If you can’t stand the heat… you better stay in the kitchen. That’s how Justine Balin won $10,000 on The Food Network’s Chopped Canada Teen
The heat under the TV lights and from the industrial gas ranges was sweltering. One competitor had already cut himself badly. Opening the ‘mystery basket’ to discover the first round’s appetizer ingredients of chocolate mint cookies, flaked ham, gorgonzola picante cheese and dried tart cherries, was, in the words of one competitor, “gross”!
17-Year-old Vancouver, Canada student, Justine Balin is reminiscing with me about her whirlwind culinary adventure as a recent winner on the Food Network’s weekly reality show, Chopped Canada Teen. Four talented teens from across Canada duked it out in a Toronto TV studio’s professional kitchen, with very sharp knives and even sharper wits for an opportunity to win $10,000 before getting chopped. Over three elimination rounds (until the last teen is left standing,) they prepared a gourmet appetizer, main and dessert from a mystery basket stocked with a puzzling array of ingredients. Each must be cooked and plated within 30 minutes. The teens had access to an elaborate food pantry to add to their concoctions. Hosted by former CFL-player, Brad Smith, a panel of renowned Food Network Celebrity Chefs, Mark McEwan, Roger Mooking and Antonio Park scrutinized and critiqued each dish for taste, presentation and originality before putting one teen on the proverbial chopping block at the end of each round.
“The kitchen has always been my favourite place. I love to cook and started making Julia Child’s recipes when I was 8-years-old,” confides the vivacious and precocious Balin, a student in her final year at Vancouver’s King David High School. She was already baking breads and watching the Food Network in grade three. “My grandmother is Italian and my family is Jewish so cooking with her, my Mom and aunt since I was three has always been second nature to me.”
A photography buff, over the years, Balin has travelled to twenty-one countries including Japan, Russia, Finland and Israel.
She heard about Chopped Canada Teen from her Foods teacher, Hilit Nurick, with whom she had studied cooking for ten years. Several layers of applications ensued and then a few months later the show’s team came to Vancouver to screen-test Balin. “I didn’t have to actually cook for them but they asked me a lot about food terms and about recipes. I forgot about it for a while as I was on a “March of the Living” school trip in Poland (in which Jewish high-school students world-wide connect with their history,) when my mother emailed to say I was chosen and going to be taping the show in June. We left for Toronto two weeks later,” Balin excitedly relates.
“It was pretty funny because sitting with the other contestants and their Moms in the van going to the TV studio, we asked each other what foods we hoped to NOT get in the mystery basket. I said ham because we don’t eat it, and sure enough that was one of the ingredients for the first appetizer round,” Balin recalls laughing. “Also, I had practiced only once with my Foods teacher and one of the other contestants said he was practicing every day and another said he already worked in a restaurant and I thought, oh dear, these guys have way more experience than I do.”
Watching the episode, Balin looks so cool and poised. “Well, inside I was pretty nervous- the cameras are so close to you while you’re cooking and between rounds we had to stare down our competitors. They tried to provoke us into commenting on how successful we thought our competitors were going to be and who would get chopped first- they need the drama – but I didn’t want to answer!” she admits, laughing again.
“But, once I started, the nerves went away and I was really in my zone of cooking. Then when I won the first appetizer round my Mom said, “‘okay you can really do this, you can walk the walk.’”
Balin beefed up her imagination for rounds two & three: the only competitor to make a soup, she remembered her Italian grandmother’s delicious seafood bouillabaisse, incorporating the mystery basket’s clams and wasabi cocktail sauce, using water mint to make a pesto for the bread garnish. She was also the only competitor who made ice cream for the 3rd round’s dessert competition and she aced it with her use of crème fraiche and cookies and cream spread, red pepper flakes in a crunchy brittle and June plum fruit compote on the side.
“I was so excited in the last round because friends know that I love making desserts (Balin has worked at the popular Vancouver café, Butter Baked Goods Bakery for two-and-a-half years after school and on weekends.)
When Balin’s only competition was chopped and she was awarded Chopped Canada Teen Champion and the $10,000 prize, Judge Mark McEwan said Balin’s ice cream was “wickedly good.” “Justine, in the future, I know you’ll be a very successful woman in this field. If food gave you something in your life, don’t forget to give back,” Judge Antonio Park added.
“I was so excited I was speechless,” says the exuberant teen. The money means I can continue to travel and take a cooking course in another country if I decide to take a gap year. I want to go to university to study something food-related and volunteer. It’s amazing!”