Max Aronson and Dante Foggy

Your assignment: Create a delicious dessert that would even impress three celebrity chefs. Start with frozen mocha cappuccino. Check. Add a few jelly doughnuts. Sounds good. Throw in some Vacherin Mont d’Or soft cheese. Wait — this stuff smells really bad. And finally, include these chocolate-covered crickets. What!?

If you’re not a fan of TV’s “Chopped,” which airs on the Food Network, this recipe may not make any sense. But it did for the SkillsUSA members who, in the program’s first teen tournament, understood its premise: making a tasty, three-course meal out of the sometimes odd ingredients in “mystery baskets.”

Students Dante Foggy and Max Aronson, both 17 and from New Jersey, are already seasoned pros in the kitchen who can converse about the joys of pan-fried chicken, Chinese dumplings and gluten-free gingersnaps. So when Foggy (pictured on our cover and on the next page) was faced with his final challenge on the show — that dessert with the crickets and “stinky” cheese — he was unfazed.

The cheese was “disgusting,” he said on the competition finale, which aired in August, “but I thought if I added it to an apple compote it would offset that cheesy, stinky taste.” He decided to include ice cream and puff pastry. As the 30-minute round progressed, Foggy checked the oven and acknowledged he was in trouble: “If these puff pastries don’t cook through, I probably will get ‘chopped.’ ” In the end, he was — coming in second out of 16.

“Dante, this was a close and I mean incredibly close competition, and I have to tell you, it came down to a piece of undercooked puff pastry,” said one of the judges, chef/restaurateur Amanda Freitag. “I just want to say I enjoyed eating your food, being around you. You’re clearly an inspiration to anybody, old and young.”

Earlier in the five-part tournament, Foggy (sounds like “fogey”) shared how he’s loved cooking since the age of 8. He’s now in his fourth year at Burlington County School of Technology in Westampton.

“When I was in sixth or seventh grade, my mom taught me how to cook big meals and I loved it,” Foggy says. He entered the culinary arts program after seeing the success of its pastry chef instructor, Jesmary Sbraga, and her husband, Kevin, who won TV’s “Iron Chef” competition (and was featured in this magazine’s Winter 2011 issue; go to: www.skillsusa.org/success-stories/kevin-sbraga/).

Serving others, and not only with food
Max Aronson wound up on “Chopped” after meeting host Ted Allen at an airport.

“I just struck up a conversation with him. I gave him my business card and he said that I should apply for the TV show,” says the fourth-year student at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack.

The SkillsUSA New Jersey student president has his own businesses including Game of Cones, whipping up custom ice-cream flavors in people’s homes. Cakes to the Max also offers his creations, which can look like anything from a cheeseburger to the famous Manhattan skyline.

He and Foggy stayed in a New York hotel for the April taping of the show, which “didn’t feel as much of a competition as it was just like a fun thing to do,” Aronson says. “I mean, hearing from kids who also live for food as much as I do is so unusual, because I’m usually the one who’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, food!’ ”

“There’s definitely a little bit of ‘movie magic’ that they do,” he adds. “We had to do a bunch of takes just pretending to open the [mystery] basket, but all of the ingredients that you see on TV are the first time that we’re seeing it. So opening the basket, that reaction is very genuine.”

In an interview on the Food Network website, Foggy remembers being on the second episode: “People say time goes fast. It does, and it also feels that the kitchen is smaller than what you see on TV. You really have to be careful when you go behind somebody. I almost got cut like six times by someone running behind me.”

Aronson was bested in the third episode by the same student who eventually edged out Foggy. She won a $25,000 cash prize and $40,000 culinary-school scholarship.

Foggy, who trained hard with Jesmary Sbraga and his culinary instructor, Timothy Witcher, was disappointed but gracious. “I was that close to winning all that money and changing my life, but she won, she deserved to win, and I’m very happy for her,” he said as the show ended.

Foggy also competed in the SkillsUSA Championships program, winning his state event in Job Skill Demonstration. Interviewed at the nationals in June, he says he’s still looking for scholarships to study culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University. His ultimate goal, however, is to become a pastor. Foggy volunteers at a kitchen that serves the homeless and needy families, and someday, he’d like to touch others’ lives through his cooking.

“I want to be a chef first, because right now the opportunities are coming to me very fast,” he explains.

Foggy, shown at the SkillsUSA Championships, shares more about “Chopped” at: http://tinyurl.com/DanteFoggy. His identical twin, Darius, aspires to be a biomedical engineer.