I’ve been a devoted fan of Food Network ever since I was in high school. I credit the network for helping me learn how to cook through Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals and Alton Brown’s Good Eats. Chopped is not a show I watch all the time, but when I heard of a nun competing on last night’s Thanksgiving special, I decided to put my usual Monday night TV schedule on hold to watch.
Sister Alicia Torres is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist and her order serves Our Mission of the Angels in Chicago, Illinois. As soon as I saw her I thought “Wow, she’s so sweet!” She’s a young, vibrant nun who wanted the world to see a different side of religious sisters. She already breaks the stereotype that nuns are all old. Not to mention, she’s a cradle Catholic and she’s been a nun since she was 24, which puts that concept of millenials leaving the church in droves to shame. She’s already 30 and thankfully avoiding that “I’m 30 my life is over” crisis that I often see in women’s fiction.
This isn’t Sister Alicia’s first time on camera, either. Check her out in these other videos here. (Thanks Sr. Theresa Aletheia!)
The other chefs competing were Chef Gretchen, who worked in The Bowery Mission in New York, Chef Victor who works for the Open Door shelter in Connecticut, and Chef Bonnie who volunteers for the Crib, an LGBT homeless shelter in Chicago.
The three rounds had various takes on the Thanksgiving staples of turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, and cranberries. The appetizer round consisted of leftover versions of these staples. The chefs had 30 minutes to cook. Sister Alicia decided to make a quesadilla out of these ingredients in honor of her Hispanic background. Coincidentally, Chef Aaron Sanchez, a fellow Hispanic, was one of the judges on the panel.
I really loved that the show allowed Sister Alicia to emphasize how much she prayed before going into this. When I watched this episode, it was clear that the Holy Spirit had her back. Sister Alicia pointed out in the first round that she initially wanted to put the green beans in her salad, but decided to put them in the salsa so that they would stand out more. Considering that she isn’t a professional chef, I feel like that was the Holy Spirit nudging her in the right direction.
At the judging, Sister Alicia presented her turkey quesadilla with a cranberry salad, mashed potatoes with sour cream, and green bean salsa. The judges praised her on her presentation and creativity. Marc Murphy asked Sister Alicia if she ever made mashed potatoes with sour cream before, to which the good sister said “No.” The judges said that some kind of divine intervention was at play. They would be proven right. It was also during this judging that Sister Alicia explained how she entered into the order. She worked off her student debt by starting a campaign called Run for Nuns and was able to pay off her debt within a year and a half’s time. Major kudos to you, sister.
While the four contestants waited for the judges to come to a decision, they traded stories about what their respective soup kitchen does for Thanksgiving. Sister Alicia said that the Mission does a Thanksgiving brunch the Saturday before the holiday so that the families can go home with the leftovers. Chef Bonnie pointed out that while it’s great that so many people contribute during the holidays, they forget about how soup kitchens need food the rest of the year as well. The judges chose to eliminate Chef Gretchen due to her overusage of the cranberry sauce, but Ted Allen said that Food Network will make a donation to The Bowery Mission, which was a really good consolation prize.
In the entree round, the three chefs remaining had to cook fresh turkey breast, potatoes, cranberries, and green beans. Sister Alicia chose to go Mediterranean with the entree by making curry-flavored turkey with a sweet potato and cranberry hash. As she was cutting the sweet potatoes, Sister Alicia accidentally cut her finger. Usually, they would cut to a commercial break and the chef who cut himself would have a breakdown, but Sister Alicia kept calm and carried on with her cooking even as the medic was bandaging her finger. She said that the hash was a play on a dish that she often cooked for her order. She also pointed out that she usually doesn’t get the opportunity to make the plates look pretty, so she loved that she got the chance to express her creativity in this show.
At the judging table, Sister Alicia presented her Mediterranean Thanksgiving with her curry-seasoned turkey, sweet potato cranberry hash, and goat cheese green bean dipping sauce. Judge Amanda Frietag complimented Sister Alicia on the moistness of her turkey, which was a major contrast to Chef Bonnie’s undercooked turkey. The only criticism Sister Alicia received was from Marc Murphy, who said her hash needed a bit more cranberry. Chef Bonnie was more than happy to concede the round due to how badly her turkey was cooked and Sister Alicia complimented her on her humility. The judges chose to eliminate Chef Bonnie due to her forgetting the mashed potatoes and not cooking the turkey properly. However, Ted promised a donation from Food Network. Chef Bonnie hugged Ted Allen and left with her head held high.
