On his first “Chopped” appearance, Seekonk native Eli Dunn was handed yu choy, chicken schmaltz, Chinese tea eggs, quahogs — and 20 minutes to make an appetizer.
He made a Rhode Island-style clam chowder that knocked Martha Stewart’s socks off.
Dunn later opened another basket of mystery ingredients on the Food Network show, and within 30 minutes he’d made a Mexican chocolate ice cream with candied eggplant ricotta fritters.
The owner of Eli’s Kitchen in Warren, R.I., wowed all three judges — Stewart, Marcus Samuelsson, and Maneet Chauhan — winning a cool $10,000.
Dunn now heads back to the cooking competition series hosted by Ted Allen to compete in “Chopped Champions.” Dunn and 15 others will compete for $50,000. His episode airs Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 9 p.m. (He couldn’t tell us who the judges are.)
We caught up with Dunn while he was in the middle of a dinner rush — to feed his baby son. “I’ve got here some chickpeas and overcooked macaroni and cheese,” he said.
Q. So how did you get on “Chopped” the first time?
A. I got an e-mail from “Chopped,” and at first I was like, “Nah, this isn’t me,” but my staff talked me into it. So I started watching it, and realized: “Oh, this totally makes sense.” My style of cooking at the restaurant, we’re really good at taking a bunch of random things you’d throw away, like broccoli stems, and turning it into something delicious.
Q. What would you make out of broccoli stems?
A. We’d do a broccoli bisque. Take stems and cook them with aromatics, cream. Or you could put them in a Caesar salad. As a business and ethical decision, we like to use as much as possible. We try not to waste.
Q. Were you confident going back on “Chopped,” or nervous because it was the champions?
A. I was confident. I have a fairly active meditation life. I basically went to bed early the night before. I don’t drink. I woke up early and did some meditation and visualization. I was much more comfortable this time.
Q. Did you have a line out the door of your restaurant after your first episode?
A. Oh yeah. It was ridiculous. We finally came back to earth after Labor Day this year.
Q. You’ve been featured on another cooking show.
A. “Restaurant Impossible.” Essentially they reached out to me when they knew they’d be filming in town; they wanted to use my restaurant [as an example] to say, “Check out this new modern restaurant, with smaller plates and delicious food.” That was the angle, so of course I was like, “Yeah, I’d love to.”
Q. Right. What did you bring out for them?
A. I sent out our hits — our sweet chili cauliflower. Our crab and dill beignets — essentially a crab mascarpone and dill fritter coated in a beer-batter deep-fry. Our naan served with mango chutney, and our baked goat cheese.
Q. Your mother ran Phoebe’s Fish and Chips in Seekonk.
A. She’s Phoebe. She still comes to [Eli’s] and bakes desserts, so she’s still a part of my culinary world. She’s such an inspiration to me. I was literally born above the restaurant, in our apartment with a midwife. It was a wonderful way to grow up.
Q. You’ve said that you aren’t about impressing critics, that you aren’t a pretentious chef.
A. I don’t want to imply that wanting to impress critics makes you pretentious. What I meant was my food philosophy is to source responsibly, cook with love, share with others. The experience of being of service, of cooking for people — whether it’s a 5-year-old getting a kids’ burger, or Martha Stewart — it doesn’t really matter as long as people love the food. I’m not motivated by getting a James Beard award, or a Michelin star.
Q. What’s your favorite thing to make?
A. I really love dessert. I really love pastry — we make our own doughnuts. I have this fantasy that I could go on “The Great British Bake Off.” I’m neither British nor an amateur, so it will never happen. [Laughs.] But pastries are my secret passion.
Q. What’s something that’s your own recipe that you love?
A. I love brunch. This isn’t that exciting, but I really love our hash browns. I obsess about stuff like this. I experimented with hash brown recipes for the longest time, trying to get the perfect crispiness. Our hash browns are golden brown and crispy and flavorful.
Q. What’s your favorite dish on the Eli’s menu?
A. Our sweet chili cauliflower. It’s so good. It’s not my own recipe, so I don’t want to take much credit for it.