Cooking Show Fame

In the kitchen with a Chopped Junior star from Chevy Chase




Photo by Heather Fuentes

Eli Hoffenberg gripped his $200 Miyabi chef’s knife and—rat-a-tat-tat—quickly began chopping onions, tomatoes and garlic to make an omelet for a reporter at his home in the Rollingwood section of Chevy Chase. He sautéed the ingredients, set them aside and poured beaten eggs into another GreenPan nonstick skillet, and waited for them to set. Eli moved assuredly around the Viking range as he folded the filling into the eggs. As he plated the dish, he looked expectant, if a bit anxious.

Understandable. Eli is 11 years old.

The aspiring chef started cooking at age 7. “I was a picky eater, and I saw that my mom could make what she wanted to eat, so I started cooking what I liked,” says Eli, a slight but agile youngster whose long light-brown hair drifts over his eyes. “I tried cooking without recipes, but that didn’t work out so well,” the fifth-grader admits. 

He baked pies at first, and after a year or so he was confidently cooking up appetizers and main dishes for friends, who happily flocked to his house after school. Cooking shows entranced him—he’s a huge fan of imperious British chef Gordon Ramsay—and he haunted the aisles of Sur La Table the way his contemporaries enjoyed the Apple store.

Soon, Eli was preparing meals for parents Mark and Jackie, both lawyers, and sisters Maia, 13, and Anna, 7. His specialty became Thai cooking, with a spicy meal capped off by homemade ice cream made with a machine he received as a birthday present. 

After watching the Food Network and other cooking competitions such as Master Chef, Eli was determined to qualify for a show called Chopped Junior, a cook-off for tweens. To hone his already impressive skills, acquired mainly through practice, Eli took classes at L’Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda. 

“He had good technique; he wanted to get onto the show,” says Joel Olson, who, among other responsibilities, teaches 9- to 12-year-olds at a five-day summer cooking camp. Another instructor, visiting chef Danielle Turner, who taught Eli as well as two other kids who competed on TV shows, says: “Eli stood above the crowd. He has great intuition in the kitchen, as if he’d been cooking for 20 years.”

He applied for Chopped Junior with a video of his step-by-step preparation of a dish, and then he was invited to have FaceTime interviews with the show’s producers. Early last year he learned that his hard work had paid off. From about 2,500 U.S. applicants, he was selected as one of 52 kids ages 9 and 10 to appear on one of the 13 episodes of Chopped Junior.

Photo courtesy of Food Network

Eli Hoffenberg and his Chopped Junior competitors cooked up dishes with four required ingredients in the Jan. 3 episode.

On the TV show, which was taped last spring and aired Jan. 3, four contestants are asked to prepare an appetizer, a main dish and a dessert, each requiring the use of four ingredients. After each round, the three judges “chop” one contestant, the verdict delivered by the lifting of a metal plate cover to reveal the losing dish. 

That moment eventually came for Eli, who sailed through the appetizer (ceviche) and entrée (Thai red curry chicken drumsticks) rounds, but watched, his eyes gleaming wetly, as his final dish—a vanilla protein shake ice cream with a clementine sauce—got the chop. “I felt kind of sad,” he says. “I really thought I was going to win. It was kind of upsetting. If we had to do it all again, I think I would have won.” 

Eli says he will continue cooking and may apply for another competition show in a couple of years. He’s torn between becoming a chef and pursuing a career as an engineer—he’s currently working on a design for a robot that can do homework. 

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