In the dessert round, Ted asked Sister Alicia and Chef Victor if their ruthless sides will come out. Sister Alicia, being Catholic, says “I don’t know about ruthless, but winner, yeah.” The only way you can ever put “nun” and “ruthless” in the same sentence is if you say “The nun ruthlessly hit me with a ruler for talking during class.” (I grew up with nuns as teachers so I am allowed to make that joke.)The ingredients in the dessert round were turkey ice cream cake, mashed potato candy, cranberry salsa, and green bean ice pops. It’s at this point that I wonder “Where the heck do the producers get these from?” I mean, I know I can find green bean ice pops in my local Asian food market, but who in their right mind thought that turkey ice cream cake and mashed potato candies were great ideas for appetizing desserts? Even Sister Alicia was grossed out.
Regardless of how she felt, Sister Alicia decided on making a green bean ice pop pancake and a milkshake from the other ingredients. Chef Victor gave the sister major kudos for how well she was doing in the competition in spite of her lack of professional experience. Even Amanda Freitag thought that Sister Alicia must’ve had some culinary experience that she’s not telling anyone, but Ted points out that the skills she gains from her work are being put to the test here. If I was giving commentary, I would’ve said that it’s a combination of Sister Alicia’s natural creativity and innovation and the Holy Spirit at work.
It was during this round that Sister Alicia brought attention to her habit. Now this is no offense to the plainclothes nuns in my life, but I love that she said “Dressed like this, I am not representing myself but I’m representing something much bigger.” It’s one reason I love nuns in habits so much. But at the same time, she shows a more human side to her when she says that she also wants to prove herself on how great her abilities are.
I was a little scared when she decided to add cocoa nibs to her pancake, thinking they would melt like chocolate. I was yelling “No! No! Chocolate chips, sister! Chocolate chips!” I thought her lack of familiarity with unusual ingredients would be a detriment. But once again, the Holy Spirit worked through her. Sister Alicia decided to take a risk based on what she knew about the show and the judge’s love of having texture in their desserts. At the end of the round, Chef Victor compliments Sister Alicia on the visual excellence of her dish. “I think she needs to be teaching me,” he said. Sister Alicia, however, is hoping she wins this round.
Sister Alicia presented her dessert to the judges, who complimented her on using fresh fruit and the texture and flavor of the cocoa nibs. Sister Alicia credits her talent for cooking to the Lord. As someone who’s also a creative spirit, I totally understand seeing the kitchen as a creative canvas.
Now for the last round of Chopped, the judges pick the winner based on overall performance, factoring the dessert along with the other two dishes. Since Sister Alicia and Chef Victor both did amazing in the dessert round, the judges looked at the appetizer and entree rounds to evaluate how well the chefs did. I loved that Sister Alicia felt confident that she won before the actual winner was revealed. It’s not exactly humble, but on the other hand, you can argue that the Holy Spirit was fueling her confidence. Ultimately, they decided on eliminating Chef Victor due to some technical failures in the first two rounds. But really, the judges had to get down to the nitty gritty in order to make that decision and Chef Victor left with gratitude, knowing that Food Network will make a donation to Open Door and that he raised awareness of his cause. Both contestants did well, but I already knew that Chef Alicia had it in the bag.
Since Sister Alicia was chosen as the winner, she gets the $10,000 prize. Ted Allen said that the money is hers to use as she sees fit, but as my fellow Patheos blogger Sr. Theresa Aletheia pointed out on her Twitter:
— Sr. Theresa Aletheia (@pursuedbytruth) November 10, 2015
Our Lady of Angels Mission said on their Twitter
It’s going to help the poor! THANKS BE TO GOD! We need new plumbing !!! @pursuedbytruth
— Mission OLA (@OLAMission) November 10, 2015
Talk about “The Lord will provide!”
One thing I loved about this Chopped was how loving Sister Alicia was to everyone. Ted Allen is openly gay and Chef Bonnie worked with LGBT teenagers, and yet there was nary a judgmental word from the Franciscan sister’s mouth. Her kindness towards her fellow competitors, the judges, and the host reminds me of how Mother Teresa approached the people of different faiths in India, treating them as people and not as “the enemy.” It’s a stark contrast to, say, “Christians” who are up in arms over Starbucks choosing to have red cups for Christmas. I don’t even drink Starbucks coffee and even I know that this so-called “campaign” is ridiculous.
Matthew 7:20 says “By their fruits you will know them.” It’s part of a passage that talks about how to distinguish false prophets from true ones. Sister Alicia is a great example of someone whose actions and spirit show what the Catholic Church is actually like. And since she won this Chopped episode, there’s the possibility that she could compete in Chopped Champions tournaments in the future, if she ever gets asked and if her order allows her to do so.
I always love seeing nuns portrayed in a positive light, especially in mainstream media. I hope that there will be more opportunities for nuns to evangelize to the world in the future. For now, Sister Alicia’s victory is a very good start.