The Food Network threw everything from orange push-ups to a vegetable sushi roll at 14-year-old Linden resident Elisabeth Watkins, but she kept her cool and came out a winner on a recent episode of “Chopped Junior.”
The teenager went to New York with her parents, Kenny and Molly Watkins, in August to shoot the show, and though she knew she had won, the only people she was allowed to tell were her parents and her older brother, Kenneth Watkins IV. In the “Chopped” programs, contestants must cook an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert, but the judges try to stump them with four mystery ingredients for each course.
“They give you about 15 seconds to figure out what you’re going to make,” Watkins said, “and then you have 30 minutes to actually prepare your dish”
In the appetizer round, the contestants got chorizo, orange push-up pops, premade waffles and lobster mushrooms. For the entrée, they had to use pork chops, smoked oysters, heirloom tomatoes and vegetable sushi. And for the dessert course, the mystery ingredients were passion fruit, dehydrated cheese, premade, precooked french fries and applesauce.
“I made a panzanella salad (for the appetizer),” Watkins said. “I made the orange push-ups into a vinaigrette. The next round … I did a pan-seared pork chop with a red-wine oyster reduction. I used the insides of the sushi for a carrot and green bean with heirloom tomato sauté, and then I did a ricotta wonton.”
For dessert, Watkins produced a dehydrated cheese and french fry crumble with sautéed cinnamon apples and a passion fruit-raspberry compote.
A freshman at Central Catholic High School in Modesto, Watkins doesn’t tend to sit around twiddling her thumbs. She taught herself to cook by reading cookbooks, watching Food Network shows such as “Chopped” and asking adults with special expertise to let her cook alongside them.
She has taken lessons in cooking, sewing, welding and much more for six years now with the Linden-Peters 4H chapter. Last summer, she competed on a team that won the fair’s Junior 4H cooking contest, and she took second place at the California State Fair for a wool coat she made for the “Make It With Wool” contest. She raises Shorthorn beef cattle for projects with 4H and her high school chapter of FFA. Also at Central Catholic, she competed in water polo this fall and hopes to compete in springboard diving in spring.
Watkins has a couple of pre-K memories of cooking: Every year, the men, women and children of the Watkins family gather around the holidays to make sugar cookies in the shape of Santa Claus that they give to friends and family. She also recalled that, as a toddler, she helped her mom make the Watkins family’s legendary brownies from a recipe that includes six eggs and two cups of sugar.
Watkins said she got the idea to compete on “Chopped” after watching an episode in which teenagers had competed.
“I was talking to my mom, and I said, ‘Oh, I think I can do that. I think I’m better than those kids,’ ” she said. “I went on the Food Network website and filled out an application and submitted it. That led to a series of interviews, a home video and another, longer application.”
She learned in July that she had won a spot for the inaugural season of “Chopped Junior.” Her episode initially aired Nov. 24, but the Food Network website said it will be rebroadcast at 5 p.m. Dec. 27. She beat out three other contestants, winning $10,000 and an apron with the “Chopped Junior” emblem.
“The judges really liked how I transformed the ingredients into something new and put my own twist on it,” Watkins said. “They liked how I knew what to do with each ingredient, adding acid to the orange push-up pops to tone down the sweetness. ... They liked my presentation, and they really, really, really liked my red-wine reduction sauce.”
Since winning that contest, Watkins has been written up in the Linden Herald, the Stockton Record, The Modesto Bee and San Joaquin Farm Bureau newspaper. She’s also been interviewed on “Good Day Sacramento” and KAT Country 103 FM. She’s received congratulatory messages from old friends, former teachers and complete strangers.
Every year, the Linden-Peters 4H has a Christmas boutique where students are encouraged to sell their wares. In the past, Watkins has sold items she has cooked, but this year, she said, she will be offering cooking lessons.
“I cooked a … meal at school,” Watkins said. “I made an omelet for them, and one of my friends said, ‘You’re catering my wedding.’ That’s when I realized that I had a talent that people were looking for, and I like teaching people how to cook, sharing my tips and tricks and my style of cooking, the things that I eat.”