ball.
The first package of items up for auction is a dozen roses, a wine flute, and an empty box of chocolates. The winner of this auction can require his opponents to forfeit all of their utensils and vessels in return for the three items.
Dwayne wins the first auction and forks over $6300 of his $25,000 for the luxury of baking with real utensils and mixing bowls. His opponents aren’t so lucky. Chef Jackie must stir her cake mix in the cheap plastic that comes with grocery store flowers; Chef Ben gets to stir his mix in a wine flute; and Chef Stef gets a flimsy box of chocolates in place of a mixing bowl.
Before the contestants proceed any further Alton announces the next auction, and it’s not good. The winner of this one gets to confiscate one opponent’s chocolate. That means no chocolate to make a chocolate molten lava cake. Dwayne being the skilled and savvy chef that he is realizes he has enough cocoa from the ingredients he grabbed from the pantry and decides to let this one go. Chef Ben wins the auction and predictably takes Dwayne’s chocolate.
At this point things are going well for Dwayne – that is, as well as they could be, all things considered. His opponents are baking with significant handicaps. Meanwhile, Dwayne’s weathered the storm by improvising the chocolate flavor with cocoa, flour, and sugar.
Right when things are going well Alton throws another auction that forces two contestants to hold hands for the rest of the round. Dwayne smartly passes on the bidding because his cake is nearly ready for the oven. He’s tethered with Chef Stef, but no harm done as Dwayne is well prepared for the obstacle.
5…4…3…2…1. Round 1 ends and Alton brings out celebrity chef Simon Majumdar to judge the molten lava offerings.
Simon runs down the line, sampling each one and offering his comments. The drama builds as Simon determines who to eliminate.
He zeroes in on Stef’s molten lava cake that’s missing a key characteristic: the lava. Simon sends Chef Stef packing; three chefs remain going into Round 2.
On a typical day Dwayne arrives at work by 7:00 a.m. and promptly begins reviewing prep lists from six different restaurants that operate under City Grocery. Dwayne and his team review all the orders received overnight and account for how much each store sold the previous day.
They also stay busy providing catering for offsite events. During college football season, this means fulfilling hundreds of orders for tailgates, including The Grove – one of college football’s most renowned tailgating locations.
When ESPN’s nationally-televised College Gameday visited Oxford for the Ole Miss vs. Alabama game last fall, Dwayne didn’t go home from Thursday morning until Saturday afternoon. One of Dwayne’s two assistants had just left, leaving him down a man on the busiest weekend of the year. “You just learn to do what you need to do,” he says, reflecting on that hectic weekend.
On the day I spoke with Dwayne he was prepping for a party of 145 people. “After reviewing the prep lists we start attacking the day,” he says. On top of preparing bulk orders for parties and other catered occasions, Dwayne has to prepare orders for the restaurant where he works, which opens at 11:00 a.m.
I asked Dwayne how he ended up at City Grocery in Oxford – the idyllic college town home to the University of Mississippi that’s built a reputation for its thriving restaurant scene. “I was in Las Vegas at the time,” he recalls. It was 2010 and John Currence, City Grocery’s owner, posted a job opening on the alumni page for the culinary school Dwayne attended. At the time Dwayne was putting his time in as a line chef at Wynn Las Vegas casino-hotel. The work was grueling, but a necessary part of learning to run a restaurant. Dwayne was ready to make the jump to full-time pastry chef and applied for the job. The two connected immediately through common geography. John was from New Orleans, and Dwayne was from nearby Boothville, La. “John went fishing in my hometown,” Dwayne recalls.
Each of the four competing chefs receive an equal share of $100,000 in cash that’s stored on set in a silver suitcase. The contestants use this money to bid on auction items that will sabotage other contestants. The catch is that they only leave the show with the money they have remaining – and that’s only if they win. Photo courtesy of Food Network.
John asked him to prepare six dishes and Dwayne flew in for the tasting. He remembers feeling nervous at the time, but he was ready for the test. To prepare for the interview, Dwayne conducted tastings with friends in the weeks leading up to the trial. “Friends came over and I went through my repertoire once a week. They gave me scorecards, told me what they liked and didn’t like. I used that feedback to tweak my options. This helped me decided what to prepare for the interview in Oxford.”
Dwayne grew up liking to bake, but he says the chef skills came later. “When you grow up in a small town you don’t realize that being a chef is an option for you. Local restaurants were all mom and pop, operated out of necessity. My husband is a fisherman, so we’ll open a restaurant to sell his fish. This is how most people approached it.”
