Teaneck–For the last year or so, the Bernath family of Teaneck has been keeping a huge secret. A custom-made Chopped chef’s jacket was hanging in oldest son Eitan’s closet. The 12-year-old Yavneh student would soon be on national television, as part of the first-ever kids episode of Food Network’s Chopped. But finally, the secret is out. His episode will air on Tuesday, September 30 at 10 p.m.
“It was actually a very stressful 6th-grade year for us, because we were constantly in training and we couldn’t tell anyone,” said Sabrina Bernath, Eitan’s mother. Eitan beat out close to a thousand other 5th and 6th graders to win the right to compete, and had six months to prepare for the challenge. The show filmed last April; Eitan is now in 7th grade and preparing for his bar mitzvah.
Chopped is an hour-long competition in which four contestants compete against each other to cook with mystery ingredients in three rounds: Appetizer, entr?e, and dessert. One person get “chopped,” i.e., kicked off, after each course is critiqued by a panel of celebrity chef judges.
What that meant in real terms was that Eitan needed to prepare: He kept a notebook of every fruit and vegetable he could think of, with their identifying qualities– sweet, bitter, stringy, or delicate–along with the best preparation methods for each item, like blanched, roasted, and raw. He memorized cooking terms so he would sound knowledgeable in front of the judges. His mother prepared mock Chopped baskets and timed him as he prepared different courses. He kept a notebook about that too, with notes on what went well and what didn’t. They also watched hours of YouTube videos together so Eitan would know how best to prepare non-kosher foods, such as pork products and shellfish. As their rabbi indicated, many observant Jewish chefs must prepare non-kosher foods, but Bernath would not be halachically permitted to mix dairy with meat.
Eitan’s experience on Chopped was second to none. “Walking on the set of Chopped was like taking your TV, cutting a hole in it, and walking on. It was hard to believe at first. It made the show so real,” Eitan said. For a kid who really loves the Food Network, it was a dream come true.
The night before filming, Eitan visited the Food Network to get acclimated and was thrilled to walk right into Chopped judge Amanda Freitag and the show’s host, Ted Allen. “Everyone there was really nice. There was a person whose job was just to stay with us [competitors], and there was also someone to stay with our parents to keep them calm,” he said. The judges on Eitan’s episode were Scott Conant, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Geoffrey Zakarian, all of whom are acclaimed New York chefs and restaurateurs.
Basket ingredients for the episode included cotton candy in the first round, pizza dough and bitter greens in the entr?e round, and brownie mix in the dessert round.
“The staff and crew were more nervous/excited than the kids,” said Sabrina. “They were so excited to be with the kids and couldn’t have been more helpful,” she said. In addition to a paramedic who specialized in kids in case someone got hurt, there were 30 to 35 other crew on set. The day involved 12 hours of filming.
The Chopped film crew also filmed for eight hours at Eitan’s home in Teaneck and at his school, Yavneh Academy in Paramus, for the biography portion that runs at the beginning of the show. “We were only allowed to tell a minimum amount of people at school,” said Sabrina. “Rabbi Knapp, the principal, and some of his staff.” Fellow students briefly saw Eitan being filmed by the crew, and they saw his dad, Jason, who was there too. “For some reason, everyone thought my dad was filming me for a commercial. For months after, they were asking, ‘When’s your dad’s commercial going to be on TV?’” Eitan said. For the record, Eitan’s father neither makes commercials nor works in television.
Eitan felt very lucky to have had the opportunity of the Chopped experience. While he was the only one wearing a kippah, he enjoyed meeting the other kids with whom he shared such similar interests. “It is not often he meets kids with his level of passion for food and cooking. They too think of Food Network stars as rock stars,” said Sabrina. Eitan said he still keeps in touch with his fellow contestants and they, as well as a number of people he met through the Chopped experience, interact often via social media.
Sabrina said Eitan got into cooking partially by necessity. “He doesn’t like what I make. I eat a very vegetable-based diet, with lean cuts of meat. Eitan was saying, ‘I want a burger, and I want fried food,’ so I said ‘Make it yourself,’ and he could and did. It kind of motivated him,” she said.
After Chopped, Eitan began his culinary career in earnest by studying cooking at Le Gourmet Factory in Englewood and the Bergen Academies “After Hours” program this past summer. He has also taken one-time classes at Chef Central and Whole Foods. Since those programs don’t work with kosher food, he has been limited in some ways. “When they were cooking the meat in butter, he would just stand back and appreciate the technique,” said Sabrina.
At home, Eitan hones his skills by cooking his favorite ethnic foods for his family. His mother said some of his favorite things to make are his own hot sauce, paneer cheese, pico de gallo, guacamole, fried foods, burgers, and General Tso’s chicken. He also does a lot of scratch baking for Shabbos, items like apple tarts, cinnamon rolls, babka, and French macaroons. Recently, he made fresh-squeezed grape juice for Shabbos.
Eitan generally makes up his own recipes, while enjoying cookbooks, especially those of Chef Guy Fieri and Chef Marcela Valladolid, both of the Food Network. “He has this thing called pantry night. He says ‘Can I make pantry night?’ And he works with what we have. Basically, it’s what we have in the house, and he looks at the ingredients, and thinks ‘What can I make with these?’ and we have that for dinner,” Sabrina said.
For the future, Eitan plans to become a bar mitzvah in May, then he wants to do cooking demonstrations, write a cookbook, and be on the Food Network. Can’t wait to see more of Chef Eitan? Visit his website, cookwithchefeitan.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Facebook at chefeitanbernath and Twitter at chefeitanb.
By Elizabeth Kratz