Samantha Buyskes, formally known as Samantha Izzo, local chef and owner of Simply Red Bistro at La Tourelle Resort in Ithaca and Sheldrake Point Vineyards in Ovid, N.Y., always dreamed of sharing her culinary perspective with a television audience.
Buyskes recently snagged an opportunity to achieve this goal, when she competed on “Chopped,” a show on the Food Network where four chefs prepare three courses — an appetizer, entrée and dessert — using a designated selection of ingredients. After 30 minutes of cooking, competitors present each course to a panel of three judges, who choose a chef to eliminate, or “chop,” until only one winner is left. Though she lost in the second round, Buyskes said she enjoyed the experience and exposure.
After submitting her application, Buyskes interviewed with a casting director for “Chopped” in November 2009. She taped the show with three other competitors one day in September 2010, and her episode aired on the Food Network Jan. 4.
Since the ingredients for each course are not revealed until the beginning of the round, Buyskes said there was very little she could do to prepare but knew she could fall back on her culinary experience.
“I’ve watched the show enough to know that the best thing to do was to stick with my style of cooking and what I knew already,” Buyskes said.
A native of South Africa, Buyskes uses her background with exotic spices and integrates them into her cooking. She selects one spice a month to create her “Spice Focus” for her menu at Simply Red Bistro.
When Buyskes and her competitors opened their ingredient baskets during the first round, they discovered cocktail nuts, haricot verts, tamarind soda and goat brains.
Though Buyskes never cooked with goat brains before, she said felt confident about her dish.
“As you’re dealing with the ingredients, I don’t think you really have a sense of what your final product is going to be,” Buyskes said. “It is all in real time — that you just start working with ingredients you understand and how to prepare those. The dish kind of comes together as you start working on it.”
After the 30 minutes of cooking, Buyskes presented her appetizer — spice nut-crusted goat brains over a spring salad — to the judges. One chef was eliminated, and Buyskes moved to the next round.
While Buyskes said cooking with the goat brains went smoothly, the next round was more challenging. When Buyskes and her two other competitors opened the ingredient baskets for the second time, they found cream of coconut, baby turnips, wakame seaweed and fish heads.
Buyskes said she had never worked with fish heads before and felt her heart racing when she began to cook. Buyskes said she couldn’t extract enough fish from the flesh, so she added pasta to her dish.
Once cooking ended, Buyskes presented her creamy coconut linguine with sautéed cod cheeks to the judges. After the judges deliberated, Buyskes was eliminated after the second round.
“I was very disappointed,” Buyskes said. “I definitely feel like I’m a good chef, and I was defeated by an ingredient I couldn’t be successful in using. I really tried to put my best foot forward in presenting something that I thought would really work. I was very frustrated and disappointed.”
Though Buyskes did not win the final competition, friends and staff members were impressed by her efforts. When the episode aired, Buyskes said about 75 people came to watch the show with her during a viewing party she held at La Tourelle.
Gwen Spencer, Buyskes’ friend, said she is proud of Buyskes effort on “Chopped.”
“She can take what’s available and make a lovely meal, and not everyone can do that,” Spencer said. “Everybody can follow a recipe. Anybody can mimic a dish. Not everyone can go to a cupboard and say, ‘Hmm, this is what I’ve got, what am I going to make?’ and do it with a beautiful presentation in record time.”
Emily Famiglietti, a former staff member at Simply Red Bistro, said she was impressed with Buyskes’ performance on “Chopped.” Famiglietti praised Buyskes for her amicable personality in the kitchen while maintaining her own style.
Spencer said Buyskes’ focus on spices and her natural instincts when combining flavors is what carried her through “Chopped” and will make her a strong contestant for her own cooking show someday.
Buyskes said she still has her eye on the possibility of having her own cooking show someday, but she wants to focus on the operation and other events at Simply Red Bistro this year.
“For now, I’m happy to have competed, and [I’m] just going to enjoy the exposure for the region, the winery and the restaurant,” Buyskes said.
Read The Ithacan’s previous story on Buyskes here.