When Dwayne decided to attend University of Southern Mississippi his mom worked with a lady whose son was Commander of the Theta Gamma Chapter at the time. “Every time I visited campus Kenny showed me around. When I arrived for orientation they all showed up to help me move in,” he remembers.
Dwayne got the idea to attend culinary school thanks to one of his candidate brothers at Theta Gamma Chapter. Gerald Peralta was planning to attend culinary school and Dwayne realized he would enjoy pursuing the same track. “As soon as I took a baking class I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he remembers.
Dwayne eventually left Hattiesburg for the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt. Another one of Dwayne’s Theta Gamma candidate brothers, Markus Jones, accompanied him on the 22-hour drive to Montpelier, which sits about 70 miles from the Canadian border. They took turns driving for two days, taking a nighttime detour through Lexington to visit the Headquarters Shrine on the way to Vermont.
“Growing up in Mississippi, Vermont was an interesting place,” Dwayne recalls. “I was nervous about moving there, but Vermont ended up being a chill place.” The main difference he noticed at first was the lack of deep fried food. “It’s more of an agricultural-focused area. They believe in sustainability.”
“The only thing I didn’t care for much was the snowfall – I wasn’t prepared for New England winter.”
Dwayne went straight to Las Vegas after completing culinary school. The restaurant scene in Vegas was quickly building a highly regarded reputation, and Dwayne knew there would be good opportunities for him out there. Dwayne was eager to escape the cold weather, so naturally it snowed his first winter in Las Vegas.
Back in the Food Network studio, Alton Brown delivers the next challenge for the remaining contestants.
Each chef has 30 minutes to make a savory chocolate dish.
Dwayne is immediately concerned by his lack of experience with savory cooking. “My world comes crashing down,” he shares with the confessional camera. “I have not done any savory cooking in my professional career.”
But Dwayne keeps his cool, relying on the same calm and steady approach that guided him through the first round. “What I learned from the last round was to keep things simple and classic,” he says. “Trust the flavor profiles to make things elevated on the palate. So my plan for this round is to make a simple summer salad.”
When the timer starts the three remaining contestants repeat their stampede to the kitchen pantry. Dwayne returns to his cooking station when he realizes he left the pantry without grabbing a protein.
Chef Jackie wins the first auction and forces Dwayne to somehow incorporate a hunk of halibut with his chocolate savory dish. The chef from New Jersey makes it clear she hasn’t forgotten Dwayne stealing all her utensils in Round 1. “Chef Dwayne is the target,” she says with pleasure.
When the camera pans to Dwayne he looks nervous, but he stays optimistic. “You know what? I may be a pastry chef, but I’m still a chef. I can find a way to make this work.”
Simon returns to judge the dishes. “Combining fish with chocolate is brave,” he says, as if Dwayne had a choice. Unfortunately Dwayne’s halibut is slightly overcooked and Simon notices right away. Things aren’t looking good for Chef Dwayne right now.
Simon samples the remaining dishes and offers the usual pros and cons for each one.
No one entered the judging session with more confidence than Chef Ben. But things quickly go downhill for the tattooed chef from Indianapolis as it turns out his chilaquiles recipe was too sweet for what was supposed to be a savory dish.
Simon eliminates Chef Ben, leaving Dwayne and Jackie to compete for the final round.
The process for getting on Cutthroat Kitchen started with a Facebook message. The casting company contacted Dwayne because they wanted to shoot a specialty episode devoted to chocolate. “I was honored they asked me to apply,” he says. Dwayne completed the application and agreed to a Skype interview with the Food Network team. A few weeks later Dwayne learned he had made the show.
Dwayne got the idea to attend culinary school thanks to one of his candidate brothers at Theta Gamma Chapter. “As soon as I took a baking class I knew that was what I wanted to do.” Photo by Steven Rosen/www.stevenrosenphotography.com.
They shot the episode on August 19, the day before Dwayne’s birthday. They flew the contestants to Los Angeles and covered meals and lodging. All clips were taped the following day.
A single episode of Cutthroat Kitchen takes 14 hours to film. During this time they film three challenges in the studio kitchen as well as the personal interviews with each contestant, often referred to as the “confessional camera.” The format of the show is designed in a way that encourages the contestants to sabotage each other – hence the name Cutthroat Kitchen.
How does one possibly prepare for the Hunger Games of food shows where organizers can change the rules on a whim? Dwayne’s approach was much different from the preparation for his interview with City Grocery. “I did nothing,” he says. “I didn’t want to overanalyze. I didn’t want to get stuck in a rigid game plan. I just told myself, Trust your knowledge, trust your skillset, and keep things simple.”
