TRAVERSE CITY — Southwestern seared duck breast with sweet pepper, duck breast and bitter melon ratatouille. Sesame and pork rind crusted black cod with sautéed dinosaur kale and asparagus. Spirulina and mint infused fruit salad with clotted cream cheesecake dressing and angel food cake croutons.
That’s what it took for chef and Traverse City native Phillip Dell to beat out the competition on the May 30 episode of the Food Network show “Chopped.”
The show hosted by former “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef America” judge Ted Allen is a cooking competition about skill, speed and ingenuity. Each week, four chefs compete before a panel of expert judges to turn baskets of everyday and weird ingredients into an extraordinary three-course meal.
Dell, of Las Vegas, competed on a special “Cook Your Butt Off” episode that featured chefs with weight-loss stories. The owner of Sin City Chefs, a private chef and on-site catering service company, lost 92 pounds by changing his diet.
“It was not uncommon for me to eat an entire pizza and a few beers at least three times a week, and that’s just one example,” said Dell, a 1995 Traverse City Central High School graduate. “I have a huge sweet tooth. It wasn’t unusual for me to eat a whole bowl of cookie dough. I drank a dozen cans of Coke a day, not including what I drank (while working).”
A former pastry chef with a degree from the prestigious Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, Dell now also teaches on-site classes on how to transform classic recipes into healthy, great-tasting dishes. He said he went on the show to make a point.
“The coup de grâce was the $10,000 prize,” he said. “But for me it’s all about showing people that you can cook extremely good food that’s still healthy for you.”
The “Cook Your Butt Off” episode was taped in New York, over more than 17 hours in December. Dell was barred from revealing its outcome until it aired last week. He watched the program at his church in Las Vegas with his wife, Leah, his mother, Vicki Dell, and her cousin, who drove across the country for the occasion, and about 100 friends.
Dad Larry Dell watched it home alone in Kingsley.
“My cell phone went ballistic with calls, texts and emails from people I know all over the country,” said Larry Dell. “Then it started on my land-line.”
Phillip Dell said the TV competition was “extremely intense,” especially because he was suffering from a compressed disc. He said the easiest part was the appetizer course, whose ingredients included duck breast, bitter melon, goji berries and kumquat.
“The bitter melon kind of threw me for a loop. But I had accidentally served it to someone, so I knew how bitter it was,” he said.
The most challenging part of the contest?
“There was an entire fish I had to filet. I grew up doing that, I’m from Michigan. I used to fish. But I don’t do that much anymore,” he said. “And the judges flipped out. They absolutely loved that dish. I was elated. Truth be known, I hate fish. When I first lost all that weight. my trainer put me on an all-fish diet. I OD’d on fish.”
Though the judges were disappointed in his angel food dessert — “They knew I was a pastry chef so they wanted something spectacular” — Dell said his overall three-course meal took the cake.
“As they put it at the end, I simply outcooked everybody,” he said.
The chef began his foodie career at age 11 as a butcher’s meat assistant at Deering’s Meat Market in Traverse City. He earned a certificate of culinary arts at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District Career-Tech Center and later worked at the Grand Traverse Resort in Acme and assisted in opening three Traverse City restaurants, including La Cuisine Amical.
In 2005, after several other jobs in Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia, he moved to Las Vegas to work as a pastry chef at Wynn-Las Vegas before starting his own business.
Over the years he’s won more than a dozen awards in national barbecue circuit and U.S. pastry and confectionary competitions and has cooked for celebrities including former Michigan Gov. John Engler and actors Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine and one of the stars of TV’s “Criminal Minds.”
Dell said he used his “Chopped” prize to build a deluxe barbecue patio at his home. But he continues to keep the weight off by eating several small, structured meals a day; working out and competing in bodybuilding competitions; setting short-term goals and rewarding himself every week with one anything-goes meal.
He hopes to be called back to do another episode of “Chopped.”
“I believe I went through the process of getting healthier for a reason, and that is to help others who want to do the same but don’t know how,“ he said.