WILMINGTON – The Food Network’s “Chopped” series presents contestants with difficult – and sometimes unappetizing – combinations of ingredients and challenges them to come up with gourmet meals. Thirteen-year-old Stefano Dongowski, who recently competed on the show, said he was up to the challenge.
Dongowski, who’s mother and father Angie and Mark moved from Colorado to Wilmington nearly three years ago, benefited from a childhood eating from a backyard garden. Angie Dongowski said the couple never cooked “with kid gloves” for their children Stefano and Sofia. Instead, the whole family ate a diverse range of cuisine, including meals from Angie Dongowski’s Italian background.
Mark Dongowski added, “Stefano’s been cooking, helping around the kitchen since he was 3. And we’ve exposed them to everything we’ve eaten. Hopefully, that played some role in how open minded he is.”
Stefano Dongowski, said he loves experimenting in the kitchen, cooking for his family three to four nights per week. He added that the only food he has every crossed paths with he didn’t like was the Durian fruit, notorious for its unpleasant odor, which Stefano described as “a mix of gasoline and rotting meat.”
Even with 10 years’ experience in the kitchen and a wide-open palate Stefano described the ingredients on “Chopped Jr.” as tricky.
“The first basket did have eyes in it. So, there’s that,” he said.
But harder by far, the family agreed, was making it through the interview process. The family went through no fewer than six interviews.
“I talked to a lot of producers, I guess they’re called,” Stefano said. “It was intense. I Skype interviewed, I cooked for them on Skype.”
After months, Dongowski’s family received a call from a California casting agency.
“Even then, they said I had a pretty good chance of being on the show, but they weren’t 10o percent sure,” Stefano said.
Finally, Stefano got the call – or rather, the text – in his math class. The family then set about making plans to go to New York City.
It is hard to estimate the impact of New York City on someone who has never been there. But for a chef, especially a young aspiring chef, the city has a uniquely intense resonance.
“Chopped Jr.” is filmed at the Food Network studios, which sits on top of the Chelsea Market, one of the finest in the city. There are more Michelin-starred restaurants within a 10-minute walk of the studio than there are on the southern seaboard. And the chefs of those restaurants – who are, after all, living breathing people who get coffee before work, drinks and dollar-pizza afterwards – can be seen walking the streets.
Stefano did get to take in some of it, visiting Chef Mario Batali’s Eataly, a massive warehouse-sized combination of grocery store, wine-bar, restaurant and travel agency, to Italy, of course. The young chef said it was hard to explain just what New York City was like, only that he was happy to have been there.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “I just tried to take it all in. I do feel like you’d need a life time to really see it all.”
The family’s sightseeing was short-lived, though. Angie Dongowski, Stefano’s mother, said, “I couldn’t handle the stress of the competition, so I got to be the one gallivanting around the city. Stefano’s dad had the hard part.”
And, indeed, after a day of exploring New York City, it was down to business.
Following a day of orientation and meeting his soon-to-be-competitors, Stefano was Ubered to the Food Network studio early in the morning. After some preliminary photography, the actual competition began.
“There’s a lot of stuff they do beforehand,” Mark Dongowski, Stefano’s father, said. “But, I’m serious, once they go, it’s go time, they take all the kids to the sound stage and it’s all action. It’s not fake, once they get going.”
Stefano added, “Oh yeah. It’s real. Once the cooking starts, it’s a straight-up 30 minutes. It’s really serious.”
Mark described watching his son compete from the green room.
“They isolate you in this room, and you can’t communicate with them. But they’ve got screens, showing all 10 cameras. And you’re just watching,” he said. “You don’t want the other kids to mess up, but you’re also rooting for your kid. You’re watching, like, ‘oh, maybe keep ignoring that,’ and then watching Stefano, riding the highs and lows with him, like ‘yes, good,’ and then ‘oh, no.’”
What is 30 minutes like, on set, cooking for $10,000?
Stefano Dongowski said, “10 minutes goes by in a second. It’s a little weird that the cameras are there, really close to you, but pretty quickly you’re so focused that you ignore them. But then, at the end, when you’re like ‘oh crud, I gotta finish,’ those last few moments, running around the kitchen trying to finish and plate your dish, those seconds last an eternity.”
It’s the kind of time dilation familiar to those in high-pressure situations in the culinary industry and beyond. But Dongowski, who can’t legally reveal how he fared in the competition until the episode airs on Feb. 21, says he thinks he handled himself well.
“Regardless of how I did, knowing that I can compete at that level, with other young chefs with that talent, I’m happy,” he said. “I cooked well. And I think, that’s going to boost my confidence going forward with my other ventures. Yeah, I’m happy.”
Those ‘other ventures’ don’t just include cooking dinners for his family. Stefano is launching a line of spice blends. It’s an idea that he had around the same time as he applied to “Chopped Jr.,” though he initially never imagined either would become a reality.
“At a certain point,” he said, “I realized this ‘Chopped’ thing was maybe going to [happen]. I realized I had to get to work.”
Spice Squad, Dongowski’s newly-formed business, will sell spices that, like his cooking, come from his love of diverse cuisines and experimentation.
On Saturday, he was working on a “ras el hanout.” The North African spice blend, which translates roughly from the Arabic as “head of the shop,” or “top shelf,” is a notoriously complex mixture of at least a dozen spices. It is challenging for even experienced and well-traveled chefs. But Stefano said by working with different recipes and his own intuition for the balance of the mix, he’s come up with his own version that he is happy with.
With his family’s help, Dongowski has jumped through the health-department and FDA hoops and set up a website, which will go live as his episode airs. He plans to start the Spice Squad line with 16 blends, including staples like Italian and Cajun blends, as well as more esoteric creations like his own take on garam masala and Tamanoi Sushinoko, a sushi seasoning.
Stefano Dongowski will appear on the Tuesday, Feb. 21 episode of “Chopped, Jr.” The show is set to air on the Food Network at 8 p.m. The same day, the website for his line of spice blends will go live.