There are 30 minutes in the entrée round on the Food Network show Chopped. Chef Oz Blackaller ’07 is one of four chefs competing for the notoriety and cash prize of $10,000. He has to include a seven layer dip, tiramisu liqueur, buffalo tenderloin, and mix of “ugly” vegetables into his dish. The camera zeroes in on Blackaller dousing the diced tenderloin with liqueur, flames leaping up from the sauté pan.
“He has his own soundtrack to life,” one of the judges comments.
Blackaller plates up a buffalo empanada with “ugly vegetable” chimichurri. He has some ground to recover, as the judges weren’t sold on the blowfish sope with cookie dough mole that he made in the appetizer round.
The judges try his entrée.
“I ate the whole thing,” one says with surprise. “You’re like some weird magician!”
“You are marching to the beat of your own drum, culinarily, and it’s working,” another adds.
Blackaller ended up taking second place on this episode, which aired Oct. 13. This is his second appearance on TV cooking competitions; he was a contestant on Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen in 2015.
“The whole experience just in general, being in that level of competition, was huge for me,” Blackaller said. “I wanted to be on the show not just for the money … but I wanted to bring some more experience to my cooking abilities and my restaurant here in San Diego.”
Blackaller, who graduated with a business degree from Eastern Mennonite University, runs a fusion tapas restaurant, formerly known as Cueva Bar, with his wife Joanna. They’re now rebranding as De Nada Kitchen and Market – in celebration of the establishment’s tenth anniversary, and partly as an adaptation to the pandemic.
“We foresee that indoor dining is not going to be the same as it used to be,” Blackaller said. The new concept includes a retail space to sell his signature chimichurri, moles, and salsas, as well as other local products. The new menu focuses on unique pizzas to go, with toppings like chicken mole, chilaquile, and a tuna and corn pizza inspired by the Japanese sushi restaurant next door.
When Blackaller took a sample over to his pescatarian neighbors, “they’re just eating it and you see their eyes lighting up,” he said. They order it twice a week now.
Despite the tough competition restaurants face even in normal times, much less during a pandemic that’s gutted the hospitality industry, “we love our neighbors,” Blackaller said. “We’re all helping each other … doing what we all can to make sure we all survive.”
Being on Chopped “was a good time, a lot of fun” despite the grueling 15-hour long shoot, he said. They filmed the episode in May last year in New York. Blackaller said that his practice as a yogi came in handy while competing – he was calmer and more in “the moment” compared to his run on Cutthroat Kitchen.
“This time around I was just able to enjoy the whole thing,” he said.
Blackaller isn’t done with stardom, though – he’s already applied to be on the Bravo TV series Top Chef.
In modest reference to his celebrity chef aspirations, he explained, “I like connecting with people, you know.”