Classically-trained chef Justin Gaines, born and bred in Montclair, whom I mentioned in my MLK Day post earlier this week, won the Jan. 19 episode of the Food Network’s Chopped series!

The show pits the skills of four ostensibly skilled chefs against the clock, each other, and baskets of mystery ingredients.

“There was a lot of drama in that episode,” Gaines said, describing the pre-recorded show which, contractually, he couldn’t discuss until after it had aired. “I had the attitude of going in to win it, but now, I’m humbled by everyone’s response to it.”

His mom Cathy said, “I am elated and so proud! This is the fruit of my labor as a single parent, and of what I’ve worked for, for the last 29 years – to see my kids become successful.”

Gaines, 28, who was “cooking every day after school, then doing homework,” and who started out as a student who washed the dishes at Enzo’s pizzeria, performed consistently throughout the courses, demonstrating his classical training at the Culinary Institute of America, from which he graduated in 2003.

Currently executive head chef of the SaZa Italian restaurant in Montgomery, Alabama, Gaines said his immediate plans comprise setting up five to ten more restaurants under the SaZa umbrella this year, while continuing with food consulting and private catering in the tri-state area. He has, since his win, been overwhelmed with calls from TV and radio stations.

Said Ellen Rothman, a friend of the family, who joined other friends and Cathy Gaines at a local restaurant, The Office, to watch the nail-biting episode, “We were jumping up and down, we were so excited. His mom and I were remembering Justin as the skinny little boy he used to be. It’s just amazing how he has turned out; we are so proud and happy for him.”

The chefs in Chopped produce an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. Based on taste and presentation, an entrant is eliminated at each round, leaving the final two to battle it out in desserts.

In the ultimate segment, Gaines was pitted against the only other male chef (who, in the first round, had presented the judges with raw chicken wings and, miraculously, failed to get Chopped), a basket of tomatoes, ginger snaps, tofu and cocoa nibs, out of which they had to concoct a dessert.

The raw-chicken chef, who had laughed hysterically when he first saw the basket, presented the tofu with whipped cream and ginger snaps in a ramekin, topped with the bitter cocoa nibs – this was described by the judges later as not being sweet enough. Gaines presented a pretty single-serve Genoise sponge made with the ginger snaps, studded with a few cocoa nibs and accompanied by caramelized tomatoes on one side, and a tofu-ricotta-vanilla-citrus zest sauce on the other. Clearly the more palatable entry even to viewers.

Well, you saw his Crawfish Etoufee recipe on Monday. If that looked a bit daunting to try out at home, here’s a simpler recipe from Gaines, Blackened Chicken, which he serves with a Jambalaya Risotto.

“We used to make this in New Orleans when I lived there,” Gaines said. He serves the dish over wilted baby spinach, with lemon butter and the Jambalaya Risotto.

I couldn’t wait to try it out and did (see photo) – it was scrumptious! Searing the chicken first in the moderate-heat pan, then popping it into the hot oven seals the juices in perfectly and 6 minutes was all it took for my two large fillets. Yum! Tempted to try this treatment with an entire roast chicken now …

  • 1 skinless chicken breast
  • 1/4 cup of cajun seasoning
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1/2 a lemon
  1. Evenly coat one side of the chicken breast with cajun seasoning
  2. In a saute pan, over medium high heat, add olive oil
  3. Once hot, add the chicken, seasoning side down, and  blacken for 2 minutes
  4. Deglaze with white wine, squeeze the half lemon over the chicken in the pan and cook out for 1 minute
  5. Place in a preheated 450F oven for 6-10 minutes or till done