Professional chefs, it turns out, are not programmed bots trained to perform the same task over and over. ‘Cutthroat’ contestants have to be skilled multitaskers, stirring a molten lava cake mix while managing their budget to bid on items in real time. “You have to think fast on the show,” Dwayne says, not unlike a typical day in the restaurant.
Cutthroat Kitchen offers useful advice for non-chefs, too. Regular watchers of Food Network shows have witnessed the brutally honest feedback contestants receive from judges. “I feel like my job prepared me for that direct form of feedback,” Dwayne says. Though the feedback can be uncomfortable to watch, Dwayne says the producers find a happy medium between good television and staying positive all the same. “Their goal was never to make anyone look stupid or incompetent. At its core, Food Network is about good-natured entertainment.”
Dwayne sees direct feedback as a necessary part of developing and becoming better all the time, a critical lesson for any career. “I can’t grow if people only tell me everything tastes good.”
It’s down to two: Jackie vs Dwayne, New Jersey vs. Oxford, Miss.
They’re given a half-hour to make a box of chocolates. Easy enough, Dwayne thinks. “I’m ecstatic because this is right up my alley.”
During his 60 seconds in the pantry, Dwayne grabs dark chocolate, white chocolate, oranges, peanut butter, and graham crackers. When he returns to his cooking station he realizes he’s forgotten heavy cream – a critical ingredient for truffles. “Such a rookie mistake,” he concedes to the confessional camera. “You can’t make truffle centers without heavy cream. I’m so screwed.” Or is he? We’re about to find out.
Alton announces the first auction of the third round, the opportunity to force your opponent to forfeit all ingredients and rely on what’s inside a giant mystery box of chocolates. Dwayne wins with a bid of $9,000, which is $100 more than the total amount Jackie has remaining. Dwayne’s strategy of conserving funds in the first two rounds pays off. Jackie is left reaching into mystery vats of chocolate to find her ingredients – a scene reminiscent of Nickelodeon’s 1990s classic, Double Dare.
Direct feedback is a necessary part of developing and becoming better all the time, a critical lesson for any career. “I can’t grow if people only tell me everything tastes good.”
Realizing his error in forgetting heavy cream, Dwayne thinks fast and decides to make his own variation of s’mores with the graham crackers and white chocolate for marshmallow.
With two minutes remaining the drama is starting to build. Dwayne doesn’t flinch. “I didn’t come here to go home second. I came here for it all. I want to prove to the South that we can compete with the big cities.”
Jackie ends up making truffles with dried apricots, raspberry, strawberry, and jalapeno. Her cooking station looks like a disaster zone from all the spilled chocolate.
Simon enters the studio kitchen for a final time and remarks on Jackie’s station. “The presentation isn’t pretty, but the truffles are actually delicious.”
Dwayne is concerned about the lack of variety in his offerings for Simon. Jackie had four varieties, but he only has one. “I really could be in trouble here.”
“The presentation is really good. You’re obviously really skilled. The graham cracker was a terrific idea.” Simon is clearly impressed with Dwayne’s s’mores idea, but his final decision is still up in the air.
“You’ve given me a tough decision, but I’m going to have to give the win to…Chef Dwayne.”
Dwayne celebrates the victory with his signature grin. He dances in the studio kitchen in a blizzard of dollar bills falling from the sky. “I just won Cutthroat Kitchen! Can you believe that?!”
“How was the fish and chocolate?”
Dwayne says this is one of the most common questions he gets about the episode. “I didn’t realize how exciting the show would be for other people,” he says. “I did it because I thought it would be fun and shed some light on City Grocery. It ended up being a good opportunity to test my skills against big city chefs. I was surprised by how excited people got about it.”
“The other day I was dropping pastries off and some lady gave me a hug.”
Dwayne, right, plans to use his winnings from Cutthroat Kitchen for the wedding he’s planning with his partner, Jeff. Pictured here before a recent LSU at Ole Miss football game.
As for the winnings, Dwayne knew right away where he would put the money. “I’m going to set some aside for this wedding I’ve been planning for about a year now.”
Dwayne’s rise to Food Network prominence is impressive, but it was no surprise to those who have followed his path. Markus Jones, Dwayne’s Theta Gamma brother who drove with him from Mississippi to Vermont, knew Dwayne was on his way to something big. “Despite his fear of the unknown, Dwayne had no hesitation about his decision,” he recalls from the 1500-mile drive they took together. “As I look back on that trip, it was obvious Dwayne knew exactly what he was doing and was clearly on a mission to reach his goal of being a pastry chef.”