Jacob Stern of East Brunswick learned to cook almost out of necessity.
The 14-year-old has always loved to eat, but tasty food wasn’t always so readily available at home, acknowledged his father, Robert.
“He always says he got into cooking because his parents are such terrible cooks,” laughed his father. “He really loves to eat and cook. The problem is he’s not so good at cleaning up.”
Although Jacob may have honed his culinary skills for personal reasons, those skills paid off when he went into the final round on the Food Network’s Chopped Junior cooking program before being — according to the show’s terminology — “chopped,” losing to another young chef.
The show was filmed at the Food Network kitchen in New York in May, but competitors were sworn to secrecy until the episode aired on Aug. 9.
Without hesitation, Jacob pointed out, “I am the best cook in the family,” and said it is his brisket that his family — including two older brothers and mother, Stephanie — will enjoy on Rosh Hashana. He also makes delicious latkes for Hanukka.
The self-taught young chef can often be found experimenting in the kitchen at home or at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, where he assists Dr. Joe Cohn, a member who is in charge of cooking the fare for temple barbecues, seders, and festivities.
“I gained most of my culinary knowledge from cooking with Dr. Joe,” acknowledged Jacob, who is entering ninth grade at Churchill Junior High School in East Brunswick. “He really teaches me a lot.”
During the popular cooking program — regular Chopped contestants are professionals — four chefs are given baskets of often bizarre and wildly mismatched foods for each of three rounds and must prepare an appetizer, main dish, and dessert within a given amount of time.
Each dish is judged by a panel of experts, and after each round one chef is eliminated. The winner receives a $10,000 prize.
Chopped Junior contestants must be between the ages of nine and 13; Jacob turned 14 on July 30 but was eligible at the time of filming.
The judges for Jacob’s episode were chefs Maneet Chauhan and Andrew Gruel, and actress Meghan Markle from the TV series Suits. Cookbook writer Ted Allen was the host.
“I was always a very adventurous eater and was always a foodie,” said Jacob, who aspires to be a professional chef. “One day I tried experimenting a little bit and found I really enjoyed cooking. I just got better and better at it.”
Robert Stern said it was Jacob’s initiative that landed him a spot on the television show.
“He went on-line and filled out the application,” he said. “He did it all on his own.”
Jacob recalled the day a show staff member called his mother to let her know the show was interested in having him compete.
“I had to submit a video of me cooking along with more written details,” said Jacob. “Then I had a FaceTime interview.”
The amateur chefs on the episode, “Cup of Glee,” weren’t cut any slack because of their age.
Indeed, one of the ingredients the young cooks had to contend with in the appetizer round was a three-and-a-half-pound peanut butter cup.
“I took the chocolate off and melted it into a chili chocolate sauce,” said Jacob, for his steak taco, which was served with a homemade pico de gallo sauce.
However, Jacob found one of the ingredients in the main dish basket — pork — “a little ironic” considering he is Jewish, but went with the flow, preparing pork tenderloin with his signature mashed potatoes.
For the dessert round, after which he was eliminated, he served a rice cake cookie with raspberry passion fruit compote and homemade French vanilla ice cream.
Although he lost, Jacob said, he enjoyed meeting others his own age who share his love of the culinary arts and appreciate his passion for ethnic foods and flavor varieties.