To my mind, Round One left no doubt: the fight on last night's episode of Chopped, which pitted four food-cart pros in a three-course elimination battle rife with surprise ingredients, was over as soon as Narumol "Nong" Poonsukwattana picked up her knife.
The beloved owner of Nong's Khao Man Gai transformed a fear-inducing mystery basket—ground lamb, empanada dough, caviar and, eek, strawberry shortcake ice cream bars—into a striking larb lamb salad, with criss-crossed fiery red chiles standing on top like a skull and crossbones warning. By comparison, the other chefs' dishes look pale and wan (and one downright cringe-worthy).
Sure enough, as we predicted last week Nong slayed the competitors from New York, New Jersey, and Portland to win the $10,000 prize.
Any lingering reservations were erased in Round Two, when the specter of a whole suckling pig emerged from the basket, and Nong starting furiously pounding out the goods for a suckling pig with fresh Thai curry and pickled fiddlehead ferns—it looked like the whole studio kitchen was lit up in a fug of garlic, lemongrass, and hot chile. The bold move led Chopped judge Scott "I TOLD YOU I HATE RAW ONIONS" Conant to exclaim: "Fresh red curry?! This is the most exciting thing I've ever seen in this kitchen."
Nong defeated Michael Natiello (New Jersey's Taqueria Authentic), James Layman (Gorilla Cheese NYC) and, her most creative challenger, Han Ly Hawing, owner of Portland's popular Korean barbecue cart Kim Jong Grillin'. Since his first truck burned downed several years ago, Hwang had been working as a delivery boy, a notion that led Conant to chide him like a father to "get your ass back in the kitchen; don't give up." Clearly, Hwang took his words to heart: Kim Jong Grillin' is open again, at SE Division Street and 46th Avenue.
The best moment of the night was surely Nong's earnest take on The American Dream. She recalls customers telling her she'd found it after opening Nong's Khao Man Gai at SW 10th and Alder. She didn't know what the phrase meant and had to look it up on the internet. The idea motivates her now. "I came from nothing," she told the judges. "If I win, it shows you can achieve if you really work hard."