She thrives in culinary show pressure cooker
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She thrives in culinary show pressure cooker

As clock ticks, River Vale chef hopes to stir up winning flavor on TV's Hell's Kitchen

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Dana Cohen’s grandparents spiced her early interest in cooking.

Dana Cohen of River Vale was describing how she transformed a traditional Southern dish – meatloaf and sweet potatoes – into the more upscale Moroccan meatloaf with sweet-potato purée recipe when she realized that Jewish Standard readers are not exactly the same audience as the one that watches her on the reality television show called Hell’s Kitchen.

Cohen was proud of the dish; it was chosen best from all those prepared by the Hell’s Kitchen contestants. They all are chefs who, on that occasion, had just 30 minutes in which to reinvent and prepare a menu.

“The less time you have, the more your instinct kicks in,” she said. “You just go with your gut and just start cooking or you won’t finish in time.

“I saw the spices I had in front of me, I had all different varieties of ground meat. Veal, lamb, and – I don’t know if you want to put this in…

“Pork.”

At this point, a reporter for a Jewish newspaper was thinking that the omission of one ingredient might render this dish suitable for his kosher kitchen – and his kosher-keeping readers. This just shows how little he understands about gourmet cooking.

Cohen explained that for a cook, the real problem was “how can you develop any amount of flavor” in only 30 minutes.

So she put the ground meat, to which she had added an egg, a clove of garlic, Worcestershire sauce, olive oil, and a variety of spices, into a muffin tin. After first wrapping it in bacon.

Does it really get any more treif than that?

Actually, yes, as the sweet-potato puree that the recipe calls for drizzling on top of the meatloaf contains heavy cream, butter, and Mascarpone cheese. (The full recipe is at http://bit.ly/DanaMeatloaf)

Fortunately, Cohen was being judged on quality and creativity, not kashrut, by Chef Gordon Ramsay, who serves as judge and executioner on the show, assigning challenges to contestants and determining who gets thrown off for not living up to his high standards.

With the show now on a brief hiatus for the Olympics, Cohen is one of six contestants remaining from an original group of 18. The show next airs Monday night, Aug. 13.

“It was the hardest experience of my life,” Cohen said of being on the show.

“You’re sharing your living space with 17 other people. You’re running on very little sleep. Gordon Ramsey expects only perfection. To be on your a game all the time when you’re under that much pressure is not an easy task. You’re pushed to levels you don’t know you’re capable of,” she said.

Bottom line: “I would do it again in a heartbeat.

“Just to have the opportunity to work for such a chef is pretty much an honor in itself. The knowledge that he was able to share with us was just incredible,” she said.

Cohen traces her passion for cooking to visits with her grandparents on their farm in Flemington, 70 miles southeast of River Vale.

“Grampa would wake us up early. I would stand on the stool and help him cook breakfast. We used to watch cooking shows together.”

No bacon with those breakfast eggs, though; Cohen’s grandparents kept kosher in their house.

She also credits her mother. “She’s really a good cook. I used to sit on the counter for hours and watch her.”

By the time she finished high school in River Vale, where she still lives, Cohen knew she wanted to be a chef.

“My parents, being Jews from Bergen County, said you can go to a regular college, and if you still want to be a chef after that you can go to cooking school. After a semester at the University of Maryland, I said, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m not going to school for six or eight years. For that I could be a doctor.’ So I went to the Culinary Institute of America” in Hyde Park, N.Y.

After graduating, Cohen, now 27, worked at different restaurants in Florida for several years before returning to New Jersey, where she was cooking instructor and kitchen manager at Viking Cooking School in Fairfield.

“When I came back from the filming I was working as an executive chef,” she said. “Right now I’m just kind of watching the show and waiting to see what kind of opportunities the show will bring.”

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