One can find a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary almost anywhere in the world — but how many viewers expect to find a rabbinical expert on kosher laws competiting for the top prize on the Food Network’s ‘Chopped‘ show?
The irrepressible Rabbi Hanoch Hecht, 31, actually won second place as a contestant on the popular program, in an episode titled “Leap of Faith” in which he competed alongside a priest, a pastor and a nun.
Hecht grew up in Brooklyn, NY as one of 10 children and told Chabad.org that he managed to stay in his mother’s good graces by helping his mother in the kitchen. Those skills came in handy later in life when he began whipping up Sabbath meals at home with his own wife, Tzivie; the two are co-directors of Chabad Dutchess-Rhinebeck Jewish Center in Upstate New York.
The clerics were tasked with preparing an appetizer, entree and dessert using secret basket ingredients revealed at the start of each round, timed in 20, 30 and 30-minute increments.
It was the rabbi’s expertise in kosher laws that he said brought him to the show, which he saw as an opportunity to educate millions about kosher food, and to debunk some myths about it as well.
“The experience was phenomenal,” Hecht said. “The producers were very accommodating and sensitive to my needs and requirements.”
Those requirements were part of the agreement for the rabbi’s participation on the show, which found him due to his role as a guest lecturer at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. It was one of CIA’s professional chefs that nominated him to appear on “Chopped.”
Hecht said he’s “always enjoyed cooking,” so before he appeared on the show, “some of the chefs at CIA coached me and gave me lessons” as a way to reciprocate for his lectures of past years.
The rabbi noted that the experience emphasized for him “how no other religion requires both the ingredients and food preparation to be within certain guidelines. The other contestants didn’t have the same restrictions… [It] helped me to appreciate even more the responsibility and reward of keeping kosher.”
One of the biggest challenges, of course, was the fact that because the studio kitchen was not kosher, the rabbi could not taste any of the food. To compensate, Hecht asked the pastor to sample the condiment levels in his dishes for him.
For those who are wondering what a Chabad rabbi might create as a gourmet chef for the Food Network’s ‘Chopped’ competition, the episode (Season 28, Episode 13) aired on June 21 and is set to be rebroadcast. It is also available on demand.
Rabbi Hecht created a salmon stew for the appetizer that included raw white honey and Ezekiel bread. His entree was a Lebanese-style lamb and rice dish with a jalapeno-based relish he called “the rabbi’s heat.” But his most successful dish was the dessert — a rugelach made with fig, macadamia nut and hamantash filling (the latter was a basket ingredient), alongside a rainbow carrot tzimmes and fresh non-dairy whipped cream (since meat was served in the main dish).
The spirit was congenial among the competitors and the judges, said the rabbi. As Sister Sara Marks noted, “We all have God in common.”