OCEAN CITY — Ocean City native Mitch Cook will be squaring off against other culinary experts this Sunday on the newest episode of Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen.
Cook, currently executive chef at Dead Freddies Island Grill, said that the competition was hectic but definitely a unique experience.
After being secretly entered as a possible contestant for the popular Food Network show, Cook said that he was surprised to find out that he had been selected as a candidate but wasn’t intimidated by the challenge.
“I wasn’t really nervous. I was just curious, I guess, about what the sabotage would be and excited to meet [host] Alton Brown. He’s been one of my idols my entire life,” Cook said, referring to the show’s unusual “sabotage” mechanic, which allows chefs to interfere with each other.
Filming for Cutthroat Kitchen took place in California and was a rapid-fire two-day event. It feels different making a television show compared to watching one, admitted Cook, with a lot of re-shoots and TV tricks that the audience never sees. However, the actual competition was just as intense as it’s portrayed often coming down to the wire with last minute additions and 11th hour saves. All of the filming was done during the first day in huge blocks that meant Cook was competing against exhaustion nearly as much as he was the other chefs.
“It goes by so fast, it’s insane,” said Cook. “You think that a minute is a long time but then it’s over before you know it.”
Cook was able to get some downtime after the filming at least and got a chance to have dinner with his fellow contestants and explore the city of Burbank, Calif. It was definitely an unusual experience, especially since Cook had no idea that he was being considered before Food Network contacted him to invite him into their studio.
While appearing on the internationally respected network is a dream come true for chefs around the world, Cook felt that there were highs and lows. The distinguishing characteristic of Cutthroat Kitchen is that contestants are able to sabotage each other’s dishes in creative ways. Chefs are given $25,000 with the catch being that they spend it bidding on obstacles and interferences that they can throw at their opponents during each round or perks for themselves.
Bidding for the tricks and traps was not his strong suit, Cook admitted.
“My biggest problem I guess was the auctioning. I’m not too good at gambling and I guess it’s the same thing as auctioning. Once I started bidding, I couldn’t stop,” he joked.
However, Cook did say that he would certainly return to Food Network if asked in the future. The television channel has undoubtedly produced some of the most recognized names in the industry. Cook’s only caveat was that he would rather avoid shows that use sabotage as part of their structure, preferring to have everything operate on a level playing field so that chefs have to rely only on talent.
Before being featured on Cutthroat Kitchen, Cook had already learned to thrive in the occasionally “cutthroat” business that is Ocean City’s high-volume culinary scene. He’s worked at Dead Freddies for the last eight months but has roots in the food industry reaching back from when he started as a busboy at General’s Kitchen at age 12. Since then, he’s literally grown up in local restaurants, working at Coins, Southside Deli and Fager’s Island before Dead Freddies.
A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School, where he played football, Cook has an Associate’s Degree in Culinary Arts as well as Certification in Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Management, both from Wor-Wic Community College. The majority of his learning has come from more than a decade and a half on the job, however, and he considers Ocean City an ideal testing ground due to its fluid seasonal nature and explosive summers.
“I don’t know if Ocean City is just completely different from other towns, but with the volume, you can’t teach volume in a school, you can’t teach people how to move in a kitchen, especially in Ocean City,” he said.
Due to growing up working in resort kitchens, a lot of Cook’s signature style incorporates seafood and mid-Atlantic flavors. But he also thrives with experimentation, crafting different fusion dishes and always being willing to break from tradition.
Still a young chef, Cook looks to take that creativity to new avenues in the future. One day he aspires to run his own place, possibly in the resort. He believes there’s a need for some particular changes to the culinary norm, not just in the area but in the industry. Specifically, he wants to focus on high-volume dining without sacrificing his commitment to high quality.
“That’s a concept that I have in mind that I think can change the way high volume kitchens are to make it not so much like fast food,” Cook said. “There’s a way this needs to be done. The concept needs to be invented or re-invented, I guess, with two or three concepts being made into one to make it work. I think that’s the future in cooking.”
The episode of Cutthroat Kitchen featuring Cook will premier this Sunday, Aug. 17 on the Food Network at 10 p.m. There will be a local viewing party hosted at Dead Freddies Island Grill so that the Ocean City community can support one of its own.