June 19, 2023, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – When Jen Struik was a student at City High School in Grand Rapids, she and her friends used to emulate the chefs who would compete on what was then a new show on the Food Network called Chopped.
“Yes, growing up my friends and I would do little culinary competitions like Chopped,” said Struik, now an instructor in Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education. “We’d pick random ingredients and see what we could make with it.”
A decade or so later, Struik had a chance to be on the show for real, going up against three other chefs on the Chopped set in New York City in an episode that filmed in October 2022 and will run on the Food Network on June 27, 2023.
The show’s premise is pretty simple: four chefs compete against each other in preparing an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert.
The show then “chops” one chef after each course with the winner earning $10,000.
The twist though is that the chefs have to use ingredients the show provides, and those ingredients often create unlikely combos. An episode called "Yucca, Watermelon, Tortillas," for example, included appetizer ingredients of watermelon, sardines, pepper jack cheese and zucchini.
Struik said her long-ago high school rehearsals did not really prepare her for the stress of the real thing which included 20 minutes to make the appetizer, 30 minutes each for the entrée and the dessert and then the presentation time for the show’s three judges.
“Chopped is known as being one of the most stressful culinary competitions,” she said. “I wear a Whoop (a type of fitness band), and after we taped the episode, I went back to my hotel to look at the stats. I can’t say too much because I can't give away spoilers. But let’s just say that my heart rate was very, very increased at certain points in the day. It was funny to go back and look at it because it actually registered as a cardiovascular activity.”
Despite the high-stress nature of the show, Struik said she was able to calm herself by going back to the base she has built in recent years as both a chef and a registered dietician.
She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dietetics before earning certifications in Culinary Arts, Personal Chef and Chef Training from GRCC and currently not only teaches at GRCC but also has worked as a dietician for local hospital systems and since 2018 has run her own business, called Jenny with the Good Eats, offering weekly meal prep, including for those with chronic health conditions; private in-home dining experiences; cooking classes; restaurant consulting and more.
She also was a coach for the team of GRCC culinary students who were finalists in the recent NASA HUNCH competition, and prepared a meal judged by astronauts and other NASA leaders.
All of those experiences helped ground her as she thought about the challenges Chopped would present.
“For me, I think when you approach shows like this, you just have to think of it like okay, I'm going to go in with a certain amount of knowledge about appetizers that I could pull off in 20 minutes, of an entrée I could do in 30 and a dessert I could do a 30,” she said. “You start to do a lot of recon into your culinary skill set and ask yourself what you can actually accomplish in the timeframe?”
Struik also knew she belonged on the Chopped set.
She had submitted copious amounts of information on her culinary background and had three or four interviews with the show’s staff over Zoom before she was selected. She also previously was a winner (as Jennifer Fillenworth) on a Food Network show called Supermarket Stakeout in which chefs create dishes from groceries they purchase from nearby supermarket customers.
Still, when she got that final email saying she’d been selected to be on Chopped, there was a moment of disbelief, she said.
“I found out just a few weeks before, sometime in September I think,” she said. “We had just started a new semester here (at GRCC), so there was a lot of scrambling I had to do to make it work. But it was totally worth it.”
She said she and her fellow chef competitors got a chance to meet each other the morning of the competition, and they all clicked with each other.
“We all sat in the green room and kind of just talked,” she said. “And that's where you start to size people up a little bit and try to figure out who your competition is. But everybody was great. We had a friendly group and to this day, we still have a group chat, and we all talk, so it was a really good experience in that regard.”
She and her fellow chefs were given permission to start to talk about the show just this week, and talking about it with people has reminded her all over again of how stressful last fall was, she said with a chuckle.
Still, she can’t wait for June 27.
She’ll actually be on vacation that week in Northern Michigan but said she plans to watch with her significant other, Bryan.
“We're planning to stream it and see what unfolds,” she said. “A lot of my friends and family members are planning watch parties, so I'm excited to see how everyone else is watching it.”
And since she knows the outcome of the show already, she said her biggest emotion when she watches the unveiling is likely to be a sense of pride.
“Feeling proud of the journey in my career so far,” she said. “And having these opportunities and such wonderful experiences.”
This story was reported by Phil de Haan.