Norwich chef wins 'Chopped,' $10,000 prize

Norwich — More than 150 family members, friends and supporters let out a deafening scream at These Guys Brewery late Tuesday night when, on the TV screen, local chef Ceil Vardar was revealed as the winner of a competition, “Holly Jolly Grandmas,” on the Food Network’s show “Chopped,” taking home a $10,000 prize.

Vardar and her husband, Orrie, will use the contest prize for a culinary tour of Italy and Greece in September. That will make two bucket list items checked off in 16 months.

The celebration continued Wednesday with family and friends meeting at Muddy Waters in New London. At her Norwich home, the phone was ringing off the hook with calls of congratulations and requests for her culinary expertise. One caller wanted to consult with Vardar on food suggestions for healthy prepared dishes.

The daylong competition actually took place last April, when Vardar and three other grandmothers, all either current or retired professional chefs, descended on the “Chopped” kitchen in New York City. All parties were sworn to secrecy until the show premiered Tuesday night.

In the show, the contestants are given baskets of ingredients for separate rounds of competition to create appetizers, a main dish and desserts. One contestant is eliminated after each round, and Vardar and Norma Knepp, a pizza restaurant owner from Lancaster, Pa., faced off in the final dessert round. The chefs have a fully stocked professional kitchen to add other ingredients to their dishes.

They had to complete each round within 30 minutes.

The first basket contained a large buffalo meat tenderloin — “the most beautiful tenderloin I ever had in my hands,” Vardar said Wednesday — a tower of Latke potato pancakes with sour cream on top, frozen peas and chicken-flavored candy canes.

Vardar made butterflied tenderloin stuffed with Latkes and peas, with shaved Romano cheese, eggs and spices. She chopped the sweet chicken candy canes and used them in a Gorgonzola cheese-port wine sauce.

The judges marveled at the flavors, and their only criticism was that, with 7 ounces of meat in each portion, Vardar really had created an entrée, rather than an appetizer.

That's not true for her family, cousin Judi Snyder of Tampa Bay, Fla., said Wednesday. Snyder traveled to Norwich this week to watch the premiere of the show and to celebrate afterward.

“Welcome to our family,” she said. “Seven ounces of meat. That’s an appetizer in our family.”

The entrée basket had even stranger ingredients, highlighted by a cooked goose covered with an edible gold-leaf coating, spiked eggnog — the three remaining chefs weren’t shy about giving that a sample taste on the set — purple asparagus and jelly doughnut bites.

Vardar put her Middle Eastern culinary heritage to work and created a cooked goose and chorizo sauté with spinach and quinoa with poblano peppers and seasoned with cumin, coriander and cinnamon. She halved and skewered the jelly doughnuts and served them with the spiked eggnog on the side.

Again, the three judges raved, but said the jelly doughnuts weren’t really integrated with the dish.

Vardar made the judges — Maneet Chauhan, Scott Conant and Amanda Freitag — nervous in her dessert round. When presented with a basket with holiday cookies, pomegranate seeds, cream cheese and a hot cocoa mix ornament with marshmallows, Vardar quickly decided to make individual serving cheesecakes.

Not seen on TV, Chauhan approached Vardar for a closeup look as Vardar worked and warned that it would be very risky to try to make cheesecake in just 30 minutes. As the dishes were nearing completion, Chauhan could be seen at her seat holding her head in her hands as Vardar pulled the mini dishes out of the oven.

Vardar tipped one onto the presentation plate, and the undercooked cheesecake hit the plate with a splat. All judges groaned in sympathy. But Vardar rushed the tray of cheesecake bowls to a blast chiller to help them set. It worked just enough and when the buzzer sounded, she had plates of dessert — one very mushy and one with an underdone center — for the judges.

Her gamble paid off to the tune of $10,000.

“It was incredibly ambitious to make cheesecake,” Freitag said.

“It’s delicious,” Conant said, who received the mushy pile, “which is really a reflection of your talent.”

Watch it

The Food Network will air the episode "Holly Jolly Grandmas," featuring winning Norwich chef Ceil Vardar, on these dates and times:

- Dec. 8, 10 p.m.

- Dec. 9, 1 a.m.

- Dec. 18, 8 p.m.

- Dec. 19, 3 a.m.



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