By JACOB PUCCI, The Fayetteville Observer
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) – It was in Okinawa, Japan, where Chris Dodson saw a documentary about Bobby Flay and decided he wanted to be a chef.
Dodson, 36, had always loved to cook, a passion he credited his mother, Roslyn, for instilling in him. Roslyn Dodson served as a cook in the Army while Dodson was growing up in Fayetteville.
He said he saw how Flay – a high school dropout who went on to become a restaurateur and pioneering celebrity chef and TV star – found success after being in a position where many folks might count him out. It resonated with Dodson, who enlisted in the Army soon after graduating from Westover High School. He said he was beginning to dabble with drugs and getting caught up in the wrong crowds and saw the Army as his way out.
Now, Dodson works at one of the best restaurants in the world, and, on March 8, was named champion of Food Network’s series “Chopped,” coming home with the $10,000 grand prize.
THE FILMS THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
Nine years and multiple military deployments later, Dodson was stationed in Okinawa when he saw the show that changed everything. He retired from the Army not long after and enrolled in culinary school in El Paso, Texas.
Dodson said his mother was a classically French-trained chef who had already taught him many of the skills and techniques he’d need in culinary school.
“It was almost second nature,” he said.
He split his week between class and the kitchen at Cafe Central, a heralded fine dining restaurant in El Paso. When not behind the line at Cafe Central, he was winning student culinary competitions. Dodson was in his element. The chaos, stress and pressure of a busy kitchen “was like going to war,” he said, an analogy he’s knows first-hand.
He found his way up to Chicago and once again, his life was changed by a documentary. This time, it was “Spinning Plates,” which profiled three chefs and their restaurants in different parts of the country. Among those profiled was Grant Achatz and his Chicago restaurant, Alinea.
Alinea holds three Michelin stars, considered the ultimate accolade a restaurant can receive, and its innovative takes on molecular gastronomy have solidly established his restaurant as one of the best in the world.
Dodson knew he wanted to work there. He got hired and spent two years there, a time which included a month each in Spain and at the luxury Faena Hotel in Miami helping run pop-up restaurants.
Dodson left for a position at Home Chef, a meal kit home delivery company, but soon found himself longing to return to the restaurant kitchen, where despite the pressure, he felt right at home.
After stints at a few other restaurants, he recently rejoined Alinea as a sous chef and morning manager.
THE ROAD TO ‘CHOPPED’
Around the same time, after four tries to apply, Dodson got called to appear on “Chopped.” The filming was done over two days in October. “Chopped” competitors are tasked with preparing a dish that must incorporate all the ingredients from the “mystery basket” each round.
The theme of the episode Dodson appeared on was “Meal of Fortune,” which meant the mystery baskets were full of unusual, expensive ingredients, such as caviar potato chips, gold-wrapped sushi and saffron water.
Dodson bested three other chefs to take home the top prize.
“It was so surreal,” he said about winning the show he had watched since he was a young adult. “It was one of the most rewarding experiences.”
The hardest part, he said, was having to wait until March when the episode aired to celebrate the good news. His coworkers at Alinea loved it.
“I think I really represented the restaurant well,” Dodson said.
Eventually, he’d love to have his own cooking show. As a Black chef, Dodson said there aren’t many Black celebrity chefs on TV that he could watch and aspire to become. If he has the chance, he wants to change that.
“I want to be the person that kids like me can see on TV,” he said. “It would be an absolute honor to be seen as a role model.”