"The Post" did a Q&A with Justin Ballenger, the 16-year-old former Chopped Teen Tournament contestant who wants to open a chain of Bible-themed restaurants.

Justin Ballenger, a 16-year-old chef from the Chicago area, was one of 16 teens to be selected out of about 4,000 to appear on season two of the Chopped Teen Tournament. Ballenger placed second in his round and hopes to start a chain of Bible-themed restaurants.

I reviewed the season he was on for The Post, and Ballenger commented on one of the articles and said I could contact him if I wanted to know more. I was able to speak to Ballenger over the phone about his experience on the show and how it has opened new doors for him, such as getting invited to restaurants and catering events in his town.

The Post: How did you end up getting on Chopped?

Justin Ballenger: It started off I was in my aunt’s beauty salon and she was watching Chopped and I saw a commercial come up that said Chopped Teens and I was like, “Wow I didn’t know they had a teen tournament.” … My auntie said, “Well why don’t you try it?” … So, yeah, I went online and I filled out the application. … They emailed me back a few months later and I was, like, really excited. I was jumping up and down. … I still remember how excited I was. … So I told my mom and we had to do an interview with them on Skype. My mom, she’s a graphic designer so she does a lot of cameras and stuff like that, so she decorated one part of the house with a webcam and the lights. … I talked to them about … all of the types of foods I like to make and everything I’m really good at. … The last interview was in person and they came to my house and a camera crew came in and they just filmed me cooking. … A month or two later, we were starting to get worried. My mom was like, “You probably didn’t get it. They might’ve cut you.” … They called my mom a week after and told her that I got in. I was so excited. I was screaming and jumping up and down.

P: Obviously I only see what is on TV, so could you describe the actual experience of what it was like being on the show?

JB: We met at a hotel and the first time I met everyone, Danny was the first one to walk in, … he walked in with his mom and, not to seem like it was drama, but the way he came in was cocky in a way. … After (Danny and his family) found out we lived in Chicago also, they kind of lightened up. … Veronica, the girl who won the entire show, she was the second girl to walk into the hotel. She came in very bubbly and nice to everyone. … I actually still stay in contact with her today. She’s like a really, really, really good friend. She was awesome. Olivia was the youngest. She was 13, and everybody else was like 15 and 16, so she was kind of, like, the underdog. She came in all, like, shy and stuff. … Then we went to the studio … in New York. … We walked in and they had little beverages and little fruits. Now for a Food Network kitchen, I really thought they would’ve given us better food. But they did have like chips and stuff.

P: That is surprising. You would think they would’ve stepped it up a little bit more than that.

JB: Yeah, we started talking and trying on the aprons that Chopped gives you. … They let us take pictures with our aprons on around the set. I was kind of flabbergasted to just be there like, “I’m at the set. I’m actually here. Wow. I actually got on the show.” … The next day, I got up and prayed. Of course, I prayed to God just like, "let me do my best — let me not make a fool out of myself on live television." … We got to the set and … the live lightbulb was on and we were like, “Wow, it’s time to go on set.” … It was really nerve racking. … Before we went out, we took pictures on the Chopped table. We took pictures of us running out and racing each other to our spaces and we took pictures of us pretending to open the basket. … We saw the judges and we took a picture with the judges.

P: What was it like meeting the judges for the first time?

JB: It was kind of normal because I was just like, “They are very important people, but they’re people just like I am.”  … The one thing I was thinking about was, “I hope they love my food.” … Then we started the actual show. … We opened the baskets … and I was thinking, “I’m gonna make bruschetta. I’m going to make what I made the other night for my friends.” … I was really disappointed because the presentation itself was not very good, but it turned out to be a very good dish and I was not “chopped” that round. … Next round, me, Veronica and Olivia … we opened the baskets and we got veal chops — my enemy. … We got a lot of other stuff, but all I really remember is the veal chops. … I was going to cook it like a steak because I don’t know what it is. … When we got to the chopping block, and you know my veal chop was raw … I was about to cry. … but it turns out Olivia got the chopping block, and me and Veronica were shocked. … We went back on set and, you know that time where they tell the final two to look at each other and say little smack talk before the final round?

P: Yeah, so they like told you what to say to each other?

JB: No, they didn’t tell us what to say. ... We started the clock after that and we went into cooking. I made that soupy cheesecake by accident … We got this mango nectar, and I didn’t know what to do with it. … I didn’t try a thing (on my plate) … so I was surprised by the reactions of the judges because we went up there and they tried the cheesecake and they were like, “Oh my god … this is so good.” And I was like, “What? Good?” … and my mom was shocked too because she’s been making cheesecakes for years and she was like, “That’s not my recipe.” … After they said it was so good, I was so happy and I thought, “This is a sure win. I’m going to win.” … We got the chopping block and they picked it up, and it was my plate. At that moment … I was OK. I wasn’t like, “Oh my god, the world is over,” I was a little disappointed but I was OK.

P: How has your culinary life changed after Chopped or did it stay the same?

JB: It has changed ...  a dramatic amount. People (at school) were just like, “Good job on Chopped dude. You did a really good job.” … I got a lot of people giving me love on Facebook and Instagram. People were calling me saying, “Dude you should come to my restaurant and visit sometime.” … Everything started changing. … I got my dream job … working with this cafeteria and … I think I’m going to get promoted one day, at least I hope so. … I’m going toward my dream.

P: If you had to pick your all-time favorite dish to make, what do you think that would be?

JB: Hm. I think for any chef or cook, that would be a hard question. … I would say that the dish that I’ve cooked since I was about 9 years old. … (This ingredient) has something to do with this type of protein: Chicken. Now, my favorite way I make it is fried, but at the same time I can make it any way and make it taste very good.

P: What advice would you give to someone who was like you before you went on the show who is interested in cooking and wants to be on Chopped one day?

JB: I would say go for it. … Go apply online and say something that is out of the ordinary and say something that they would stop and look at out of the thousands kid per person radar. … You have to say something really out of the box. … Be really persistent and, if you’re religious, pray about it and just really give it your all.

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P: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the experience?

JB: That experience was life changing. It was very, very different. I had never been to New York. … I had never done anything like that. … Getting in out of thousands of teens, that’s the biggest accomplishment I’ve ever done in my life and I feel like that’s just a stepping stone for me.



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