Cagalanan | Provided

Charlestonians may have noticed a familiar face on the Food Network Channel’s Chopped November 22. Nikko Cagalanan, local chef and owner of pop-up Mansueta’s Filipino Food, competed on the high-intensity food competition show — and won.

“Last year in October, they sent me an invite through Instagram,” he said. “And I thought it was fake.” 

It wasn’t until a week later, Cagalanan told the City Paper, that he looked into the profile of the casting agent and said to himself, “Oh, this is real.”

Several months of phone interviews later, Cagalanan was on the Chopped set, ready to be thrown into the competition. 

“I think doing pop-ups helped me a lot,” he said. “I’ve been doing pop-ups forever and that really prepared me to do Chopped — not knowing what’s in the kitchen, what’s in the pantry or where everything is. Pop-ups helped me adapt quickly.”

On Chopped, four chefs compete by creating meals with mystery ingredients during three timed rounds: appetizer, entree and dessert. A contestant is eliminated after each round, with the final chef becoming a “Chopped Champion.” Cagalanan recalled the competition as super intense, because the time doesn’t stop for anything, even a chef cutting themselves. 

“So when you open the basket, you have to think of what you’re gonna make and that probably wastes like a minute,” Cagalanan said. “And then you go to the pantry to grab all your ingredients, so you maybe lose like two minutes. Now you have 17 minutes to cook. The first round is 20 minutes and goes by so fast.”

For Cagalanan’s episode, the theme was “bizarre foods.” Ingredients for the episode included items like pork uterus, cricket milkshake, rooster testicle stew and beef kidney. The only ingredient he was really familiar with, he said, was purple yam, or “ube,” a popular Filipino ingredient. 

“It’s just like instinct,” he said about working with unfamiliar ingredients. “Like really using my past experience in a very short amount of time. It’s super stressful.” 

And not only was the competition itself a stressful experience, but so was the judging. The first round of judging takes approximately 45 minutes to an hour, he said, with each chef’s food judged individually. 

“So if you’re the last one being judged, your food is cold,” he added. “Your food sucks, man, because you have to wait like 40 minutes to be judged. But what’s funny is that I was actually always the last one to be judged.”

But fortunately, temperature wasn’t the biggest factor in judging a contestant’s food, as Cagalanan was crowned Chopped Champion that episode. 

“When I won, I couldn’t believe it,” Cagalanan said. “They announced it and I was like, ‘Holy shit,’ and then, like 30 seconds later, they’re like, ‘And you won $10,000!’

“I wanted to prove to myself that I’m doing something right and trying to represent Filipino food in that stage. That was like that was the main reason for me.”

You can watch Cagalanan’s episode of Chopped on Amazon Prime Video.

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