Chat with... CJ Vinas, a Chopped Junior runner-up
Published 2:39 pm, Friday, January 20, 2017
The Fairfield Woods eighth-grader came in as runner-up in the competition, cooking an appetizer, entree and dessert from mystery ingredients.
CJ began cooking by helping her mom make roasted vegetables when she was little, sprinkling on olive oil, salt and pepper for seasoning. Now the 13-year-old helps with cooking for her family most nights, and her passion has led her from the White House to the Food Network competition show.
“I like it because you can be creative,” Vinas said of cooking. “You can put stuff together that wouldn’t usually be put together and make something good out of it.”
From helping and watching her mom cook, CJ’s grandmother gifted her a kids’ cookbook several years ago that she began to translate into dishes, plus she watches “way too many” cooking shows. “Chopped” is among her favorites. When “Chopped Junior” premiered, CJ began to watch the kids’ version of the cooking competition show and eventually applied.
“It was really fun. I enjoyed it,” she said of the experience. “I want to do it again.”
After a series of phone and Skype interviews and sending photos and videos of her cooking, CJ was selected for the show, competing on the “Chia Frets” episode. Filming was good, but long, she said, with a 12-hour shoot for the competition and three days total to make the show in New York City. To prepare, her mom made her trial baskets to practice time management, crafting challenges like a tuna and pineapple fruit cup.
About 70 friends, family and neighbors gathered to see the competition unfold from the Vinas’ Fairfield home when the episode aired Tuesday night.
During the episode, CJ was shown preparing her favorite dish, teriyaki-marinated skirt steak with rosemary steak fries, and explained how she likes farm-to-table healthy cooking, in particular inspired by her experience after she won Michelle Obama’s Healthy Lunchtime Challenge in 2014 and represented Connecticut at the Kids’ “State Dinner,” scoring an opportunity to meet the first lady.
For “Chopped Junior,” Vinas had to use ingredients like merguez sausage and Shakshouka sauce for her appetizer round, shrimp — with the heads still on — and cream of broccoli soup for her entree, and chia pudding and agave nectar for dessert.
Sampling her dishes, judges complimented her creations as refreshing, creative and impressive through the competition.
“When I opened the appetizer basket, I didn’t really know what the Shakshouka sauce and merguez sausage were,” she said, referring to the Middle Eastern sauce flavored with tomatoes, chili peppers, onions and cumin and the spicy North African meat. “I just kind of assumed what they were and I tasted the Shakshouka sauce and made a vinaigrette with it.”
But advancing in “Chopped Junior” was not CJ’s first taste of success. As winner of the Health Lunchtime Challenge, she enjoyed traveling to the White House in the summer of 2014 for a dinner, first-lady photo op, tour and speech from President Barack Obama. The experience, CJ said, encouraged her to focus on healthy cooking.
“It was really fun because we were able to go to D.C. for a couple days and we were able to just kind of explore,” she said. “It was really cool because we were able to go into the White House and meet Michelle Obama.”
As Connecticut’s winner, Vinas was paired with a local chef, Carey Savona, executive chef at the Yale Study’s Heirloom restaurant. A Fairfield resident whose daughter went to Osborn Hill Elementary School, like CJ, Savona has a farm-to-table emphasis at his restaurant. He worked with CJ on a healthy cooking presentation at Osborn Hill and one at a New Haven agricultural school, and he brought her on a visit to his restaurant.
CJ has cooked for neighbors and used her skills to raise money for charity, once baking nearly 200 cupcakes and selling them to neighbors to raise money for Operation Gratitude, a veterans charity.
As CJ, an ice hockey goalie, looks forward, she recently applied to the Bridgeport Regional Aquaculture Science & Technology Education Center, a magnet school with a focus on aquatic farming, including fish, shellfish and plants. She hopes the experience could teach her about aquaculture and sustainability, relevant for her cooking, too.
As she keeps cooking, she will continue with her adventurous preparations, which have included homemade pasta. “Uovo” ravioli, a ricotta and basil ravioli with an egg yolk inside that CJ described as “almost like a sunny side up egg,” and apple dessert ravioli have been among creations.
“She has no fear,” her mother, Jennifer Vinas, said of her daughter’s dishes.