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June/July 2012: Life After “Chopped”

In its June/July issue, School Nutrition took you to the “Head of the Class” with an entertaining recap the “Class Acts” episode of “Chopped,” featuring four inspiring school chefs competing for recognition, respect—and a cash prize. But what’s happened in the months since the episode aired? We’ll let the contestants tell you what they’ve been up to and if they’ve extended their 15 minutes of fame.

Not surprisingly to anyone who knows school nutrition professionals, the four school chefs competing on “Chopped” developed a tight bond. “We all became instant friends,” says School Chef Dianne Houlihan. “It feels like we’ve known each other forever. We have so much in common.”

As if the bonds of friendship weren’t reward enough, all four contestants were given a special prize: a 5-day class at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., to continue their education. School Chefs Rhonda DeLoatch, Houlihan and Arlene Leggio took advantage of the unique opportunity last March. After debating whether they should stick with a course in the fundamentals, they opted to stretch and selected a Level 3 class, called “Global Foods to Street Foods.” It was one of the most difficult courses available in the catalog and was taught by a certified master chef. DeLoatch calls the experience “awesome” and “rigorous, like school. We went home each night and studied recipes.” She reports that she’s already applied some of what they learned to her school meal offerings.

“The recent week I spent at [the CIA] has really awakened my passion for food and has motivated me to spend my time making a difference,” says Houlihan. “Anything I can do to promote awareness of the importance of healthy eating is what I am going to do.”

There’s no doubt that “Chopped” has turned the four women into local celebrities—especially where it’s most important: at school. “After the show, the kids at school were great. They said they were proud of me and that they thought I was a winner. They made me cards, and they started calling me ‘Chef.’ Some said I inspire them, and that they want to go to cooking school or be nutritionists or doctors,” recounts Houlihan. Some even requested autographs!

Still, the chefs are surprised by how just far the recognition factor has extended. “I heard from people from past jobs and others I hadn’t heard from in a while,” says DeLoatch. “My phone started blowing up like you can’t even imagine,” reports Barbara. Students attending CIA recognized the contestants when they spent their week on campus. The widow of baseball great Bobby Mercer sent them each autographed copies of his memoir and personal letters of gratitude for the fond memories she had of her own cafeteria chefs. Barbara has received donations for her weekend backpack program from generous contributors all across the country.

The reach of the Food Network can’t be underestimated! (“It amazed me how many kids, even young ones, watch the Food Network and ‘Chopped,’” says Houlihan.) Perhaps the most striking example of this reach was seen in an extraordinarily generous gift made to Houlihan. During the episode, she’d mentioned on camera that, if she’d won, she’d use the prize money to take her young grandson to Disney World. After the show aired, Matt Riggs, a viewer across the country in Phoenix, Ariz., and a complete stranger to Houlihan, was so moved by her creativity and success that he wanted to make her dream a reality. Riggs coordinated a surprise assembly at her school to personally present her with a $5,000 check for her trip, as well as a donation to her school!

Other achievements and activities of note follow:

  • Barbara, DeLoatch and Houlihan were invited to participate as panelists in a Connecticut School Breakfast Summit. There, Houlihan took the messages she heard to heart and pledged to try to get her community to expand the school breakfast program to the elementary schools (currently it is only offered at the secondary school level).
  • DeLoatch will be a featured speaker and award recipient at a banquet for the SNA of Connecticut.
  • Houlihan was promoted to cook/manager at Oswegatchie Elementary School (replacing a manager out on medical leave).
  • Barbara is now a monthly guest on a local radio show, has been gaining increased followers on her “Chef Cheryl” Facebook page and says she’s thinking about writing a book about “my kids.”
  • DeLoatch, Houlihan and Leggio made a surprise appearance at ANC in Denver in July 2012. After a brief introductory interview of Sam Kass, White House assistant chef and senior policy advisor for healthy food initiatives, by food advocate and media personality Phil Lempert, the three appeared as part of a longer panel discussion about their experiences on the show during one of ANC’s General Sessions. They also signed autographs and posed for photos at the McCormick For Chefs booth in the Exhibit Hall.

    As the General Session wound to a close, DeLoatch, Houlihan and Leggio shared advice and words of wisdom for fellow school nutrition professionals. “Be proud of what you do! Keep on…fighting the battle and using the resources we have. Keep loving it the way I do,” encouraged Houlihan. DeLoatch added, “Don’t be scared to do something new. Just try it!”, while Leggio acknowledged the hard work of school nutrition professionals across the country and their role in making a difference in children’s lives.